Sometimes when I see graffiti or street art I see desperation. I see someone who wants to speak, who has a need to share, but who has no other place to make a statement.
A few days after the horrific shooting in Orlando I walked down to a couple of blocks of Church Street in Nashville that are home to the clubs Tribe and Vibe, to Blue Gene’s, and Out Central, an information and meeting space for the LGBT community. There’s WKND, a “hang site” in the space that used to be Out Loud!, one of Nashville’s last independent bookstores. There’s also Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, owned and operated by former Top Chef competitor Arnold Myint. Suzy Wong is also Myint’s drag queen alter ego.
I went down there expecting to find memorials, tributes, handwritten statements—the kind of spontaneous expressions that spring up around a place when there’s a tragedy. I expected to find them because as soon as news came out about the shootings at Pulse, the gay nightclub, before we knew Omar Mateen’s identity or that he was a Muslim, before we knew what weapons he used, one fact was clear: this was an attack on LGBT people.
Since Stonewall and well before, gay clubs have been our schools, our places of worship. Nightclubs are where we’ve long learned to unlearn hate, and learn to become and love our real selves. They’re our safe spaces; places where music and dancing and the joy of our collective togetherness unlocks our fears and extinguishes our lingering self-loathing.
Closer to home I remembered the Nashville Scene article Last Call At Juanita’s, about the closing in 1995 of this city’s first gay bar, and its origin in 1953:
Shortly after Juanita’s opened, however, a former Leopard Room patron nervously drew Brazier aside one night to ask her a question. “Miss Juanita,” he is said to have asked, “would you have any problem with me bringing in some gay men?”
“Why, no!” Brazier supposedly responded, laughing. “I like everyone to be happy!” And thus Juanita’s became Nashville’s best-known haven for gay men—and, Nashville being a Southern city, Juanita Brazier was rechristened “Miss Juanita.”
I was surprised to find that area of Church Street looked the same as usual. The places there, I thought, are safe spaces for the LGBT community, places where people can go and be out in every sense of the word. I know the LGBT community isn’t monolithic, that it’s composed of individuals with different experiences and views–and that’s true of any “community”–but I still expected something.
Then I learned about an event I’d missed–a vigil in downtown Nashville, organized just hours after the shooting. It was organized with the help of Nashville’s mayor Megan Barry who took the pictures above. City and state buildings–buildings where, it should be noted, the rights of LGBT people are still under attack–were lit with the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. It may have been an attack on the LGBT community but the expressions of grief and condolence were offered by the larger community we’re all part of. It was a solemn reminder that LGBT people are not separate; they’re our friends, our family. And there are LGBT people of every race, every class, and, yes, every religion. For many faith is about how they love, not whom.
Maybe people didn’t feel a need to make statements on a couple of blocks of Church Street because so much of the city of Nashville, because the heart of the city of Nashville, was a place where people could come together openly.
Pride Month is a celebration primarily for LGBT people who have been excluded, shunned, and harassed, but to have such a public display of concern and solidarity was a chance for everyone to feel pride.