The phone rang—it was Doug, my best friend—his voice was urgent. This is from a novel, he said, it’s about guys in a club (Doug was my dancing friend), and he read aloud:
They lived only to bathe in the music, and each other’s desire, in a strange democracy whose only ticket of admission was physical beauty – and not even that sometimes. All else was strictly classless: The boy passed out on the sofa from an overdose…was a Puerto Rican who washed dishes in the employees’ cafeteria at CBS, but the doctor bending over him had treated presidents. It was a democracy such as the world – with its rewards and penalties, its competition, its snobbery – never permits, but which flourished in this little room on the 12th floor of a factory building on West Thirty-third Street, because its central principle was the most anarchic of all: erotic love.
That Puerto Rican boy cared for by the doctor who treated presidents: they were conjured in my mind as if I knew them; and in a way, I did. For years, my friend and I had been citizens of the “strange democracy” of clubs—shirts off, dancing as long as we could last—but we went to these rooms to move, not to codify the central principle of our alternate society. Now memories of years of nights poured into this astute, almost ennobling passage, from Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran. Flesh became word.
- - -
The picture on the front page of the New York Times showed friends and relatives of people who were shot at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. A slender young man in a tank top wept, leaning forward to be held in the arms of a taller man. Above their image ran this headline:
PRAISING ISIS, GUNMAN ATTACKS GAY NIGHTCLUB,
LEAVING 50 DEAD IN WORST SHOOTING ON U.S. SOIL
In these saw-toothed lines of words, any phrase could cut your eyes. Since I’d already heard the news, the headline shocked me hardest at the end: “U.S. SOIL.” Because that phrase is a benediction. It is a consecrating phrase.
“U.S. SOIL” names sovereign territory, stakes out a battlefield. Immediately and uncomfortably, this phrase also brought to mind two words from last year’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, words that led the front-page Times headline the day after that decision: “‘EQUAL DIGNITY.’”
Suddenly, since people died there, this gay club, Pulse—and by implication all the bars where we have gathered, that whole archipelago of dark-windowed storefronts that drew us, and then launched us, the places named for our evasions and escapes—Secrets, Scandals, Rumors, Buddies, Score, and Sidetrack, and all the Hideaways and Alibis, and Ramrods, Rawhides, Toolbox, and, yes, Swinging Richards, even you—every last one of these places is now “U.S. soil.” Hallowed ground. Ready or not.
- - -
“One group of men, some shirtless, carried a wounded man to a waiting pickup truck to be rushed to the hospital.” In the pages of stories about the shooting in that morning's Times, that was the only sentence that contained a single phrase suggesting any knowledge of the actual texture of a night inside a place like Pulse.
Beneath the skin of that phrase, “some shirtless,” there beats a world of life, turning on the fact that, in places like Pulse, men take off their shirts and dance all night, half naked. Some of those guys, they dance like they were born with shirts off.
Everyone looks at those guys. They might be beautiful—surly, showoffs—or they might be plain and joyous. They might be loners, freaks who’ll show up anywhere—Latin Night, Jock Night, Twink Night, Leather Night, Arab Night, Black Night—it hardly matters, since they don’t blend with any crowd—but among these stand some creatures fabulous enough to hold a whole room together. The guy in the chicken suit. The one in scuba gear (with tanks). The one with bangled wrists and lipsticked face who lifts up a flare and sweeps its beam across the room—he’s a lighthouse. And that little cub, the baby Bear, his baseball cap on backwards, gyrating the big sweet hams of those Melissa-McCarthy hips. Always in the room there are a few—and sometimes there are more than you can count—who seem so comfortable in, or so bold in being, themselves, right here and now (even if here, now, in the dark is their only chance to be that way) that when they dance, their bravery bleeds through everyone around them, so freely that no one would think to call that quality by name. Every citizen of this strange democracy, whose currency is looking and being looked at, dances a little harder. We who have passed much of life in hiding, lift up our arms, and stop hiding so much.
Dancing will reveal a man. Commit the body to a beat, and the body always tells some kind of truth. The truth might be reluctance to reveal, but that is something—and most people who dance, in places like Pulse, billow with personalities as they move. Girly, stomping, smiley, slutty, icy, butch: and that is just one guy, in just one song. On the dance floor, there is no such thing as purity, and everyone—even the one having a bad night, or a bad decade, the sloppy, pushy, rude guy—he spilled his drink on you, won’t leave me alone, oh God, he threw up—you look upon with pity, awe, envy, love. You learn—some friend teaches you—that you don’t have to tell the asshole he’s an asshole, unless he gets you in a corner. Dance the other way, move to a different part of the club. Only crazies won’t get the message, and there aren’t many of those.
The DJ spins, songs rise and fade—at 2 a.m., Katy Perry is a prophet—where does music go, you wonder. But in these gorgeous mornings, being matters more than meaning, presence more than understanding. You have never felt so fully embraced, this might be your deepest kiss, the very hairs on every chest seem to be numbered, and no name or phrase can add anything to that. What a good night is, is feeling free and having fun—straight through to the last song—and when the lights come up, getting home safe.
- - -
Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, describes a culture that was long gone by the year 2000, when my friend called to read to me from that book; and now that world, too, has passed away. Still the novel conjures:
Now of all the bonds between homosexual friends, none was greater than that between the friends who danced together. The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life; and for people who went without lovers for years, that was all they had.
That mournful note in “all they had” does not reduce its fullness. As a borderland of intimacy, dancing is intimacy, no less for being partial. Pulse nightclub in Orlando, like every gay bar, is also borderland. Gay bars are “U.S. soil” in the sense that any immigration point is U.S. soil: only just, and absolutely. Places of arrival and departure, where possibilities come clear. Honoring these dead who danced means doing what they did. We have to look at one another, and show ourselves to one another.