I grew up in what can absolutely be described as a swanky and organized gay bar.
The standalone brick building on the corner of College and Richardson streets in downtown Greenville, SC (#yeahTHATgreenville) has been a haven to dozens and dozens of LGBTQIA servers, bartenders, cooks, chefs, hair and makeup artists, set designers, talent, writers, doormen. Because it is Greenville's only self-sustaining theatre--meaning that the writing, directing, acting, etc is all done in house and for profit--I grew up in a place where drag queens were real royalty; where being out and proud was completely normal. I grew up in a friend-family of my parents' own creation, one that didn't feel tolerance was the way as that implied there was anything wrong to be tolerant of in the first place. Gender fluidity, same-sex relationships, drag, all of this was entirely normal to me from the moment I was born.
The Cafe and Then Some has become a bastion of progressive thought, belief, and behavior in Greenville, SC, and I had the privilege of being raised by people who wanted me to come of age with eyes wide open about the fluid reality of sexuality and gender expression. CATS was like that since its doors opened, decades before there was really any acceptance for anything other than hetero-normative culture. They proudly displayed a rainbow in the window and booted anyone who couldn't manage to get with the same belief.
CATS was and remains the place where people felt safe. If their parents had abandoned them when they came out, the owners, Bill and Susan Smith, took them in. If their children had shunned them after receiving a then-fatal HIV+ diagnosis, myself and my godsister were there to hug on them. If anyone got messed with, there was a brigade to back them up. When people needed a place to gather because of tragedy, CATS opened its doors. And when the first PRIDE parade came to Greenville, we all marched, as one big family.
I was eight years old.
This is how I grew up.
If you have never needed such a place, a place of solace, a place where you feel you can openly be who you are without fear of ridicule or hatred or violence or death, a place where you aren't scared of what is going to happen when you walk round the corner, it might be difficult for you to understand why Pulse is and was not just some club. Why it is so much more than four walls surrounding a dance floor. Why what happened there each night, the camaraderie and the joy and the support, isn't merely debaucherous queer trope.
It would be easy to overlook these things, from a place of privilege. But please make a different choice. I implore you to look past what is immediately familiar to you and to recognize that these places are the only ones where some of our fellow human beings feel OK. And that THAT IS NOT OK.
It feels hopeless. I know. Please hear me, I know how hopeless things feel right now. But if you want to do something that will truly make a difference in your community, the one you're in right this second, patronize these places of solace. Spend your time and money in these places that have been safe havens to so many people. Hug the owners. Check in on Facebook.
Head to Cowtippers and enjoy the fantastic service. Go have a drink or a Shirley Temple at Mary's & catch the drag show. Buy a book at Charis. Surprise the boys up at the Eagle with a round. Enjoy brunch at Blake's. Get out there and show your support with face time and dollar bills.
Please, Atlanta, let us come together to speak volumes about how much we value these establishments.
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