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Opinion Attacking a gay bar – our refuge, our church – is latest in continuum of hatred

Michael Bosia is an associate professor of political science at Saint Michael's College of Colchester, Vt., and co-editor of Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression

In the spring of 2013, as lesbian and gay couples in France anticipated the first day marriage would be available to them, a young gay man in Paris was brutally attacked by violent right-wing nationalists. After a demonstration in Lille against the marriage law, several of the demonstrators sacked a nearby bar and beat three of its employees. Egyptian police have successfully driven LGBT socializing out of public spaces and into homes and other private spaces, and they now track parties online so that they can arrest, humiliate, and torture the men who attend them. Human rights advocate Scott Long estimates that hundreds are currently imprisoned there. In Russia, homophobic gangs that entice young gay men into meeting – only to subject them to brutal torture – are protected by the authorities.

The attack in Orlando is a startling part of this continuum. Sexual and gender minorities are subject to increasing violence as our rights are recognized, we assert our rights, or when we are targeted and restricted by the state. Violence occurs in climates of great change, when gay men and lesbians can engage in social life openly and proudly, as well as in situations of what I call state homophobia, where politicians and their allies raise the spectre of a gay peril threatening the nation – or the bathroom. In the United States, we face all three dimensions: our greater rights inspire us to further action to secure protections in employment, continue the struggle against HIV/AIDS, and extend rights to our most vulnerable transgender kin; but our greater rights have earned the violent enmity, charged rhetoric, and legal action of our extremist opponents in and outside of government.

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Orlando's Pulse is the most recent of our gathering places subject to private or official acts of violence, variations on the violence unleashed in the police raid at Stonewall in 1969 that we remember this month, and a recognition of the importance of such spaces to our social and political well-being. When I first engaged in LGBT politics in San Francisco in the 1980s, we would say that bars were like churches for the LGBT community: They provided space where our community could recognize itself, engage socially, and organize politically. Imagine the world in more dangerous climes, where sexual and gender minorities could not or cannot be themselves at work, in school, among family, at church. For many of us struck by AIDS, even the doctor's office and the hospital might not be safe. So the only safe spaces for LGBT social life were cafés, bars, bathhouses, and cruising spots. Where bars and cafés might be more vigorously policed or subject to greater vigilance from neighbours, private parties often take their place, offering the same kind of space for community.

Even though our rights have been recognized in some societies, we have only recently won respect and acknowledgment across more domains of our lives. So we still feel restricted and constrained in the heterosexual world, not able to express the full range of our identities. Certainly, even the selves we can let free at bars, clubs, and parties are just one aspect of complex identities, and many of our bars have histories of classism, racism, and misogyny.

Recognizing all these limitations, bars are the spaces where we can express aspects of our selves that we must hide beyond their doors. And despite the history of official violence and racism, at their best, they are the enduring institutions where we create and recreate our LGBT social selves, queer our social lives, and disentangle ourselves from mainstream culture, in order to find friends and family like us. I met my husband, Steven, at a bar in San Francisco, and now we live in a state that still regrets the closing of our only LGBT bar a few years ago.

Despite today's condemnations of the violence from political and social leaders who yesterday promised our social death, sexual and gender minorities know we remain in some way suspect everywhere, whether threatened individually or collectively, in acts of violence, repressive laws, or violent words. The purpose of all of these threats is to inspire fear in every LGBT person, separate us from the sites that bind our communities, and undermine our institutions of solidarity and community. The attack on Pulse is a reminder that those who threaten us have always done so along a hateful continuum where words bleed into deeds, targeting us at our most vulnerable moments.

Michael Bosia is a fellow at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto

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