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I Went to Pulse Because It Felt Like Home

Orlando-based writer Kaleb Quast reflects on what the club meant to him, his friends, and the city.

by Kaleb Quast
Jun 23 2016, 7:04pm

A man mourns during a vigil in Orlando the day of the attacks at Pulse. Photo by Dylan Flynn.

This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here. Today, Orlando-based writer Kaleb Quast remembers the importance of the Pulse nightclub to the local community.

I can still remember the first time I went to Pulse, four years ago. I was 19 and had finally finished healing from my top surgery, a double mastectomy removing both of my breasts and leaving me with a masculine and flat chest. There was a crowd of people in all three rooms and on back patio, performers on the stages, music blaring through the speakers.

My friends were around me, but so were people I'd never seen before. Somewhere else, I would have been uncomfortable. The sweaty bodies I brushed against would have pushed back, would have called me a "faggot," would have stared at my lady friends' sensual dancing. But it wasn't like that at Pulse. My apologies were brushed off with smiles and wrist flops: "Oh honey, don't be." I didn't worry about someone seeing my scars and asking me about them, didn't have to choose between lying or coming out as transgender to a potentially hostile, but definitely drunk dude, didn't have to deal with strangers asking me about what kind of genitals I have. More strangers pulled me into their dancing orbit and made eye contact with me at Pulse than any other downtown club I've been to.

For some—especially those with families whose first instinct wasn't love—it was safer than any house could be.

When a place takes you in (almost) unconditionally and gives you a space and the freedom to exist, it becomes sacred. Our clubs are our churches, our temples, and our places of congregation and celebration. Instead of pastors and preachers, we have drag queens and kings. Holy communion is the well whiskey, and the spirit courses through the veins of every person dancing. And just like a church, Pulse has a community. This is where our baby twinks and baby dykes come to evolve into whatever version of queer they want to be. Pulse is where we met some of our best friends, where we sweated, bled, and cried into a crowd—the place where some of our biggest regrets and best stories were made. Pulse was home. For some—especially those with families whose first instinct wasn't love—it was safer than any house could be.

Last year, my roommate went to Pulse for sixteen weeks straight. Every Tuesday she'd go—ten dollars all you can drink, you can't blame her—and wake up the next morning hungover to hell with knees bruised black from twerking on unforgiving surfaces all over the building. She would get up the next morning, grumble, shower, and be ready do it all over again. No matter how sore she was, she'd always had great night, whether that meant getting new numbers in her phone, dancing with a sexy go-go dancer, or finally kissing her crush after weeks of sexual tension.

Once, she drove drive her shitty, swamp green Audi—"old Greg," she called it— with no AC in the unbearable Florida summer for over an hour just to see a friend she made at Pulse because he felt as close as any blood relative she'd been born with. She'd make out with both boys and with girls at Pulse without harassment, or even a second glance. Autumn got to live how she wanted to there. She was as much in love with Pulse as she was with any person she'd met from there.

In the messy chaos of smooth gay men dancing with their dicks tucked, the go-go dancers swaying and sashaying to pop songs, everyone smiling and blowing kisses, she'd be pulled up on stage to dance more times than she can remember. Sometimes, she'd get kicked out for sharing her bathroom stall (you can imagine what for), but next week the bartenders would still shower her with love. Pulse was the beginning location for many of her adventures and relationships. It was also the ending point for others.

A candle vigil for Pulse by Orlando's Lake Eola. Photo by Dylan Flynn.

To her, Pulse was homebase, a place where she felt safe, where she could go dance away whatever had happened earlier that day. She walked through those silver hanging beads separating the ID station at the entrance from the rest of the club with a variety of intentions, each time being greeted with faces full of love and recognition. Even if she'd wake up half naked in the backseat of her own car in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot, I would never have to worry about her safety when she went to Pulse. At Pulse, the worst that could happen to her was that a cute girl would turn out to be straight or she might drink too much, need a ride home, and end up covered in her own puke. Even when she went all by herself, she would still stay out till 3 am, swaying and exchanging Instagrams and planning to meet up next time with the new friends she made.

For me, it's easy to forget the virtue of such a club, to get lulled into a work grind, to let a migraine take me down and to stay inside. At the end of the day, a gay club is still a club: loud and crowded, packed with people searching for something, whether just an overpriced drink or a connection with another human. Being an introvert, I don't necessarily thrive in busy situations, so it's easy to lose sight of what tremendous things Pulse and the other Orlando gay bars do—to take for granted what it's like to be openly queer and have places where we could celebrate that safely.

Here in Orlando, what happened at Pulse wasn't just a news story, another tragedy in a nation of man-made disasters. It was an explosion in our living room, the place where we come together. A place where many went to have fun and dance and feel safe doing is stained with blood. A community of people—not just the queers—is shook up.

Whether we only went there once or every week, all the danger about being LGBTQ—people would rather have you piss on the street than in a stall next to them, and homosexuality is still a death sentence in other countries—felt far away. But after the attack on Pulse, we are reminded of our vulnerability. Pulse wasn't just a "gay bar" or any old establishment; it was an entity that refused to be silenced and that was driven by the what the queer community holds near and dear: love, acceptance, and pride.