Politics

LGBT Members of Congress: Gay Clubs Are Safe Havens

"Nightlife in the LGBT community is not just about having a good time," Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., and his husband, Randy, Florke, right, pose with their daughters Daley, 15, left, and Essie, 13. (Photo By Tom Williams)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney met his husband at a New York club known for its gay dance nights.   

It was the early 1990s. The New York Democrat was still in the closet at the time. The club was a place where he could be himself.  

Such nightclubs long have had a special place in the LGBT community. And that made last week's shooting at Pulse, an LGBT club in Orlando, all the more devastating.  

Maloney, who has now been with his husband, Randy Florke, for more than two decades, said bars were a resource for the gay community long before the internet.  

"With the rise of social media, there are other ways for kids to connect who are in the closet," he said. "But nightlife in the LGBT community is not just about having a good time."  

Decades ago, as the LGBT community grappled with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, fundraisers and events that raised awareness often were held at gay nightclubs.    

As the LGBT community increasingly pushed for more civil rights, gay nightclubs had a role in that as well.  

They were places where gay Americans could socialize without fear of condemnation or even physical violence.  

"I myself 27 years ago was beaten by two people with a baseball bat after leaving a club," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. "So I know the real effect of what this means to so many people."   

Pocan said many people are more nervous after the Orlando mass shooting, the worst in American history.  

"Across America, gay bars and clubs have been havens where the LGBT community can celebrate who they are, and who they love," Tammy Baldwin, the first openly LGBT person elected to the Senate, said in a statement.  "The targeted attack in Orlando was an assault on this  sense of pride and community that many us feel when we are together." And since that attack, gatherings at gay nightclubs have been organized to show solidarity.  

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the first openly gay parent elected to Congress, said that a vigil for the Orlando victims was held at Tracks , a historic gay bar in Denver.  

Another of the many vigils nationwide last week was held at the Stonewall Inn , the nightclub in New York that had a historic role in the gay rights movement. A 1969 police raid on the Stonewall, and the riot it sparked, were transformative events in the gay rights movement. Pride parades can be traced back to that tumultuous time.  

A police raid in 2009 on the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth, 40 years to the day after Stonewall, eventually led to a better relationship between local police and the LGBT community.  

In his remarks after the Orlando shooting, President Barack Obama  also spoke about the political nature of gay nightclubs.  

And Polis, Pocan and Maloney all said the Orlando tragedy needs to spur more action,  such as tightening gun laws, preventing discrimination and allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood.  

Gay and bisexual men and women who have had sex with them may donate only if they attest that they've abstained from sex for a year. All donated blood is tested for HIV, but the rationale behind requiring a year's abstinence is that the donor may have been exposed during the "window period" after exposure but before the virus is detectable. Donors are also asked about IV drug use.   

Polis said the result of the policy is that "those most affected and most hurt are being turned away because they are gay."   

Maloney said that the fact the House has not taken up legislation  such as the "Equality Act" to prevent workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans is further evidence of the struggles that LGBT Americans face daily.  

"The only thing we've fought for is the right to love one another freely," Maloney said.  

Contact Garcia at EricGarcia@cqrollcall and follow him on Twitter @EricMGarcia Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.