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The Risks Of Being Gay, Orlando To Berlin To The Middle East

Let's be clear, the terror in the Pulse club was not an attack on Western culture in general: It was aimed explicitly at gay people. Most heterosexuals don't have the slightest idea what this really means.

Remembering the Orlando victims in Warsaw, Poland.
Remembering the Orlando victims in Warsaw, Poland.
Adriano Sack

BERLIN — For the launch of her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna made an appearance at Roxy, a gay club in New York City. At one point in the scramble, she yelled out: "I was born in a disco!"

As is well known, Madonna was born in a hospital in the suburbs of Detroit. What she meant of course is that the skills and know-how that she needed to become one of the biggest pop stars ever were acquired as she danced among gay people.

Roxy's accommodations are now being used by the Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth. The colorful carpet leading up to the main rooms is the only reminder of the former occupants. But that's what it is with such clubs: They come and go. Orlando's Pulse too is such a place, where identities are discovered, careers made and "one-night-civil-unions" are sealed. But in the night from Friday to Saturday it has become a place of death and terror.

The massacre is one of many killing sprees we've witnessed in recent years in the United States, and elsewhere. It's also one of many Islamic attacks on the West. When the toll of innocent lives is so high, it is always unbearable. But is it something different this time? For me, yes.

As a journalist I tend to avoid texts in which people take faraway catastrophes personally. In this case, though, I'm having a hard time not doing so. Because no matter what well-meaning colleagues might think, say or write, it's not "our world" that has been shot at with machine guns this time — it's mine.

A gay club is not only a place for young men to meet, drink and dance. It's a safety zone. A night in the club is one of the few moments in a gay man's life that he is not alone, not being smirked at or judged; when he can be himself, free of fear. Especially in a city like Orlando. Because the U.S. is, beyond the East and West Coasts, a repressive, conservative and aggressive nation.

Safe havens

Places like Pulse are not the meeting points of the well-earning, gay elite, but havens for those not welcome anywhere else in the American hinterland: young, old, pretty, not-so-pretty, dressed up as girls, the well-muscled in flannel shirts and baseball caps. These places are far from glamorous. But they don't need to be. Often they are the only refuge, until a young man has saved up enough money for a trip to New York, or Berlin — places where, or at least that's what they've been told to believe, freedom and peace are possible.

As for myself, I can't complain. I have only been physically attacked three times because of my sexual orientation (once in Madrid, twice in Hamburg, and never by Muslims). I work in an industry where it's part of the etiquette to accept me. Or at least pretend.

There were years where my way of dressing — not particularly flamboyant, I have to say — was systematically commented on during each editorial meeting. If I was to venture an opinion about soccer, the "real man" would usually express wonder that I should be interested in such a masculine activity. It is not a mean thing, per se, but it draws a clear line: us here; you there. But these are only details. And I can live with them. But then again, I don't really have a choice either.

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During a Pride Parade in front of Orlando's Pulse — Photo: Jeff Kern

I refuse to include the massacre of Orlando in the general Islamophobic agenda. As Donald Trump does, for instance. Yes, there are many Muslims who hate, and beat up gays. In Germany too. Also in Kreuzberg, where I live. And there are many Muslim nations where gays are persecuted, tortured and killed.

But on the global map of discrimination you don't only find Muslim countries, even though, clearly, gay people live a freer life in Germany, and in America too.

A vow

Two years ago, I — freshly certified cleric of a very free church — had the honor of marrying two good friends of mine: Clement from Paris and Patrick from Boston. One of the two fathers wouldn't attend, the other one had died. Both mothers had kindly asked me to not make a big deal out of the wedding. The wedding took place on the roof of a hotel in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, so I had to scream against the traffic noise. After the ceremony, the mothers, who had come there only reluctantly, thanked me for having found the right words for this wonderful wedding. That night I was convinced that our Western world was on the right track. And I wouldn't want to live any other way or place.

In the 1990s I worked as a bartender in Hamburg in a very nice gay club on Hamburg's Reeperbahn street, and later at a club called Front, which used to have the reputation as the most over-the-top, gay and musically progressive addresses in Germany. Skinheads visited the bar regularly, looking for trouble, but most of the time they only wanted to smell our fear, and then move along.

One night at the Hamburg bar, a gang of thugs had followed a black guy to the place and laid siege to the bar, smashing the windows with manhole covers. Though the police station was 150 meters away, it took the first officers 30 minutes to arrive. Until now, it was the only night in my life that I feared for my life.

The Front too was regularly targeted, and so baseball bats were kept within reach for the doormen at the entrance. None of it would have helped against someone like Omar Mateen at the club in Orlando.

One gay friend of mine posted a message soon after the attack on Facebook: "Our fight never ends." Unfortunately he is right.

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