The Singular Experience of the Queer Latin Nightclub

The author of Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics says that the event attacked in Orlando was more than a “safe space.”

Alvin Baez / Reuters

At the Orlando gay club where a gunman perpetrated the worst mass shooting in modern American history, DJs were playing reggaeton, bachata, merengue, and salsa, according to The New York Times. The vast majority of the dead were Latino; more than half were Puerto Rican.

The discourse following the attack at Pulse nightclub has focused largely on terrorism, guns, religion, and homophobia. But this was an attack on a very specific kind of event: a queer Latin night. There are many such nights happening at clubs in cities across America every week of the year.

To understand more about the particular history and meaning of such gatherings, I spoke on Thursday with Ramón Rivera-Servera, the author of Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics and an associate professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Spencer Kornhaber: Just to start, do you have anything in general to say about your reaction to what’s happened?

Ramón Rivera-Servera: As a queer Puerto Rican myself with family connections to Florida, there’s that immediate “me” reaction, about how you feel reflected in that scene, in that space, in that experience, and the violence. But immediately I also had this punch-in-the-gut feeling about how this tragedy would be immediately co-opted and put at risk other vulnerable populations. I’m thinking here about anti-Arab, anti-Islam sentiment. My first social-media posting was about recognizing the trauma but also warning us to be careful not to go into the easy pigeonholing of large categories of population that in our queer activism, and in our Latino activism, we work against.

Kornhaber: There’s been a lot of discussion of whether the media and society are talking enough about this as an attack on queer people specifically. What do you make of that discussion? Do you think there should also be an ethnic or racial element of it?

Rivera-Servera: Of course we cannot deny the national importance of this story, and folks feel vulnerable about different aspects of their experience—about race, about ethnicity, about sexuality, and gender. But there have been problematic ways in which the story has been taken up by mainstream LGBT organizations. This is a difficult thing to put forth because they equally shared in the vulnerability and the trauma of the incident, and I don’t want to minimize that experience for them. But for the first few days, the reactions distanced themselves significantly from the specificity of this as a Latino, primarily Puerto Rican, experience.

There’s a longer history to the kind of experience of the young men, women, and trans folk who were in that space celebrating together. If you start reading the bios [of the victims], you see the stories of migration, you see the working-class from the community college, you see all these nuances that the prepackaged HRC framework of activism—which is necessary and important at the national scale—runs the risk of erasing.

So a lot of on-the-ground activism from Puerto Ricans and Latinos was to really mark that there is a racial, ethnic component to this experience that we cannot forget. As we learn more about the biography of this really disturbed individual, we start realizing that there are conflicts around his masculinity and his sexuality, but equally so there was a history of racism. There is a conjoining of hate, of phobias, not only shared by somebody that goes into the nightclub with a gun, but also in smaller, less explicit ways evident in how easily we can co-opt this narrative and whitewash it.

Kornhaber: Your career has involved writing about queer, Latino dance and performance. What should people know about the history here?

Rivera-Servera: The nightclub has been historically for Latinos, African Americans, and white Americans a place of congregation and conviviality that does not conform to simplistic notions of “safe space.” There’s a clear sense of these spaces being respites from some dangers outside, but also replete with all kinds of risks themselves. In these spaces, we started thinking not just about our pleasures together, but what it took to protect those pleasures and to demand our right to those pleasures.

Latinos have always been present in the mainstream LGBTQ community; I think of Sylvia Rivera of Stonewall. But they have oftentimes been marginalized in our rendition of national history. So Latinos have also created their own spaces, whether they are establishments devoted to the Latino queer encounter, or the temporary one night in the otherwise mainstream gay club that invites this Latino congregation, this other soundscape, this other way of moving and dancing.

Especially in the 1990s when the LGBTQ movement was attaching to an aspirational middle-class sense of how we would be integrated into the nation, the Latino club or the Latino night provided a space where folks who had difficulty [with that], or who consciously refused to be seen within that aspirational framework, could meet each other. Latinos come from very different places with very different backgrounds and trajectories of immigration: It’s not a monolithic group. At Latino night, something coheres for them. The commonalities are an appreciation of the potpourri of musical difference, or language, or a history of seeing themselves as “other” within the United States—sometimes willfully, sometimes the result of how U.S. mainstream gay culture continues to center whiteness.

Kornhaber: You mentioned the soundscape. Can you describe what that soundscape might include and how it would be different from another night at a gay club?

Rivera-Servera: I can speak generally about the establishments I’ve been looking at in the past 20 years. And most of these are in major cities, Orlando being similar population-wise. In these spaces, music that may be recognizable to a mainstream gay audience—a house bass or techno bass musical palette—can very quickly switch into a merengue or a salsa in the Caribbean social-dance tradition. It can very quickly turn into a cumbia or a quebradita in the Mexican-Colombian social dance tradition. And it can just as quickly go into reggaeton, and Jamaican dancehall-, Caribbean-, Central American- inflected choreography and music arise.

The patterns and the energy of the dance floor can fluctuate in ways that reflect the amalgam of influences that constitute Latino queer demographics. That’s what’s beautiful about it. Some Latinos gain the expertise of being able to move fluidly across all those genres, and then a lot of others will dance nonetheless and you’ll see the movement hiccups that occur in trying to fit in. I find that beautiful because it manifests both how much we’re there in an effort to be together, but also the complications of attempting to do so.

I don’t idealize the club as this exclusively safe space. I love the club as a platform that allows us to enter the risk of being together, this effort to find our pleasure together, knowing that it can be a bumpy ride. Nobody is under any pretenses that we did not arrive at that place without risking a lot—risking, at times, our lives. These are experiences of pleasure charged with the knowledge of risks, of the everyday violence that we endure to afford this moment of release.

Kornhaber: Do you think the attack will change how people think about or participate in these kinds of experiences?

Rivera-Servera: This attack is a really extreme manifestation of the kind of violence and hate and phobias that characterize that broader experience of risk I was invoking. We have to honor the scale of this event, the amount of the loss, and we are already seeing the kind of important political action that needs to happen in reaction to it. [But] we also need to see this moment as also quite typical, just on a bigger scale. This moment allows us to identify a lot of different problems in terms of the risk that queer Americans, Latino or otherwise, continue to run by living in this country.

Racism continues to be a problem in this country, within and without the queer community, and we have to be really careful to not forget to honor racial ethnic difference. We have to make sure not to simply co-opt this as a banner event for another HRC easy political framework. This is not to dispute HRC as an important political institution, but historically HRC has not done a really good job for the particular community that congregated in that space that night.

Part of the activist effort needs to be channeled towards gun control. All of the hate and phobias that this horrific incident so explosively showcased are a sad component of the American fabric, and we need to disarm them, starting with the guns that enable the most gruesome aspects of a culture of violence. Then the even harder work of dealing with the roots of this violent culture begins.

Kornhaber: What struck you about the response that you’ve seen within the Latin world?

Rivera-Servera: Within the Latino community, the first thing that struck me was their immediate demand for specificity. They wanted their community to be named, to be spoken about. They wanted that Puerto Rican-ness to be part of the story. This morning on NPR finally somebody was tracing the individual story of one of these Puerto Rican young men whose body is being brought back to the island to the town of Guánica for burial. So the nuance of those stories is starting to emerge, but I feel they’re starting to emerge because the Latinos started demanding it. They did not want to be erased.

Although we don’t want to essentialize Latino as a linguistic category, seeing that list of victims’ Spanish surnames was important in terms of recognizing ourselves. In social media, people have been talking very intelligently and quite beautifully about their experience and about their anger—the anger of recognizing their own vulnerability, the anger of seeing this story run the risk of being whitewashed or co-opted, the anger in the delay of that recognition.

The most touching thing for me has been to see how queer Latinos in my social media frames, text messages, and emails have just been checking in with each other, asking ourselves, “How are we?” and expressing our love for each other. That has been an incredible way of sharing our desire to make more of this than simply survive it. You hope that we don’t forget, that we don’t need these kinds of events to realize the deep need we have for each other, and to ask for each other’s support in advancing deeply needed changes in this country.