Billy asked for the name of the bar where they’d worked.
“Oh, I don’t remember,” I said. “I’m sure it closed years ago.”
He prodded: “Well, what did it look like?”
I described the layout—dance floor to the left, cocktail lounge to the right.
“That was Pulse,” he said.
Of course it was. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me earlier. Maybe I didn’t want to put myself at the center of the narrative. Maybe I didn’t want to imagine myself on that dance floor.
I looked up Nathan in my phone. And there was his number, along with an email address that ended in @pulseorlando.com. A little more searching told me that he was living in Chicago, working in advertising. And two days later, back in Washington, D.C., I called him.
To my shock, he still remembered that night in 2004. “We saw you there by yourself, and we wanted to make sure you were part of the group,” he said. “We didn’t want you to feel alone.”
Nathan told me that the other bartender, Bobby, still worked at Pulse, but he wasn’t there the night of the shooting. My pretense of journalistic distance popped like a soap bubble.
I sighed to Nathan, “A gay bar is so much more than just a place to get a drink.”
“Right. It’s a home. It’s a family. It really is a place for us to connect and feel safe,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how many stories I’ve seen of people who have walked through the doors at their first gay bar they’ve ever been to and really felt welcomed.”
One of the founders of the modern gay-rights movement, Harry Hay, used to talk about “subject-subject relationships.” He argued that society raises straight people to think about relationships as subject-object: the pursuer and the pursued, the conqueror and the conquest.
Journalism often feels that way. I arrive in a community and gather stories from people who live there. Their voices become ingredients in a recipe that I mix up, bake, and serve to an audience of strangers.
Hay believed that one reason gay people exist is to demonstrate a different way of relating to one another: not in service of a selfish goal, but in mutuality and recognition of one another as more than a means to an end. Not subject-object, but subject-subject.
I returned to Orlando for the first anniversary of the shooting.
Back at Parliament House, I sat backstage with Darcel Stevens, interviewing her as she dabbed on makeup for her midnight drag show.
“You know how Stonewall got started?” she asked, sponging foundation onto her cheeks and chin. “It was the drag queens who had just had enough of it, wasn’t going to be bullied any more, wasn’t going to be arrested, y’know? So whenever there’s a social movement within our community, it’s usually the queens who go to the front.”
For the previous year, I had wondered what it took for her to walk onstage that night in 2016. “I could profoundly say in that moment, I had no idea what I was going to say,” she told me. “I had prayed to my maker and asked him to give me words of encouragement.”
She said she didn’t know what her words were that night, and she doesn’t want to. Someone had sent her a recording of it, but she hadn’t listened. Yet, five years later, I often think of her words: “You are brave, and you are stronger than you think. We are going to get through it.”