Shattered sanctuary

The first time I walked into a gay club, I fell in love. Not with a person, but with the realization that I had discovered a place outside of my own home where I could really be myself, completely uninhibited by the expectations of the straight world.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t anything much better than being totally present and comfortable in your own skin.

I could wear makeup and tight clothing without anyone batting an eye. I could hold hands with and kiss whomever I wanted without worrying about offending the sensitivities of a heterosexual. I could follow my female friend into the ladies’ room simply because she didn’t want to go alone. I could lose myself on the sunken dance floor as the pulsating beat of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails and the flashing strobe lights hypnotized me.

After two decades of learning that I needed to be on guard almost every moment of every day, I had finally found a place to relax and just be. In this sacred place, we were normal and fear was a distant memory.

Most people recognize the horror of what happened in Orlando last weekend when a heavily-armed shooter massacred 49 young men and women at the gay club Pulse, but I am not sure many understand the impact this will have on the gay community at large.

The survivors of this unimaginable event will probably never feel safe no matter where they are, and although the LGBT population in this country is know for being resilient, I would venture to say we will never feel completely at ease in a gay establishment again.

Terrorism won’t win. We will still gather for our parades, our drag shows, and our Saturday evenings with friends, but the one public place we could be completely ourselves has been violated, and our fearless refuge is no more.

September 11, 2001

My experience as a small-town Kentucky boy in New York City on 9/11/01

Photo taken from Liberty Island Ferry on 9/10/2001
Photo taken from Liberty Island Ferry on 9/10/2001

It was a beautiful fall morning in Manhattan, and I was coming to the end of a two night stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania. I was still riding high on the experience of the night before – getting to see my idol in concert. Michael Jackson had performed right across the street from my hotel, and it was the first time I had been able to see him in the ten years since I’d become a fan. Needless to say, it was one of the most exhilarating nights of my life.

We had packed as many experiences into our short trip as possible, going to the top of the World Trade Center on 9/9/01 and visiting Liberty Island on 9/10/01. The ferry trip back from Liberty Island gave us an exceptional view of New York City and I turned to a friend and asked, “Can you imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers?” Neither of us ever considered they would be gone less than 24 hours later.

Ticket from trip to top of WTC - Dated 9/9/2001
Ticket from trip to top of WTC – Dated 9/9/2001
View from the top of the South Tower

We got up early on the 11th, knowing that we would be leaving later in the day to start our long drive home. We had seen Times Square at night and loved the energy, so we decided to check it out again in the daylight. After grabbing some breakfast and beginning the short walk, we noticed some people standing on the roof of a relatively short apartment building and excitedly pointing toward the south. We overheard something about a fire, but figuring it was not a big deal, we continued walking.

A lady walked by me in tears a few moments later, but I thought she might be having a bad day and didn’t think much more of it until we arrived in front of the studios for Good Morning America. As we glanced up at the large screen on the outside of the building, we saw an image of one of the towers engulfed in smoke. It took a minute for me to realize that the image I was seeing was real, and even then I just assumed that a small plane had accidentally hit the tower. As we stood watching with a growing throng of people, we decided to return to our hotel where we had an upper-level view of the towers.

Upon entering our room and glancing out the window, I noticed that both towers were engulfed in thick, black smoke. We turned on the television to hear that jetliners had crashed into both towers and someone mentioned terrorism. I immediately panicked and began throwing things into suitcases as quickly as possible, feeling a desperate need to escape. Soon, the news of the Pentagon being hit was reported and I was sure that our nation was under some kind of foreign attack and that we would not get out alive.

View from my hotel window on 9/11/2001
View from my hotel window on 9/11/2001

We were informed by hotel staff that the bridges and tunnels leading in and out of New York were closed to all traffic and that we would be better off staying put, but I knew that Manhattan was a peninsula and that we could get out if we drove far enough to the north. We called for our car to be brought from a parking garage that was several blocks away and a busboy helped us load our baggage and took us down a freight elevator to the lobby. He told us there was no need to check out of the hotel and that he would wait in the lobby with our baggage until our car arrived. We went out to wait in front of the hotel, feeling trapped and helpless.

The scene on the street was rather chaotic. Many of the nearby buildings had been evacuated and hundreds of people milled around on foot, walking in a trance-like state as scores of sirens wailed. It was a kind of hell and I could hear that sound in my head for months afterwards.

The busboy came out soon to inform me that one of the towers had collapsed. I didn’t believe him, so he took me back into the lobby and showed me on the television. It was incomprehensible. A few minutes later, he told me about the second tower. By that point I was convinced that bombs had been placed in the bottom parts of both buildings and that there was a real possibility of further attacks.

There we were, sandwiched in between Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building and we had no vehicle and nowhere to go. It was the most terrifying situation that I’ve ever been in and I was certain that death was imminent.

After over an hour of waiting, our car arrived and we headed north in the worst traffic that I’ve ever driven in. Multiple lanes of vehicles heading each direction, bumper-to-bumper, inching along at a snail’s pace as emergency vehicles blaring their horns and sirens managed to squeeze through on their way to Ground Zero.

One of the cars next to us had a passenger that was covered in gray ash from head to toe. She saw that we had a cellphone and tearfully pleaded with us to call her family and inform them that she was alright. We tried the number, but couldn’t get through.

After hours of sitting in traffic jams and finally finding an exit ramp that let us get on a highway heading north, our vehicle broke down. There we sat in the median of a busy highway on the worst day imaginable and we were once again stuck and helpless. A wrecker eventually appeared and took us to a nearby repair shop, where we waited as our alternator was replaced. By the time we left the city, it had been nearly eight hours since the attacks.

Throughout the day, I had been unaware of what was happening back at home. I had called my mother when the attacks first happened and told her that we were preparing to leave, but we had been unable to contact her for several hours after that. In the meantime, she had contacted my father, who told her that she needed to prepare herself because she’d probably never see me again. I understand why he said that as I felt exactly the same way, but it threw her into hysterics. People had to come to her house and stay with her just to keep her calm.

It took a long time for me to recover from that day, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those directly impacted. However, I don’t regret taking that trip. The only thing I really regret is that instead of rushing to help those affected by the tragedy, I ran away.

I will never forget…


I will never forget…

A smoke-filled sky
Pedestrians crying
The tv in Times Square
Wailing sirens
The urge to escape
Uncontrollable fear
Caring hotel staff
The view from my hotel room
Empathy for the trapped and dying
Traffic-choked streets
People covered in ashes
Weeping without shame
Helpful strangers
The changed skyline at dusk
A sense of relief to get out of the city
Feeling guilty about leaving
Realizing that NY is the greatest city on earth.