Why we need gay social spaces

Story highlights

  • Malcolm Ingram: Having gay social spaces such as Pulse matters now more than ever
  • Across the world, such places are "unofficial embassies" for LGBT locals and visitors, he says

Malcolm Ingram is an independent film director whose films include "Small Town Gay Bar," "Continental" and "Out to Win." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)When I was a much younger version of myself, my parents used to bring my family to Cocoa Beach, Florida, for a vacation every year. Across from the condo complex we stayed at sat a very average-looking strip mall and tucked into that strip mall was the first gay bar I would ever lay eyes on.

I was 13 years old and I was just beginning to figure out that I was "different." I didn't really fully understand what a gay bar was, but I'd spend nights sitting in the strip mall's parking lot, waiting for the next person to enter or exit the bar. Like wild exotic animals parading through a very plain, darkened door, they were me and I was them. I remember feeling such an incredible bond with them from merely being a witness. They felt like family to me.
    Malcolm Ingram
    That is the power of places. As a 13-year-old kid, I was comforted by the fact that this haven simply existed.
    I've been in shock since awakening Sunday to find out that 49 of my extended family were brutally murdered and many more injured by a sick man who had too much hate in his heart. They were struck down in the prime of life in one of our very own safe havens.
    The unthinkable is now very thinkable. It makes me realize, now more than ever, the continued importance of gay spaces.
    For me, what happened in Orlando was not an act of terror, it was an act of hate. I am not terrified, I am horrified. What I saw in my community in the past 24 hours has brought me to tears many times. The strength, compassion and empathy being shared is a far cleaner fuel than hate. For those that don't know, June is LGBTQ Pride Month. It's a month that we throw a parade, party and sing but we also remember.
    We are a young community that has already faced the horrors of an AIDS plague. But we are resilient and we are caring. We are your brothers and sisters and your mothers and fathers. We are your friends. We are you.
    Two woman light candle during a vigil in front of the U.S. embassy to remember the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse Orlando, Fla. nightclub, in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, June 12, 2016. A gunman opened fire inside the nightclub early Sunday, killing at least 50 people before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, police said. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
    Two woman light candle during a vigil in front of the U.S. embassy to remember the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse Orlando, Fla. nightclub, in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, June 12, 2016. A gunman opened fire inside the nightclub early Sunday, killing at least 50 people before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, police said. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

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    I'm not alone in thinking of Pulse and other places like it as a haven. My experience in the strip mall parking lot that left the imprint that ultimately led me to making a documentary about gay bars in small town Mississippi called, not surprisingly, "Small Town Gay Bar." This experience really schooled me on how gay bars are not simply just meeting places. They are the beacon that guides during the calm and the storm.
    You may have heard of or read about the Stonewall Inn in New York City, but smaller bars and clubs in more nameless towns have been community centers, health clinics, life lines and love lines. In the past, gay bar patrons would have to stay as discreet as possible arriving at Tulip Creek Bar (circa 1986-89) in Tupelo, Mississippi (whose history we explore in the film) lest their license plates be read out the next day on the local radio news. Today, as more battles are fought and won in the gay rights movement, we are still constantly, sometimes tragically, reminded how important it is to still have a place to go.
    When I began filming "STGB," one of the first questions I would ask the folks I met at gay bars was: "Why don't you leave?" The South has a brilliant, important and colorful cultural history but the first word that comes to mind about it isn't "tolerance." It seemed a logical question to ask -- surely San Francisco or New York offered a freedom that couldn't possibly be attained in Mississippi. Yet everyone I asked recoiled at the thought and simply stated: "This is my home." Family, friends, work, life. Where they lived was part of who they were. These were not people who ran.
    One of the bars we filmed at, Rumors, was located a mile from a self-described "redneck bar" and five miles from the headquarters of the American Family Association in Tupelo. We interviewed people at both places and both were forthcoming in their extreme dislike of the gay bar. In fact, while we were shooting at the "redneck" bar, a gentleman fired off a shotgun in our direction, telling us that it was his way of saying "Hello." It was undoubtedly hostile territory.
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    This is when it really was impressed upon me the importance these bars had to the people who stayed -- and that these bars did not simply exist without a fight. Opening a small business is an incredible feat for anyone. Now imagine that by simply sticking a flag outside your door you are alienating yourself from a majority of the community around you while also putting a target on your back.
    Every single bar owner I talked to acknowledged the risk but seemed guided by forces that transcended commerce. They wanted to have a place to themselves where they could dance with their partner, laugh with friends, hold hands and steal a kiss. Things that we take for granted every day, things that were worth fighting for.
    Now when I travel to different cities and other countries, the first thing I do is look up is a local gay bar and go there. Decades after Stonewall and over 10 years since making small town gay bar, that place is always a welcome center and an invaluable resource. It's the unofficial embassy. I've been to many all over the world and have come to rely on them heavily. I'm grateful they exist.
    So what should you do in the wake of the Orlando massacre? You can do what I'm going to do. Take the time this Pride month to go visit a gay bar in your town. How many times in your life do you get to be involved in a form of social activism that also involves a good strong drink?
    Tip your servers well. They're not just there to mix the drinks -- chances are they can tell you all you need to know about the community you're in, the good and the bad.