When I was coming out as a young lesbian, back in the late 70s and early 80s, you could find me hanging out pretty much every Friday and Saturday night at A Woman’s Coffeehouse, in the basement of Plymouth Congregational Church. It was appropriate that this chemically free, women only space was in a church, because it was holy ground for a gathered community. There, I heard the likes of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde read their poetry, listened to dozens of musicians singing lesbian love songs. (“Women’s Music,” it was called, but what it meant was—finally this music is for us! We don’t have to change the pronouns!) But mostly what I did was fully exhale.
That tiny place was the psychically largest place I went every week. It was where I felt most connected and alive. I didn’t know all of the women there—I had my particular crowd—but all of them were my people. Every one of them mattered to me. As I tried to imagine what this new life I was stepping into meant, and who I might be now, I studied older professional lesbians to see where I might possibly go with my life. I tried to look casual as I re-lived what I could never do in junior high and studied women to see who set me on fire erotically. We fought with each other and danced with each other and had Sunday forums on topics ranging from racism to eating disorders to non-monogamy. It was my place of meaning-making, at a time when the only media remotely reflecting my reality to the world was Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (And Alison lived in Minneapolis, briefly, which made her media even more important for us.)
It wasn’t until I saw the young faces of those beautiful people who were shot in Orlando at the Pulse Bar that I really felt kinship to them, although tons of queer and straight friends reached out to me in ways that implied I should feel such a relationship. I was simply too numb. But scrolling through face after face, what began to emerge was a community. The bios didn’t say who knew whom or who was dancing with whom or who fought with whom about what, but the faces as an aggregate became much more than the sum of their parts. They became portraits of a gathered people–young people who needed spaces to see each other so that they could see themselves. Just as I needed the larger community at A Woman’s Coffeehouse. They were A People.
To call what happened in Orlando an act of terror or a hate crime is true. But it’s not enough. To hold the depth of connection and psychic connection of the young people at the Pulse means remembering those times when our very beings formed, when we were not individuals but indeed part of The Pulse. Theologian Paul Tillich used the phrase ‘ground of being’ to describe God. Places where identity grows and thrives, particularly for marginalized people, are the ground for being. What was killed in Orlando was sacred and went far far beyond injuries and fatalities, as horrific as each one of those losses is for the circle of agony surrounding it. We barely understand deep community anymore in this country, and many do not experience it. But I believe in an assault on such interconnection, life itself, the holiest of holies, was murdered. God herself is inconsolable.