The Family Guns - Guns, Gay Bars, And the Search for Safety

06/16/2016 06:30 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2016

I grew up with guns. A lot of them, in fact. My father was a construction worker by day, and a pawnshop owner by night. We lived in West Virginia in a small town at the edge of the National Forest. He hunted occasionally, but as he grew older, he mostly bought and sold guns and prized them as objects to be revered.

I grew up in gun country. It was the country, a little valley town surrounded by mountains and forests. A familiar site was my neighbor driving home in his pickup truck through a late fall snow. He’d be towing a deer in the back. A frightening trail of red blood on the muddy snow would mark his path down our street to his driveway. We kids all had prized sets of antlers hanging over our tree houses and on our clubhouse walls. We killed the deer for food and sport and because there were no longer natural predators to control the population. If we didn’t kill them, they’d run rampant and starve. If we didn’t kill them, we’d hit them with our cars on winding mountain roads. There was a truth to this logic; we knew from the dents in our cars.

My father once told me that my inheritance would be guns—dozens of them. Rifles and pistols and shotguns and muskets. His pawnshop was a veritable treasure chest of guns. The showroom was one of those perfect messes—some kind of order out of the chaos. I’d sit with him and watch as he disappeared into the back, returning to his desk with a long rifle that needed polishing. The guns are mostly gone now. His pawnshop was closed more than a decade ago when it came to the authorities’ attention that my father’s customers had been selling him stolen goods. There was a court case, and when it was over, much of his inventory had been seized. The pawnshop didn’t survive, and many of his guns were lost in the seizure.

After a long illness, my father died this May. He was 72 years old. I was back at home during his last days. He was in a morphine haze and was trying to climb out of his hospice bed. I was in his dying room with my sister and my mother. The room had once been my bedroom, though all of the artifacts of my youth had been cleared out for his arrival. We asked him where he was going.

“Hunting,” he said.

“For deer?” my sister asked.

“Squirrel,” he said.

And then it made so much more sense. In his last moments, he had gone back to his childhood.

Orlando vigil at Stonewall Inn
Jonathan Corcoran
Orlando vigil at Stonewall Inn

I’m writing my second book and, like the first, it largely concerns the experiences of gay men living in rural Appalachia. It’s not autobiographical, though I draw heavily on my personal experience. Writing on this topic has become increasingly difficult due to the news pouring in from Orlando. My mind swims invariably between gay bars and guns, moments of near violence and moments of realized violence. It’s hard right now, as a queer person in America, not to see some part of yourself in the faces of the victims. What has happened for me, and I suspect for others, is the amplification of a certain low-grade anxiety that has thumped within me for the majority of my life. It’s images of fists and scowls, sounds of slurs and threats. We queer folk rarely have queer parents. This anxiety, then, is our collective inheritance—the bloody images on the television, a reminder of our place in the world.

And so I struggle: How to explain this? How to pry the truth from our usually cheery faces? And to whom am I speaking?

I keep going back to guns. Gay bars and guns. Growing up, my neighbors were smart with guns. Almost everyone I knew had a hunter in the family, so we all had early childhood lessons in gun safety. We fired guns at targets in our backyards, and we aimed bullets at cans and jars on fence railings. I was never afraid of guns, though I didn’t like them. I was more afraid of fists, of uncontrolled drunkenness, of groupthink. By the time I left high school and West Virginia, I’d only come out to a few of my closest friends. My reticence to admit the truth had never stopped any of my classmates from making assumptions, from grabbing me by the neck, from miming obscene gestures in the hallway. Like most queer folk I know, I feel compelled to remind myself that I had a fairly good childhood despite these incidents. I found friends who I could trust. I found my sanctuaries—the community theater, the choir room—heck, even the soccer team. I laughed a lot. I also cried a lot, when no one was looking. Living in the closet, I often put myself in dangerous situations. I met men online, and even once at a gas station, a surreptitious nod of the head indicating the man’s desire. I didn’t have anyone to talk to openly, anyone who might have perhaps discouraged me from getting into cars with strange men. I realize now how lucky I am to have come out of those situations physically unscathed.

The patrons of Pulse were not so lucky. Who knew that going to a gay bar involved such risk? This was a history lesson that I had forgotten.

I remember Vice Versa, the first gay bar I ever patronized. It was in Morgantown, one of the “big” cities in West Virginia (all 30 some thousand people). It was the closest gay bar to my hometown, an hour and thirty minute drive. There were only a handful of gay bars in the entire state, so there were men at Vice Versa from all the little hollows near and far. It was a sometimes-sleepy place, a sometimes-sloppy place. It was also 18+, so I was able to sneak away on a few weekends during my last year of high school. The drag queens there had a particularly local flavor. They were country queens—Lorettas and Dollys and Tanyas—with big hair and eye makeup to match. There were college students and country queers. I was in awe at first, having never seen anything like it. When I first moved to a bigger city, I would come to think of the whole place as provincial. And when I became old enough to understand exactly what Vice Versa had meant to so many rural West Virginians, I would come to think of the place as a temple, as the refuge it truly was.

I remember being 18, dressing in my high school finest, dragging one of my close girlfriends to the bar. We’d sit in the corner, not yet able to buy drinks. Maybe there had been an older friend or acquaintance who snuck us Long Island Iced Teas or Cosmopolitans (I’d learned how to order from Sex and the City). I don’t really remember talking to any strangers. The older men eyeballed me, sure, but I was too shy to approach anyone. I’d dance a little with my friend, hoping that someone would bump into me, make the slightest body contact. When I’d try to drag one of my friends back in another week or two, she’d say, “Why do we have to go there? We just sit in the corner. We can’t even drink.” I’d usually relent and agree to other plans. I couldn’t yet put the words together that I was alone, that I didn’t have a friend like me—someone who was gay like me. I couldn’t yet say that being surrounded by so many gay men and women was a treat, was a break from the harsh world out there, was a place to exist as the person I knew I was outside of the halls of my high school, outside of the confines of my small town. Vice Versa was a glimpse toward a future that I had been secretly planning for years. I held onto the image of that bar, and when I graduated high school, I promised myself that I would go far away to where there were people like me. When the time came, I left and I never looked back—at least not at first.

On the television, pundits are shouting about ISIS, about radical Islam. My parents were religious, Christian of the evangelical sort, radical in their own way. I think there was more brimstone in my old church than I can remember. I’ve blocked a lot of it out. I had to in order to survive. I left West Virginia for college in New England and tried to start a new, separate life from the one I had known. I promised myself that I would always be out, going forward. I would never not meet a new person and play coy about my identity. I found a new set of supportive friends, who never knew me as “straight.” I found the local gay bars and ran to them when I could—Mirabar, where we danced, and The Dark Lady, where Miss Kitty Litter made us laugh and made us give up our money to AIDS charities. The hardest part was the split—the self I was back in West Virginia during school breaks, during those weekly or daily calls home to my family, and then the self that had tasted freedom, had thrived in what seemed like a safe space. Friends asked me, “Are you ever going to tell your family?” I responded with the truth that no one seemed to believe. I said, “If I tell them, we won’t be a family anymore.” My college friends, a largely wealthy and liberal set, chiefly from big cities or their well-heeled suburbs, at times didn’t seem capable of grasping this notion. Surely, they argued, my family would come around. This was just another concept that I couldn’t yet find the words to describe: a hatred for something that ran so deep that a mother would be willing to cut off her only son. That kind of hate defied logic, but it was real.

When I turned twenty years old, my worst fears came true. My mother found a never-sent love letter that I’d stashed away in an old notebook, something I’d accidentally left behind during my college summer break. It was a letter I had written to my first serious boyfriend, to the man who would become my husband some eight years later. My mother called me on the day of my twentieth birthday. She asked me if I was gay. When I had barely stammered out an answer, she made it very clear how she felt. She said, “You are no longer my son.” I didn’t talk to her for a long, long time. I didn’t talk to any of them. And for the better part of a decade, I lost contact with my entire blood family.

What I’m trying to get at is that Orlando is not a fluke. Omar Mateen is not a stranger. He was a son. He was a father. He could have been our son, our father. He has always been there, even if we’ve chosen to ignore the signs.

After my mother’s pronouncement, my family and I went a year without speaking. I spent holidays alone or with kind friends. After a long silence, my mother called in tears and we tried to patch things up. She said the devil had gotten into her. I took her back, reluctantly, and then, god knows what it was—the wrong word or suggestion, seeing a gay couple walking down the street holding hands—she lost it again. She let me know, as she had before, that I was going to burn in hell, that, as a gay man, I was surely going to die of AIDS. We were estranged again for another few years. We’ve repeated this process three or four times over the last decade.

We’re speaking again, and I’m hopeful against the odds, just as I’ve been hopeful five or six times before, that this time she has truly changed. She watches the news streaming in from Orlando, the 49 lost souls, the weeping mothers, and she lets me know how much she worries for me, how sorry she is for what she’s done in the past. She has a good heart and I love her in the deep way that a son must. But sometimes, when I too watch the news, I wonder if her hatred of my “lifestyle,” as she would have called it then, was any different than Omar Mateen’s hatred for his victims. His was a blind rage that cut deep, it seems. A personal rage, certainly. And though he might not have known his victims personally, he at least understood them in some familiar way. Maybe he was closeted or maybe he just had issues with his own masculinity. What matters is that his hate wasn’t, in fact, random. His hate was deeply ingrained. It sprang from some belief so intrinsic to his person that he was not only willing to kill, but willing to go out in the process. And we allowed this.

My mother says of her youth, “It was different then. We were taught different things. I just didn’t know what to do.” And then I begin to understand him more, this man who would rather carry an assault rifle into a bar than question the core of his person.

My mother tells me she cries nearly every day thinking about what she did to me. She grapples hourly with the disconnect between her faith and the orientation of her son. She tells me, now, “Walk with your shoulders reared back and be proud of who you are. You are great.”

She is undergoing a transformation that has been a decade in the making. She chose the hard route.

My father once tried to take me hunting. It was a horrid affair that ended in his anger, my tears. I stomped through the woods too loudly. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot the deer. We shared the same eyes, the same wide shoulders, but our interests never seemed to converge.

It’s been more than a month since he passed on, and I keep going back to two fleeting conversations, both uttered in those rare moments when my family and I had called a truce, both taking place on the same couch in my childhood home.

A few years after I’d been disowned, he said to me: “I always knew you were different, even when you were a little boy. Are you happy?” I said yes. He nodded. “That’s good,” he said, “I want you to be happy.” Then we sat together in silence, taking it all in.

And the second conversation, many years later, when I announced my engagement. He said, “Your mother tells me that you want to get married.”

“I do,” I said. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“If you get married, I’ll come to New York with a shotgun and shoot you.”

I marched out of the room as he laughed. I didn’t think he was serious, necessarily, but he had made his point clear.

On the day of my wedding, not a single member of my blood family was in attendance. It was both the happiest and saddest day of my life. I had made a public bond with a man I loved so deeply, who had held me during the worst and hardest moments of my life. There were more than a hundred people in attendance—our dear friends, my husband’s extended family. I was so, so happy, and yet I remember that feeling, that same anxiety I’d always known bubbling back up again, that anxiety that reminded me that my happiest moments were also my most vulnerable. I didn’t really believe that my father would shoot me, but all day long I kept one eye on the doors of the wedding venue.

I’m lucky that I’ve never been physically assaulted in my adult life (though I suffered my share of bullies during my school days). People have often screamed slurs at me and threatened violence as I’ve walked down the street, alone or with my partner, holding his hand or not. This has happened in small towns, in cities, in gayborhoods—It isn’t just Orlando that makes me question the notion of safe spaces.

Once on vacation in North Carolina, I was lying on the beach on a blanket with my husband. A woman approached me, clutching her toddler in her arms. She asked us to leave. She said it wasn’t right, that it was against God’s word. We had just been laying there, sunning, not even touching. I wanted to scream horrible things at her, but I was too shocked to even summon words. Her family members were only a few yards away. Queers understand the danger of escalating situations, the notion of living to fight another day. My husband and I grabbed our blanket and left the beach.

Orlando was not a fluke. Omar Mateen was not a stranger. He was not a foreigner. He was one of us. I write this with a deep sadness, because it would be easier to cast him as the other. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

My father and I broke our four-year silence just three months before his death. He didn’t mention the gun incident, but he asked about my husband. It took death to make him and other members of my family grapple with their demons, to challenge the roots of their homophobia. It’s an ongoing process for them. This kind of change is never easy.

This is not an attack piece on my mother, who likely suffered as much as I did. She now grapples every day with her faith and her love for me. This is not a hit on my father, who was a complicated man but one who loved life and taught me much about living. I’m learning how to make peace with both of them. It’s hard, but love is ultimately very forgiving.

But in a world where a mother finds it more expedient to cast out her own child than challenge her beliefs, in a world where a father threatens to shoot his own son for daring to love another man, in a world where a young man grappling with his own demons so callously snuffs out the lives of 49 sweet souls—in this type of world, we, as a society, need to contend with our most deeply held beliefs. What happened in Orlando belongs to all of us. What happened to me has happened to others before and will happen to others again. What happened to the men and women in Orlando has also happened before and will also happen again. This is a gun problem, yes, but it is also a crisis of identity, a crisis of masculinity, and a crisis of beliefs—and I mean beliefs in all senses and faiths. I would hope we’re at a turning point, but I’m not so sure.

I’m not religious, but I sometimes find wisdom from holy texts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a famous bible passage, one that we seem to have forgotten: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” If we are to learn anything from this horrible tragedy, if we are to protect our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and ensure their safety and happiness, then we need to first look within.

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the story collection, The Rope Swing (West Virginia University Press, 2016). Learn more at jonathancorcoranwrites.com.

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