If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was an ordinary Saturday night at Barrel 87, one of Sarasota’s last remaining gay bars. Outside, a rainbow flag flutters in a post-drizzle breeze. Inside, red and blue LEDs pulse behind lined-up bottles of booze. In the back of the bar, guys toss darts. Up front, couples grip each other tightly and swing to a playlist that’s no different from that at any other local nightspot—Queen, Nicki Minaj and “Y.M.C.A.,” all pumped so loud that the volume scrambles drink orders, turning a Scotch and water into just plain water.
Normal enough. But strike up a conversation, and talk quickly turns to Saturday night a week ago, June 11, the night Omar Mateen killed 49 patrons and wounded 53 more at Pulse, a gay nightclub just two hours away. It seems everyone here knows someone who was there or knows someone who knows someone who was there. Several also knew Eddie Sotomayor, the 34-year-old Sarasota native and Barrel 87 regular who was killed.
“It’s terrifying to everyone,” says Tim Enos in between drags on a cigarette. Mateen didn’t just target gays and lesbians; he targeted them in one of the few spaces where, for decades, gays and lesbians have felt comfortable and safe. It’s no coincidence that one of the watershed protests of the gay liberation movement took place at the Stonewall Inn, the LGBT hangout raided by New York City cops in 1969.
Enos, 28, came out when he moved to Sarasota eight years ago. “Gay clubs gave me love and acceptance and a chance to breathe,” he says. “It’s the one place you can be yourself.” Sarasota has come a long way in accepting gays and lesbians, but things remain far from ideal. In Sarasota County, outside of city limits, gays and lesbians can be fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation. And Enos and his partner still don’t feel comfortable holding hands in public. “I don’t want some asshole to ruin my night,” Enos says. At Barrel 87, if he feels like giving his partner a kiss, few would even notice.
“He took something from every gay person,” Curtis Thomas says of Mateen. “Our innocence was taken away.” A Barrel 87 co-owner and bartender, Thomas has worked in the local LGBT nightlife scene for 15 years. Now in his 50s, Thomas is old enough to remember the danger of gay life in the ’70s and ’80s. “Just walking down the street, you could get your ass beat,” he remembers. That’s changed for the better; Thomas says he feels mostly safe in today’s Sarasota. But the Pulse shooting serves as a reminder that even a year after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of gays and lesbians around the country to marry, they still face hatred. “We’re just asking to exist in our society,” Thomas says.
As gays and lesbians have found greater acceptance in society, Thomas says, the need for gay clubs and bars has declined. The gay dating app Grindr, which facilitates what Thomas calls “shopping online,” has also peeled away customers looking to hook up. According to Thomas, Sarasota used to be home to six or seven LGBT bars. Now there are just Barrel 87 and the Purple Rhino Lodge, a nonprofit membership club. And Barrel 87 might not even exist if Thomas, Joe Allen and Hunter Vance hadn’t partnered to purchase it from the previous owner eight months ago. “I just didn’t want to see this bar close down,” Allen, 24, explains.
The mood at Barrel 87 has been somber this week. At one point, the staff switched off the TVs to shut out the horrifying news. But despite dark days, the bar has been busy with customers coming together. The shooting may be on everyone’s mind, but it hasn’t deterred regulars from stopping in. Visitors, too. A trio of straight customers, pulled in by the blasting music, stand by the bar. A toned young man in his skivvies flits about, dancing with customers and making sure everyone is having a good time. Hearts are heavy, but it’s still Saturday night.