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Latino LGBT Community Found Refuge On The Dancefloor

Jun 19, 2016
Originally published on June 24, 2016 1:06 pm
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A week after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, NPR's Jasmine Garsd headed out to Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y., an area that's known for its vibrant gay-Latin nightlife. She asked clubgoers this question - what does the dance floor mean to you? Here's what they told her.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thirty-four-year-old Ajani Benjamin remembers the first time he came to a gay dance club. He was a teenager in the '90s, which was a pivotal time for the LGBT community.

Gay men and women were increasingly vocal in American pop culture. "Will And Grace" was on TV. Ellen DeGeneres' career was on the rise. But these actors looked nothing like Benjamin, who's originally from Antigua. He says finding this place - the dance floor - where other gays of color came to dance, was life-changing.

AJANI BENJAMIN: There are so few spaces where you can go. You can be you, and you can see yourself.

GARSD: Benjamin explains that outside the dance floor, gay men and women do so much hiding, so much explaining. On the dance floor, people can just be.

BENJAMIN: It's folks who share a history of wondering. Will being me cause me to lose the ones I love? And when you go to these spaces you come across folks who see you as you are. And even though they don't know you, they love you anyway.

GARSD: Hi.

DANI CORAZON: Hi.

GARSD: Down the street, at a bar called Boom Boom for lesbian Latinas, I run into Dani Corazon, the owner, tidying up a memorial for the victims of the Orlando shooting. There is an American flag, the LGBT flag and Dominican and Puerto Rican ones, too. The club itself beats visibly from the pulsations of reggaeton, bachata and salsa, Latin music styles that are rarely heard in most gay bars in this city.

CORAZON: It's a place where we can listen to our music. You know, I don't have to wait 'til we listen to 20 English music, and then I have to wait for that one Daddy Yankee that they always - that "Gasolina" song (laughter). Like, I don't want to listen - you know what I'm saying?

GARSD: Corazon is serene. She has sleepy eyes, and it's hard to imagine her ever being afraid of anything. But she says many years ago, living in Florida, she was terrified of going to a gay club and being seen. She finally mustered up the courage.

CORAZON: And I went in there, and I felt - oh, my god. I felt so good because it was like people just like me. At the end of the night, I felt sad because I had to go back into not being the real me.

GARSD: It's that sense of the sacred space where you can truly be yourself that makes dance floors so important to the LGBT community - and why so many are determined to hang on to that safe community despite the horror of last week when a gunman opened fire inside the Pulse Nightclub during Latin night, killing 49 people and injuring dozens more. Corazon says she thinks about it every day.

CORAZON: And every day I let go of five balloons with - and I write the names of the victims, and I just let them go. And I do a prayer.

GARSD: Do you remember who you wrote today?

CORAZON: Yes. Today was Stanley, the other one was Luis, Amanda.

GARSD: Corazon has let go of a lot of balloons this week. And at 4 a.m., it's hard to remember all the names. I say goodbye and head home. She heads back in to the music. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.