I can remember it like it was only yesterday.
The crunching feeling in my stomach – nerves, excitement and just a little too much cheap rosé wine – as I approached the door of the first gay bar I would walk into.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had watched Queer as Folk and expected it to be something like that, but this was Glasgow, my home city. Could it really be that, well, camp and racy? (I needn’t have worried.)
I remember friends who I went to college with being incredibly excited at taking “wee Stewart” to his first ever gay bar. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it at the time, but for my friends Craig, Stephen and Mhairi, who were positively ancient to my 18 year-old mind (they were, like, 27!), this was something they knew I’d remember for years to come and wanted me to enjoy it.
I never looked back.
I went on to make some amazing friends over the years and have had some incredible times as a result. I’m conscious that this isn’t everyone’s experience. I know I was incredibly lucky to feel part of something bigger than just a bunch of people who went to a bar.
I had met a family of LGBT people who shared experiences of how difficult it was to grow up; to be ‘out’ at work; to live in tough neighbourhoods. Some even had ex-wives and kids.
All of those complications were left at the door. Getting into a gay club was the best £5 I could spend, even if it did mean my friend and I lying to our parents that we were going to The Garage.
This was our place to be amongst folk just like us, and we did it to music and laughter.
That feeling of being safe, happy and carefree exists in gay communities all over the world. But on June 12, 2016 that safety was violated in the most horrifying way.
A crushing act of terrorism aimed at the gay community in Orlando has claimed 50 lives at the time of writing, and injured tens of others. A gunman entered our little world of cabaret and fun, and delivered the most haunting reminder that our equality, our safety and our very right to be ourselves is on fragile foundations.
The attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando is the worst mass shooting in American history. However this wasn’t an attack on one nightclub in one part of the world. This was an attack on a community of millions.
The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, is said to have been angry about the sight of two men kissing. This led him to carry out an attack on the LGBT community, in which he succeeded in killing and injuring many. But his aim was not just to cause physical harm. His aim was something even more sinister and should bring a moment of sober thought to us all.
This was about trying to put us back into a very dark closet, and to keep those not yet able to be ‘out’ deep inside that closet. That we should live quietly and in shame about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The aim of people like Mateen is that someone somewhere who has struggled with their identity will now think it too risky to come out and be themselves. That keeping it quiet and to yourself is the better, safer thing to do.
We cannot let that succeed.
In response to this shooting hundreds of people in Florida queued for hours in order to donate blood. Millions from around the world took to social media to express their sadness and horror, and lots of people were trying to raise money for LGBT groups in Orlando.
The LGBT community is all too aware what it is like to live in silent non-existence. Our spaces, be they bars, clubs or community centres, were once deemed illegal. We’ve lived underground for too long but equally too much time has passed to go back to those days.
That is why this feels like an assault on us all.
So if you want to stand with us then attend a Pride march near you this summer; donate money to an LGBT charity supporting young people; stand up for someone in your school who is being harassed for being LGB or T. Do something positive to ensure that hate does not win. You won’t regret it.
Even though the ostentatious flair of our community may be a little restrained as we think of those needlessly taken from us, our rainbow flag will still fly tomorrow. Our resilience will drive us to seek a world where no LGBT person lives in fear, because solidarity is stronger than fear.
And if anyone knows that, it’s us.
Stewart McDonald is MP for Glasgow South