When I first learned of the shooting, I panicked. Did I know anyone who was there that night? The likelihood seemed very high. Orlando had been a close-knit gay community for me, and we had all made our way to Pulse on Latin Night many times before. I had only moved from Florida a few months prior and still felt like I was only visiting DC. I immediately texted every person I could think of. “Are you okay? Are your friends okay?” Most people were quick to respond, likely already doing the same thing I was. I hope you’ve never been in a situation that caused you to notice or care much about Facebook’s “Marked Safe” feature, but 193 of my friends in Orlando used it that critical first day as survivors and bodies were still being identified, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. I refreshed the list constantly.
Fortunately, all my closest friends were safe. There were, however, several survivors and victims who were acquaintances that I had come to know and had hung out with over the years. Some I had known of for several years. We were friends on social media. We would say hello when we saw each other out at a gay bar or in the grocery aisles at Publix or the farmer’s market at Lake Eola. We would sometimes find ourselves at the same house parties and pool parties or tagged in the same photos. Some of them dated my friends. Some of them were very close friends with people who are very close friends of mine. I won’t pretend to be closer to this than I am or to feel the same loss others may feel, but I do want to make it clear that this was a very small and connected community. And the entire community now feels a deep pain and mourns this loss.
I needed to go back. There was nothing I could do, but I felt so strongly that I needed to be there with my community. With my tribe. I needed to be home. Two weeks after the shooting, I was able to go back for a long weekend. I saw friends. We laughed. We cried. We shared memories. It was very emotional emotional, and unexpectedly comforting. Reflecting on this short visit back to Orlando in the aftermath of this national tragedy, I wanted to share with you a few highlights that I found meaningful.
I was so moved by the visible support of the entire city. Everywhere you looked – every building, every business, every yard, every storefront, every theme park – there were rainbows, rainbow lights, and signs that said “Orlando Strong” and “Orlando United”. Literally everywhere you looked. The entire city had been transformed. Driving from the airport to my friend’s house – before even seeing anyone I knew – this display of love and unity already had me in tears. It reminded me in a way of the pride that had united much of the country after 9/11 and that often rises up after major national tragedies. The difference was… these folks were mourning gay people! Trans people and people of color. People who often exist in the margins of society and experience rejection from strangers as well as loved ones regularly. Not only were LGBT folks now being acknowledged and mourned by the mainstream public, but they were being honored. They were being loved. And, in a way, we all were. The power of love and mourning was simultaneous and palpable. A friend of mine said it felt like he was a broken glass, but held by loving hands who wanted to mend the pieces.
2. The Memorial
I knew I needed to go to the actual building. For some reason, I needed to see it with my own eyes. Pulse had been turned into a temporary memorial for the victims, and people had been visiting it day and night. I asked a couple of close friends to join me. One had already been and didn’t really want to return and the other said he wasn’t ready to go at all. I almost asked other friends to join, but decided I’d rather go alone. I had been to Pulse with groups of people so many times in the past under much different circumstances, which suddenly made the idea of going as a group feel unbearable. I needed to do this on my own.
Ever since I bought the plane ticket to go back to Orlando, I knew with certainty that I wanted to go to the memorial. All the way until I was finally there, that is. By the time I got about a block away and could see the building, I froze. I stood there at that spot on the sidewalk for what felt like eternity, staring at the building but unable to move closer. Just as I was about to walk back to my car and go home, a woman came up to me. She was small and had a maternal vibe. I did not know her. Standing a block away from the memorial, she must have known where I was headed and she must have seen me standing still. She asked if she could pray for me. I paused, processing what she had asked and then unexpectedly broke completely down. Her husband joined and these two strangers hugged me while I cried and they prayed, providing a comfort I didn’t even know I needed.
I then continued on to the building. The entire area was completely covered with signs, pictures, flowers, artwork, candles, t-shirts, glow sticks, and rainbow flags. I stayed for about two hours. So much longer than I had imagined I would have stayed. I cried a lot. I also did a lot of reflecting. And people watching. I was so moved to see that weeks after the shooting had happened and across a two-hour span of time there was still a constant stream of people coming through to show their respect the entire time. At one point two women brought several bouquets of fresh flowers and replaced ones that had already died.
While I was there I thought about my first time at Pulse. My first out-of-the-closet boyfriend had taken me there after dinner on my first out-of-the-closet date. Those are big milestones, if you didn’t know! The first time I ever rode in a car with a boy on a date was to Pulse. He valeted the car and opened my door, which made me feel butterflies …and a little bit fancy. Not because Pulse was at all fancy, but probably because this would be the only time I would ever use their valet — more of a park on the street and walk kind of guy. But I felt special, nonetheless. I sat at the memorial looking at a burnt building with visible bullet holes, thinking simultaneously of the fear everyone must have felt running from this gunman and at the same time of all the wonderful memories and fun times we had had there. The birthday parties. The drag shows. The drama. The laughter. The love. The memorial has formed just behind Pulse’s outdoor patio. It felt so surreal to stand at a memorial essentially on an outdoor patio where I’ve spent countless nights before, staring at a destroyed building and imagining my friends running through it terrified. I couldn’t help but think of the stories and the sequence of events that I had heard from friends who were there and the stories on the news. I couldn’t help but picture it. The hiding places, the exits, the bathrooms — with ever horror story I heard, I knew the floor plan well enough to imagine it all clearly. I’m not sure why I needed to be at the memorial in person exactly, but in the midst of tears and pain, it somehow brought some healing as well. I was grateful to have been there.
The most heartbreaking moment for me of the entire trip, was one single sentence that I heard repeated over and over by a woman at the memorial. “I didn’t even know he was gay.”
I’m not sure who she was speaking about or what her relation was, but she seemed like the mother of someone who didn’t survive. In between sobs she uttered that same sentence multiple times. It seemed to say so much more than just those words. It seemed to say, How could I not know this person I love? What else did I not know? What didn’t they tell me? Why didn’t they tell me? Did they think I wouldn’t accept them? Did they die thinking my love was not unconditional? Why didn’t I know?
I can’t imagine a worse way in the world to be outted. Not only was that victim (and possibly others) robbed of their life, but they were also robbed of this intimate piece of their coming-out journey. They will never get to tell their own story now. They will never get to share their coming out process with their loved ones in their own way and on their own terms. Their family will always have questions. No one gets closure. I’m not sure if it’s true, but everyone here keeps talking about the father who refused to claim his son’s body after finding out the shooting had happened in a gay bar. I suppose we will learn more about that story on the news in coming days.
4. Boo Hoo
There were many beautiful moments of kindness and unity to observe at the memorial. However, there was one unexpected moment of the exact opposite. While I was at Pulse with dozens of other people paying their respects and grieving their loved ones, a vehicle pulled up right next to us on the street. A middle-aged women then yelled at us through her window saying, “Boo hoo! My sissy boy died! Boo hoo hoo, Crybabies!” Three or four other people in the truck — all seemingly middle-aged — roared with laughter. Then, pleased with the reaction they had ignited, they just sped off. Seriously! That actually happened. In the aftermath of the greatest mass shooting in the country, at the site where people are mourning their loved ones. A truck of grown-ass adults did that. And it wasn’t even a quick drive-by. They sat there for a minute, laughing at us and reveling in the reaction. I was stunned. My tears quickly turned to anger. Seeing a wide array of emotional responses, one man (a seemingly-straight, father/ husband figure) at the memorial immediately shouted out to all of us that we should not let them get into our heads and we should remember why we were there, to honor the victims. He actually had a very calming presence that seemed to deescalate the tension perfectly. Something about a straight male ally often makes me super emotional. Of course there were plenty of LGBTQ kin there and straight women, but (perhaps because they are so often the ones rejecting and harming us or at the very least “opting out” of advocating for us) when straight men stand up vocally and visibly for the rights of our community… it means more than I can say. At least to me.
5. Sunday Funday
My favorite day of the week in Orlando has always been Sunday. In all the cities I’ve lived in or visited I’ve never seen a better Sunday Funday routine. The farmer’s market at Lake Eola, the theme parks, churches, brunches, bar hopping — whatever you’re in the mood for, Sundays in Orlando will show you a great time. Because the gay community is so small and connected in Orlando and because the Sunday routine is so solid, I knew I would for sure see tons of friends without even needing to plan to schedule anything in advance. And I was right. As I spoke about in an earlier post, a gay bar is so much more than just what a straight bar often is. It’s a sanctuary. For many of us it’s one of the only places in our lives where we get to let our guard down and not worry about the danger or judgement that might arise if we’re too effeminate or aren’t conforming enough to heteronormative rules. In a gay bar we get to be our unfiltered, authentic selves — limp wrists and all. This particular Sunday Sunday was for many of us, though, the first time out since the shooting. It may sound silly, but several of us talked about being there almost out of a sense of duty and protest. Like if we stayed home in fear then the terrorist would have taken even more away from us. And we refused to let him do that. I’ll admit it was a Sunday Funday of mixed emotions. There’s a string of three or four bars within walking distance of one another that the gays typically rotate through on Sundays. Our pockets had to be emptied and we were checked closely when entering each bar we went to that day. Some of the bars had newly-installed metal detectors at the entrances as well and visibly larger security teams. All day and night our conversations kept weaving in and out of the processing of what had happened and our determination to have a good time with one another. We had drinks, we laughed, we danced. And we also spoke honestly about our fears and grief. We spoke of the people we knew who just two weeks earlier would have been walking around the same Sunday bar-hop with us, but now were in the hospital or had passed away. They would have asked me how the move to DC was going and we would have made small talk in the normal, casual way we always had. But now they’re gone.
It’s been two months. Many people have moved on. A hell of a lot has happened in our world since then. But for me and many others the emotion is still raw. As I start to wrap up this post, I’d like to ask something of you. Two things, actually. I ask, first, that you remember. Display a rainbow or equality symbol in honor of the ones we lost, not just so others can see your support but also to help you remember. Remember the names. Remember the impact of this tragedy. Remember that it happened to young LGBTQ people of color. Remember that it could have also been me or someone else you know. Remember that there is still hate in the world. Remember that we have to be the love in the world. The second thing I ask is that you do more. Just more. Do something more than “thoughts and prayers.” Think and pray all you want, but then please do something more. Something more than you would normally do. Stretch yourself just a little to show compassion and support. We each have had different levels of support and advocacy for LGBTQ rights, so wherever you are on that continuum… go a little further now. Speak up a little more. Take a stand more often and more visibly. Don’t be neutral. Stretch yourself in honor of the 100 people attacked at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 and the 49 souls we lost forever that night. Stretch yourself for the countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and Latinx folks who are directly and indirectly connected to this tragedy.
Past tragedies have taught us that the unity that follows tragedy dissipates over time. If we want this to be different, then we have to be different. Each of us doing something different — something more — than we normally would have done is what it takes to create that change. To begin to shift our culture. So, please reach out to the LGBTQ folks in your life to tell them you love and support them. Then do it again a month later when others may have forgotten about them. Continue to display rainbows and symbols of support. Advocate for gun reform (in your world with your people). Challenge the people in your life who don’t support LGBTQ equality (silence is not neutral). Talk explicitly about the identities of the victims as important and central to the story (They were mostly LGBTQ, They were mostly Latinx). These things matter. Whatever feels important and manageable and meaningful to you, do that! Please just do something different. Maybe all our “differents” will create a bigger different for the world we live in. That’s my challenge and that’s my hope. To make a meaningful difference, let’s be meaningfully different.