On June 12, very early on a Sunday morning, an iconic gay nightclub in Orlando became the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Pulse nightclub in Orlando beat at the heart of the LGBTQ Orlando community and on Sunday’s Latin night there were around 300 people in the club. The horrifying accounts from survivors have left the world mortified. FBI Director James Comey believes the killer Omar Mir Seddique Mateen was self-radicalized and did not have direct ties to the terrorist organizations to which he had claimed allegiance. His former wife later revealed that he was an abusive man and hateful man. He seemingly did not possess any sense of tolerance or respect for women or LGBTQ citizens.
However, later reports have revealed that the shooter had been in Pulse multiple times, maybe a dozen. Regulars said sometimes Mateen would sit quietly and other times he would be loud and drunk. He was also recognized for his activity on the gay dating app, Jack’d. One Pulse nightclub regular has been communicating with Mateen for a year. That individual recognized Mateen from his photo on the app and noticed him standing outside the club about an hour before the shooting on Sunday. Was the killer really a closeted gay man who was resentful of his own nature or was he scoping out the club for the best time and way to attack?
The Internet is haunted with the sounds of bullets from the rapid shots that were delivered from Mateen’s semi-automatic rifle, firing up to 45 rounds a minute. Social media is crying and bleeding with Orlando, decorated with memorials, populated with final words from loved ones and posted outcries for justice.
There are so many level and facets to this massacre. It was an attack on the Latin community, the lgbt community, the state of Florida, the city of Orlando and it was an attack on humanity. As talk of terrorist intentions circulate, we are reminded that this was not a foreigner. The killer could have been any lunatic or any citizen of the U.S. “This is an American person on American soil who attacked and went after the LGBT community,” said CEO of Glaad Sarah Kate Ellis. Though equality is making massive strides, the prejudice and hatred against the lgbt community still openly exists. The Huffington Post states that there are currently more than 100 active anti-lgbt bills across 22 states, meaning the fight for basic freedom is still very real.
“You can’t live in a place of fear,” said Miami Beach gay business owner and local playwright David Sexton. “These kinds of acts both draw us close together and tear us apart. I just have to make sure I am on the right side of that and reach out to my friends who are Islamic and they reach to their friends who are gay and we reaffirm our personal bonds to make sure we are good. By doing this on a smaller scale can affect things on a larger scale.”
The nightclub was created to commemorate a family member who died of AIDS. Pulse was a celebration of life and a tribute to a life lost; now it is a graveyard of blood, bigotry and a devastating tragedy that will never be forgotten. But the survivors of the Pulse shooting are rising from the ashes to share stories of bravery and accounts of last moments with friends. The nation stands by digesting the constant news feed and getting a glimpse of the young lives that were taken.
GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis brought her team in from New York to assist the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida (The Center) and Equality Florida in their efforts to provide help and counseling to those who have been impacted by the grief sweeping Orlando. It is “really personal here,” said Ellis, reflecting the sentiment of sadness and heartbreak that layered the air like the darkest of clouds in Orlando Monday afternoon, just one day after the nation’s deadliest shooting. People waited impatiently, desperate for information on hospitalized and missing loved ones.
Ellis reminds the world to keep telling people’s stories. The world will continue to see the faces of the victims and through social media the stories of lost loved ones will personally impact lives.
Pulse and long-standing gay bars and clubs serve a higher purpose then just a place to mingle. They are places where the LGBTQ community feels safe and accepted. Gay clubs often host and support fundraising and community events. Ellis referred to gay clubs in general as places where LGBTQ citizens can be their true and authentic self, because sadly in so many places they cannot.
With very close ties between the LGBTQ community in Miami and Orlando, many Miami residents felt the pain. The father of the shooter also mentioned that his son was enraged when he saw two men kissing in Downtown Miami. Vigils have erupted around the country, but the LGBTQ community in Miami knows with the flip of the coin, the unhinged and unstable shooter could have easily chosen to attack the dense gay-population in Wilton Manors or South Beach.
Sexton said his first reaction was sheer horror. Then it quickly became very personal. Turning to Facebook, Sexton reached out to friends and the closely related Miami and Orlando theater communities to check on the status of friends. Many used Facebook’s safe check-in to offer some sense of relief to loved ones.
Mike Halterman is a native Floridian and LGBTQ journalist in Central Florida. “The reach on social media is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Halterman who woke up to texts and messages from friends asking him to check in as “safe” on Facebook. “Due to my work, I routinely visit nightclubs in Tampa Bay and in Orlando. I was contacted by over a dozen friends, asking me if I was okay,” said Halteman. “I was left surprised at how effectively social media kept tabs on everyone.”
Orlando has made huge strides in equality. It is a city that scores a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign 2015 Municipal Equality Index Scorecard, which is essentially a measure of the quality of life for LGBTQ people who reside there. Orlando is a city that not only accepts LGBTQ citizens, but also welcomes them into the society, into the economy, into leadership roles. It is not a city that merely tolerates the LGBTQ community. Orlando instead has offered its citizens acceptance and more importantly equality.
As the world mourns, the city stands tall with hundreds of citizens gathering Monday in downtown Orlando to spread the message that hate will always be overcome with love. The front remains that of strength, but many are very scared. “Obviously I feel a little bit afraid, because I always associated mass shooting episodes with other parts of the country. Those things happened away from here, away from my life,” said Halterman.
Even the hospital where victims were being treated was threatened as a target in the middle of back-to-back surgeries. Staying #orlandostrong, doctors remained in place to save life after life. ABC News reports that as of June 13, Orlando Regional Medical Center had treated a total of 44 people and nine of those individuals died after the shooting. They have performed 26 surgeries on victims with more expected today. At a press conference later today many of the surgeons will speak. With updates posted on Orlando Health Twitter, one disturbing post stands out. Joseph Ibrahim, MD, said, “The only thing he would change is that more victims could have gotten here sooner so that we could have saved more.”
To make matters worse, there was a lot of confusion about the regulations that prevent gay men from giving blood. Some thought it had been lifted, but in fact it had not. Those who were not sexually active in the last 12 months should have been allowed to give blood, but due to outdated systems they could not. “There is a screening system in place to keep people from giving blood, but no screening system in place for people who shed blood,” said an outraged Sexton.
Those who live in gay-friendly and supportive communities may take be taking their freedoms and acceptance for granted, but most know the LGBT community is no stranger to violent protests against them. However, this attack is “violence of an epic proportion,” said Ellis.
“This brings home the fact that we are still a targeted community,” said Sexton, citing religious extremists from all walks of life who harbor hatred toward the LGBT community. I’ve seen the Orlando LGBT community unite on previous occasions but never to this extent. Everyone is asking the same question, and it’s ‘How can I help?'”
Donations are being accepted on two Go Fund Me pages. One page raises funds to support The Center’s overwhelming efforts to help heal a devastated community and the other page is raising money to support victims and families.
Go Fund Me has also contributed $100,000 towards this campaign. This generous donation basically wipes out any fees that would have been incurred and ensures that all the money donated will go towards supporting victims and their families. In just one day, over 68,000 people have raised almost 3 million dollars on this Go Fund Me page. The goal is 5 million. https://www.gofundme.com/PulseVictimsFund
The official Go Fund Me operated by the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida is a 501(c)(3) organization and 100 percent of the proceeds go to victims and their families.
The message continues to resonate, Love will triumph over Hate.
On the day of the shooting, events like L.A. and Capital Pride marched forward, honoring lives that were lost and offering strength to those still fighting for survival. At the Tony Awards celebrities honored victims, offered solidarity to survivors, advocated for change and continued to carry on the sentiment that love conquers hate.
Many are seeking immediate action and impactful change. Jan DeMarinis on Facebook asked, “How much longer are we expected to bear the burden of hatred and inequality?” She suggested a gay Peace Corps that travels the U.S. conducting local protests and visual pushbacks. “I feel like the only thing I can do is to continue living my life as normal. I feel like the violent and intolerant people will win if I don’t do that,” said Halterman.
At the heart of everything, there is the gun control. It is easy for just about anyone to obtain weapons in Florida, even a semi-automatic rifle that was designed to facilitate mass killings very quickly. Florida’s gun laws do not require a permit or registration to purchase a gun. In addition, assault weapons or large-capacity ammunition magazines are not regulated. This is the 133rd mass shooting in 2016. In Florida, it was the 15th mass shooting this year and the fourth in Orlando. Florida has more mass shootings this year than any other state.
According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), there have been a total of 76 days this year with mass shootings in the U.S. and only 88 days without. The death total so far is 207 people, including the victims in Orlando.
Most believe it must and will.
“We must be more vigilante than ever,” said Ellis, without naming guns as a solution to a gun problem. “We will come back together as a stronger and more united community.”
“I feel like today was the day to cry. Tomorrow, and the days following, are days for strength,” said Halterman.
Many are insistent that they will not let one hateful man define their actions or determine their path. Despite fears, the LGBTQ community stands strong with Orlando.
The President has ordered the American flag be flown at half-staff over the next few days in honor of the many lives that have been lost.
“Like everyone in the country, I am devastated about the horrific events that have taken place today. Pulse, and the men and women who work there, have been my family for nearly 15 years. From the beginning, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. I want to express my profound sadness and condolences to all who have lost loved ones. Please know that my grief and heart are with you.” – Barbara Poma, Owner