In the early morning hours of June 12, Omar Mateen opened fire in a packed gay nightclub in Orlando named Pulse. He held scores of clubbers hostage before he was killed by a SWAT team. By the end of the night, he had killed more than 50 people and injured at least 53 others.
Over the next few days, as the police piece together those couple hours, there will be a deluge of information. Who Mateen is. What motivated his hate. How he got that gun.
But we wanted to keep some of the focus on the community affected by this hate-filled crime. We reached out to members of Orlando’s LGBTQ community to better understand what Pulse meant to them and what’s next after this tragedy.
Katrina is a 29-year-old graphic designer and illustrator who has lived in Orlando for 20 years. She was in California on vacation when the shooting happened.
What does Pulse mean to the LGBTQ community in Orlando?
When I was first coming out during college and undergrad, it was our sanctuary. It was our safe place. We used to go Wednesday nights, it was college night or something. We used to meet up and we could be ourselves and dance and it was such a great homey feeling. I can’t believe it happened there.
For us it’s so much more. It’s not just a bar. It’s literally a safe place. At the time when I was coming out, even more so. Back then it wasn’t as accepted [to be gay]. I mean it’s still not accepted. But it was one of the few places you could go and just be you.
It was one of the two main things for gay people, and mostly for gay men. We only went to Revolution and Pulse. They have nights for everyone in the community. College night, Latin night, I think there was a hip-hop night. It showed that everyone was welcome. It was a place where all different communities within the gay community could come together.
I don’t go out as much now. I have really close friends who were out of town, thank god, who go every week. Mostly gay men. This was Latin night, so it was a big deal. It’s a community within a community. The fact that it was Latin night is an important thing that people need to understand too.
What was Pulse like on a typical Saturday night?
I have been many times, but it hasn’t been for a little while. It’s a friendly, warm environment. It’s super fun. There’s great music. It’s just overall a great vibe, a positive vibe. When we first started dating, we went there a lot.
What has it been like receiving the news?
We’re on vacation in LA, and I heard my phone go off. I just kept getting message after message from friends. I saw Facebook and it asked me if i was safe. It asked me to let my friends and family know. Then I saw that this was at Pulse and I just couldn’t believe it.
No one in my immediate circle has been affected, but there are friends of friends. I recognize two of the guys who were killed. We’re still waiting to hear about the bartender. I didn’t know them personally, but you know, you see them all the time, because we all hang out there.
It’s just an overall morose sense. We are on vacation and we went to LA pride today. We were scared to go because there was a threat there too, but we wanted to show solidarity. It was so nice to see the signs saying “We are Orlando” and “We love you Orlando” and “Yo soy pulse.” It was humbling and eerie at the same time. We couldn’t stay too long because I think we’re just emotionally exhausted. We keep looking at our phone and refreshing the victim list. We’re really sad and worried for our friends and the community.
Any memories from Pulse to share?
Every time I went there, I went home happy. I can’t think of any of any other way to put it. It is a great place.
Joe is a 32-year-old former state representative for East Orlando who grew up in Broward and attended UCF. He was one of the first openly gay representatives in Florida and is now the southern regional field director for the Human Rights Campaign.
Tell us a bit about Pulse and its role in the LGBTQ community.
Pulse was fairly new when I moved up here. It might have opened up right after I moved here.
Since then it’s been an anchor of the LGBT nightlife. Think Twist for Orlando. It’s busy all the time. It’s frequently visited by younger people. They have one of the biggest college nights in town.
A few years ago they made the shift to turn Saturday into their Latin night, which is a reflection of the changing LGBT community in Orlando. The Puerto Rican community has been growing for leaps and bounds over the past decade. Their Latin night is one of their busiest nights of the year. I think it was probably packed to capacity.
How do members of the community feel right now?
People are devastated. That’s too tame of a word. I was at a press conference today that was standing room only. Leaders from most of the LGBT organizations and allied organizations in Orlando were speaking. Lots of sentiments were shared. Most leaders felt called to call out bigotry, to call this out as hate motivated violence in its worst form.
Not only was this the single greatest mass shooting in American history, but it was also the single greatest attack on the LGBT community in our history, the single greatest LGBT hate crime in our history.
People were quick to call that out while at the same time calling on people not to fall into the temptation of hate the person who did this last night was called into. There was a lot of talk about islamophobia and not painting a whole group of people with one brush.
What are people going to do now?
People want to do something. At some level people feel powerless, but there was a quick call not to give into the worst instincts. There’s a gofundme account created by Equality Florida that in 24 hours has raised over $400,000 for the families and victims. Editor’s note: As of midnight, it had raised more than $1 million.
The first thing I think most people are going to do is grieve. That’s all we can do. But some of us are going to roll our sleeves up and ask hard questions. We’re going to ask why, again, someone was able to take a high powered assault rifle and kill people in the United States. That rifle was meant for killing and military operations, but right here in the US someone was able to go out and buy one. [They’re going to ask] why someone who had been investigated by the FBI was allowed access to buy that firearm.
Some of us will be working on answering the question of why someone would do this in the first place. What it is that signals some people are worthy of welcome and life, and some people aren’t?
Some people will go into the political and advocacy space and others will care for the people who have been hurt and have lost someone. I have every expectation that the Orlando LGBT community will rally and support its own.
I know people who were there. I know people who are still missing. Every hour that ticks by, I’m losing hope. If you believe in prayer, now’s the time for it.
Tiffany is a 30-year-old Orlando native who runs Homegrown Coop, a food cooperative.
What was Pulse like on a typical Saturday night?
I haven’t been there in awhile. It was very dance-oriented. People went to shake their booties, maybe see a drag show or a talent show. There was very diverse entertainment.
It has a nice aesthetic. It’s kind of chic and kind of modern in design. Initially it was three rooms: dance room, white room and a more divey side that was more focused on the bar. There was a stage for shows in that room. It was sort of unique in that there was different vibes throughout the club there was a patio. It was generally just a happy place. I was there to hang out with friends and dance.
How are you dealing with this?
There was definitely a lot of nostalgia that came up. I was there in my early 20s all the time to hang out with friends until the break of dawn. I’m very, very nostalgic about Pulse.
I was born a couple blocks from pulse and I went to high school a couple of blocks from Pulse so the proximity is definitely close.
What role did it play for the gay community in Orlando? Did it feel like a safe space?
It was a safe space to kind of let loose and kind of meet people like you.
I guess I just don’t feel like any of us are safe anywhere. Cars kill millions of people every year but we still drive them on the regular. This shooting is not going to prevent me from going to that space. It’s not going to make me feel that it’s any less safe. This could have happened anywhere.
I’m afraid of people who are sad and hurt more than I am of going to a place.
I’m not going to stop going out to clubs. I mean, I go less often as I age but this tragedy isn’t going to prevent me from going to clubs.
Any memories from Pulse to share?
It was just a beacon in the community.
Rebekah Monson, Chris Sopher, and Ariel Zirulnick contributed reporting.