June 12 marks the 5th anniversary of the Pulse massacre

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

I watched as each person who stepped off the bus began to cry. I followed, and as my feet touched the ground, I began to cry as well. It was 2017, and we were at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2017, almost a year after the massacre that took 49 lives and severely injured another 53 people the year before during Pride Month.

June 12 is the five-year anniversary of the Pulse shootings.

I was in Orlando for an LGBTQ journalists conference that day in 2017. Before taking us to dinner, our bus stopped at the new shrine. We got to see what was left of Pulse.

At the time, chain link fence surrounded the property, which was covered with banners and flowers, photos and other items paying tribute to those killed. The site was preserved as a memorial to those who died.

This week, to write this piece, I pulled out my pictures of the site and went through them. And I was crying again. The Pulse shooting had a profound — and lasting — effect on the LGBTQ community.

The evening I visited Pulse, we spent an emotion-filled hour at the site. Each of us read every tribute. We each read the names of the victims — not repeating those names would have been disrespectful. We read each banner. Because not reading each tribute was unthinkable.

“Love more. Hate less,” read one banner. “We will not be defeated,” said another. Simple messages: “Orlando united.” “I have no words.”

“One heart. One pulse. Keep dancing angels.”

There were tributes to individuals, as well:

“Shane Tomlinson: You will always and forever be in our hearts. Maibel, Jamara, Jayda.”

“Rodolfo Ayala: Te queremos mucho – con amor. M.”

“Edward Sotomayor: Friend. Brother. Son. The legend lives on.”

Pictures of the 49 victims, each framed in black, reminded us that each of these individuals was a person who loved and was loved. They were just people out having a fun evening, dancing and celebrating Pride — until the gunfire erupted.

After a three-hour stand-off, the police killed the single gunman. Before he was shot, the killer told negotiators the shooting was revenge for the American invasion of Iraq. The shooter, though, was born in the U.S. of Afghan parents. And many believe that the killer, despite his claims to police, was a closeted gay man and that his own self-hatred drove him to target the patrons of an LGBTQ bar. His father recalled that the shooter had gotten irrationally angry some months before when he saw two gay men kissing in public, and his wife at the time of the attack has since said she and other members of his family thought he was gay.

The question on everyone’s mind in the immediate aftermath of the massacre was simple: Why didn’t police end the violence faster to save lives?

The answer was simple: “They couldn’t move in sooner because they didn’t know for sure what was happening. They couldn’t be sure that coming in sooner wouldn’t end up with everybody dead,” explained A’zsia Dupree, a cast member from Pulse who performed at the Round-Up in Dallas a few months after the incident.

The Pulse shooting was the deadliest attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, and it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman at that time. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that took 32 lives was the deadliest until the shooting at Pulse, and just a year later, 2017, when 58 people were killed and 489 wounded in a mass shooting at a country music concert outside the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas.

Just after midnight on June 12, 2016, patrons at Pulse called 9-1-1 for help while barricading themselves in the bathroom and hiding under the bars. Survivors recalled hearing the gunman say that he wouldn’t stop his massacre until the U.S. stopped bombing his country.

In Dallas, the new Resource Center building on Cedar Springs had just opened a few weeks earlier. The LGBTQ community responded to the shooting in Orlando by gathering for a vigil there that night. About 1,000 people came.

Then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown was among the speakers at that vigil. This was just weeks before four DPD officers and one DART officer were killed, and seven other officers and two civilians were wounded. Current Mayor/then state Rep. Eric Johnson attended the vigil for the Pulse victims, as did then-Mayor Mike Rawlings and half the Dallas City Council.

Clergy participating included the Rev. Neil Thomas from Cathedral of Hope, Rabbi Andrew Paley from Temple Shalom and Imam Omar Suleiman. All were there to condemn the murders and help heal the LGBTQ community. Even more elected officials sent their condolences to the grieving LGBTQ community.

One exception was U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, whose district at the time included parts of Oak Lawn, including most of Cedar Springs Road. At the time, Sessions made the bizarre claim Pulse wasn’t a gay bar, and that the victims were Latino. It wasn’t clear if Sessions understood that there were LGBTQ Latinos, or if he simply thought it was OK for these particular LGBTQ people to be killed since they were Latino.

As it turned out, at least one of those killed was a straight mom who had gone dancing with her son and who threw her body over his when the shooting began to save his life.

The LGBTQ community across the country and around the world was overwhelmed with grief. Lesbian singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge wrote a song called “Pulse” that she released within days of the shooting. The Dallas Wings wore a special jersey at their games that week emblazoned with the words “Orlando Strong.”

The city of Orlando responded by purchasing the Pulse nightclub and turning it into a permanent memorial. The deaths of Pulse survivors over the next year made national news, and the LGBTQ community grieved again.

Chris Brodman, 34, was found dead at a birthday party in Tampa in August 2016. Paramedics tried to revive him after his body was found in the yard, but he was declared dead shortly after. Brodman had made it safely out of Pulse after the shooting started. Jahqui Sevilla, 20, survived the Pulse massacre, but died in a car crash in Orlando the following May. Reports indicated she lost control of her car.

The Rev. Neil Thomas has marked the anniversary of Pulse each year by reading names of the victims at Cathedral of Hope. This year, he said, the One Orlando Alliance has asked churches to ring their bells in memory of the victims.

Thomas described the shooting at Pulse as an act of hideous backlash amid growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community grows. Pulse, he explained, was part of the community’s sacred ground. Our bars were where we thought we were safe. For Thomas, the Pulse shooting falls into the same category as massacres at churches and synagogues.

While shootings have been normalized in the U.S. to the point where we often don’t remember details of a particular mass shooting a week later, the LGBTQ community has been insistent in keeping the memory of Pulse alive.

“We’re all family, and it was an assault on our family,” Licensed Professional Counselor Candy Marcum said of the shooting. That assault, she said, took place where we go to play and have fun. It was something that doesn’t happen in everyday life and that we have no way to prepare for happened and that causes trauma.

“Murder in a nightclub?” Marcum said “It doesn’t belong there.” And murder in the place where so many members of our community go to feel safe for the first time in their lives? That causes trauma that stays with you, Marcum said.

So how should we respond? “It’s important to remember, honor and commemorate,” she said.

Possibly another measure of just how deeply the Pulse massacre affected the LGBTQ community is a GoFundMe that was established for the victims of the shooting. That effort brought in $7.8 million for survivors and the families of victims. It was, at the time, a GoFundMe record.

And One Orlando has raised more than $27 million that has been distributed to survivors and families of the victims.

On June 12, we mark five years since that deadly night in Orlando. While the grief for many may no longer be as sharp and ever-present, it does remain — a reminder that despite our progress toward equality, hate has not been defeated. And hate can be deadly.
On June 9, Congress voted to make Pulse a national monument.