One year ago today, something unthinkable happened: a gunman with terror on his mind and hatred in his heart decided to take out his depravity on a nightclub in my birth city of Orlando, Florida. When all was said and done, 49 innocent souls and the gunman lay dead in that club. I am, of course, talking about the PULSE nightclub, and that shooting is considered the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
While I did not know any of the victims personally, it still affected me because of the connection I have with the LGBT community, a community from which I have made several friends over the years. Some of these friends I knew for only a few years before life happened and we would go off in opposite directions and ambitions, others I remain close with. It broke my heart when I awoke that morning to news of the carnage that had occurred overnight. Many of the victims that night were LGBT, but some of them were also friends, family, and allies to their loved ones in the LGBT community that had come to enjoy what was supposed to be a fun-filled evening with music, dancing, and lots of positive vibes. No matter the orientation of the victims, the friends, families, and those who loved the 49 most dearly have now spent the last year trying to learn how to live with the voids in their hearts that the tragedy created and trying to live a life without their loved ones.
I heard people try to minimize the effect this tragedy on the LGBT community by only referring to it as an act of terror; others ignored the act of terror portion and solely called it a hate crime. Personally, I think it was both: it was an act of terror because the gunman had a religious/political motive, but it was also a hate crime because he specifically targeted the LGBT community. No matter the motive, it does not change the fact that 49 souls will never again return home to their families, 49 souls will never again smile and laugh with their friends, and 49 souls will never again feel the many kinds of love that drive us all through life. The “why” does not and will not fix the “what”.
The way that the city of Orlando came together in the aftermath was nothing short of beautiful. The (Democratic) Mayor of Orlando, Buddy Dyer, and the (Republican) Mayor of Orange County, Teresa Jacobs, both joined forces to lead the mourning in a city reeling from the darkest weekend in its history (a singer named Christina Grimmie had been murdered in another club in an unrelated incident just 24 hours earlier) and help The City Beautiful get back on her feet, pick up the pieces, and find a way to live once again. Orlando City SC, our local MLS squad, led a moving ceremony before its home match a few days later where the fans sang along to our national anthem (almost unheard of at American sporting events; fans here usually stay silent during the singing of it), and a moment of silence held when the game clock reached 49 minutes. (When Orlando City moved to its new stadium this spring, 49 seats were painted in a rainbow color scheme in tribute.). It has been an emotional year since then.
Orlando, a city that I like to call the “Jewel of the South”, has come quite a way since that night at PULSE one year ago. My heart is with her as she continues to heal. If there’s anything about Orlando that is its most incredible attribute, it is that she bends, but does not break in the face of tragedy. She survives, she advances, she thrives, she embraces. Orlando is one of the few major cities in the South that has embraced its LGBT community the way it has, in the face of other cities and states in this region fighting to marginalize and keep basic civil rights away from the same community. Orlando is called “The City Beautiful” for a reason: it’s not just for her physical beauty, it’s also for the beauty in her resolve in the face of adversity and tragedy. I’m proud to have been born there, and I’m proud to still have a connection to her, 30 years later. May the 49 souls who lost their lives that night forever rest in peace.