By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
LGBTQIA+ Pride Month in June is an important time for us to celebrate our pride but also to reflect upon what it has taken for us to get where we are today. As we reflect upon the important moments in LGBTQIA+ history, from the burning of the Hirschfield Library, riots at the Stonewall Inn, assassination of Harvey Milk, HIV/AIDS crisis, murder of Matthew Shephard, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. Of course, during this time, at least in the US and Europe, being LGB has gone from being completely criminalized to marriage equality being legally recognized and celebrated. For our trans and non-binary friends and family, there is still much more work to be done.
The mass shooting, in which 49 of our LGBTQIA+ friends and family were lost that night, was a punch in the gut for our community and a solid reality check that while we’ve made significant progress in equality, that there was still much work to be done. LGBTQIA+ bars and clubs like Pulse have always served as an unofficial community center for the LGBTQIA+ community as one of the few places where people could be ourselves, express ourselves and enjoy life without the fear of being caught holding the hand of someone of the same sex or wearing different clothes that wouldn’t be socially acceptable otherwise.
That day was a tragedy for our community, but it also became an opportunity for us to find support in each other. All over the country and world, LGBTQIA+ bars and clubs opened their doors for memorial services and vigils, the outpouring of support from allied communities worldwide showed that despite the hateful act of terror, there was a lot of love in the world to support us. For the LGBTQIA+ community in Orlando, and especially for the Latino community (the shooting happened during the club’s “Latin” themed night and many of the victims were people of color), the healing is still ongoing today.
This hasn’t been easy, with recent setbacks from Republican governor Ron DeSantis, including cutting funding for LGBTQIA+ mental health services for the Pulse victims and signing anti-trans blanket ban on sports. However, the LGBTQIA+ community has become stronger and more united to resist these efforts, do more than “thoughts and prayers”, and advocate to take care of the Pulse victims and each other during these times. Organizations such as QLatinx, Contigo Fund, Orlando United Assistance Center, and others. These different organizations emerged because the victims and their families, while apart of the LGBTQIA+ community, also relate to other communities such as Latino communities, immigrant communities, and others. Each of whom have different needs and thus, requiring an intersectional support system to ensure everybody is taken care of. Joél Junior Morales, who helps lead the Orlando LGBT+ Center remarks that the tragedy has also helped elevate the voices of Orlando’s LGBTQIA+ Latino community,
“We didn’t have a voice here, and in the last five years, our voices have been uplifted through this,” said Morales. “What happened at Pulse was … kind of labeled as a gay issue, when in reality it wasn’t. So many communities were impacted.”
The Orlando LGBT+ Center connects with the community to provide mental health, medical, legal, housing, testing and other services. In regard to mental health, their counselors are also members of the same community who can better connect to their clients through those shared experiences. Ensuring that the services they offered are better suited to the needs of their diverse community.
Many of these needs did not become apparent until after the shooting, most notably with the language barrier between the victims’ families and city officials. Many families only spoke Spanish and struggled to find the information and people to talk to that they needed as the resources available were in English only.
Funding for these services is still a challenge as they rely on grants and funding from the government to ensure these services are available to the community. DeSantis’ cutbacks have created new challenges but has empowered the LGBTQIA+ Latino community to fight for what they need. Morales and other advocates are searching for new sources of funding and new opportunities to further secure these resources for the community.
“We’re transforming [the city] — in a better way, a progressive way,” Morales said. “But we also have to remember that people are still healing, and there’s a lot of recovery that needs to happen. After the dollars dry out, and the eyes are away and the media goes away, people are still suffering.”
Five years later, the absence of Pulse as a nightclub and community gathering spot is still sorely missed. While the building is still standing and serving as a memorial, the kind of space Pulse offered to the community before the shooting made it home for much of the LGBTQIA+ community in Orlando.
“Some people say that everyone has three places: home, work, and a third place — a place where you find a sense of community and belonging,” said Marco Quiroga, the founder of the Contigo Fund. “Pulse was that third place for me when I first came out, and for many of us.”
The owner of the building and property is planning to turn it into a permanent memorial and museum through the OnePulse Foundation. The site is currently in the progress of being declared a national memorial with both the US Senate and House Representatives passing a bill toward this effort, the bill will proceed to President Biden’s desk for his signature into law.
Republican Senator Rick Scott, who was Florida Governor during the shooting, introduced the bill and spoke of the victim’s families and attending the funerals as one of “the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
“It was an evil act of terrorism designed to divide us as a nation and strike fear in our hearts and minds,” Scott later said in a statement. “But instead, we came together, and supported each other through heartbreak and darkness, to preserve and rebuild.”
The rare show of bi-partisianship has received an outpouring of support and appreciation from the community, including a message posted on the Pulse Facebook Page itself.
For all of us as we reflect on the tragedy of that day and remember the 49 members of our community, we must keep moving forward and fighting to ensure that we allow our diversity to strengthen us and show the world that #LoveAlwaysWins.