We tend to frame big moments in history, big moments in our lives, in “where were you?” terms. The big ones for generations past were, “Where were you when JFK got shot?” “Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?” “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” or “Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?” Obviously for the modern era there is “Where were you during Columbine?” “Where were you on 9/11?” Unfortunately, June 12th for everyone in Orlando, everyone in the global LGBTQ community, and millions more around America will now live as a “Where were you?” moment.
I remember where I was. It was 5 a.m., I was in bed with my wife, and the TV was on. I normally play golf on Sundays and get up around 6, but it was still too early for my alarm. Through almost-shut eyelids I could see police lights flashing on the screen from what looked to be a fleet of cruisers. Just hours earlier, there had been a tragic shooting at the Plaza Theater, a music venue just a few miles from my home. Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on The Voice was shot and killed by a fan after her performance. It was the big news of the night, so when I woke up I figured it was ongoing reporting from that incident. I asked Laura, “Are the police still there?!” She said “No, another shooting. At Pulse.”
Orlando, at least during my lifetime, has always been a pretty gay friendly place. Pulse wasn’t one of those places people went to in hiding. It wasn’t a secret. Pulse was out in the open, on the corner of Kaley and Orange Ave, just south of the heart of downtown, less than a mile from where I went to high school. The club, like the Orlando LGBTQ community, was out for all to see, and everyone embraced that. Until June 12th. As soon as I heard my wife say, “at Pulse” my heart sank. I feared the worst. The chryon on the local news was reporting 9 dead. Horrific. The both of us sat and watched the news in disbelief that not, one but two public shootings had struck not just our town, but our neighborhood in less than 24 hours.
As the morning went on my phone was flooded with texts. None of them were good. “21 dead.” “Over 30 now.” The last text to hit my phone as I drove my golf cart up to the 12th tee box didn’t even seem real. I thought it was a typo. “50 dead.” Later that number would be retracted to 49 (we don’t acknowledge the shooter). Golf at that moment seemed so utterly pointless and stupid. The weather was classic Florida, sunny and beautiful, but it was impossible to enjoy. The breaking news seemed unimaginable. At this point it was about 10:30 a.m. Nobody knew a motive, although knowing the prominence of Pulse in our town it wasn’t hard to add 2 + 2. Outside of 9/11, it was one of the most painful, bewildering, helpless days I can ever remember. That comatose stare that you get when your brain can't quite process reality and when your heart feels like it's been punctured? I couldn't shake that stare. I’d later learn that my cousin was one of the first OPD officers on scene. The shooter was still armed and in the building. Luckily he and the other first responders made it through the morning safely. I’d never been one degree of separation from terrorism before, and the reality was sobering.
For the Pulse 49, their families, friends, coworkers, loved ones, life would never be the same. Worlds shattered. Lives ended. Families torn apart. For the survivors, wounds would be dressed, long roads to recovery both physically and mentally lied ahead. For a Central Florida community, especially the tight knit LGBTQ community in Orlando, unspeakable heartache and vulnerability arose. But in spite of all that, Orlando came together. We persevered. We mourned together. We helped each other. Millions of dollars were raised. Gallons upon gallons of blood donated. Countless memorials were held. Murals went up. The city turned rainbow, and if you have the pleasure of driving around our great town you’ll see that it still is.
Pride Month and the most gruesome American tragedy aimed at LGBTQ people are forever linked. It sickens me to know that 49 people were taken from this planet simply for celebrating their existence. It sickens me to know that some people in the wake of this tragedy, because it happened at a gay club, felt the victims deserved it. It sickens me that then candidate Donald Trump used it as confirmation for his disgusting worldview that terrorism is something he should gain credit for constantly fearing, and by proxy – predicting. It sickens me that one of the few beacons of the LGBTQ community in my city is currently non-operational. I remember seeing an interview with a trans woman who performed and worked at Pulse. She was choking back tears talking to Don Lemon, just steps from the crime scene, as she lamented that Pulse was one of the only places a person like her could hold a job. And now it's gone.
But it strengthens me that those who needed Pulse the most, those who lost the most on June 12th, those who saw evil come after them and take their brothers and sisters – they stared it right back in the face, joined hands, and said “Fuck you.” It strengthens me that I can truly say my hometown, the place where I was born and where I live today, set an example for the rest of the world to show that unity and compassion are what make up a place, not buildings and attractions. It strengthens me that this month millions around the world will celebrate people’s right to exist as whoever they are, to live their truth, without judgment from society, religion, or government. It strengthens me to know the Pulse 49 will never be forgotten. They are the embodiment of Pride and they should be remembered as such.
June 12th will always be a “where were you” day and also a day to remind the world, we’re still here, and we are still standing – with Pride.
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old
Kimberly Morris, 37 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old
Amanda Alvear, 25 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old