One year ago today, the massacre at Pulse nightclub — killing 49, one of the largest mass shootings in United States history — tragically revealed that LGBTQ people across the country are still targets of violence and discrimination, particularly queer people of color. What had been a safe space to so many in Orlando’s community had become the setting for the worst hate crime against LGBTQ people in American history.
I reached out to community leaders in Orlando to ask how they remembered that tragic day, and how they think their community has healed and worked through their loss together.
The Shadow of June 12
Nancy Rosado is an LGBTQ activist and Puerto Rican community organizer in the Orlando area. She worked for the NYPD on Sept. 11, 2001, and has dedicated her life to alleviating the mental health consequences of responding to and witnessing mass tragedy.
Rosado was one of the first people to be called the morning of June 12. The body count from the Pulse nightclub shooting was still unconfirmed, but as names started to be released, it was clear that most of the victims were Latinx, particularly of Puerto Rican descent. Many of their families only spoke rudimentary English, a secondary tongue not suitable to communicate the nuance of such tragic news. Rosado remembers how most of the hospital staff did not speak Spanish, and consistently mispronounced the Hispanic names of the victims.
“Anxious loved ones were unsure if their daughters, sons, and partners were alive or dead,” Rosado said. Even in death, being non-white required more emotional labor.
In the aftermath of tragedy, a clear and powerful unity arose between communities in Orlando. During the holy month of Ramadan, American Muslims — fasting during the day, and eating and drinking water only after sunset — donated blood in droves to help cover the sudden needs of Pulse survivors. Local evangelical churches held prayer vigils and services of remembrance, and Pastor Joel Hunter of Northland Church — the largest single religious congregation in the Orlando area — participated in a news conference of community leaders the day following the shooting.
The Republican mayor of Orange County, which encompasses Orlando, and the Democratic mayor of the city of Orlando worked together to ensure that aid was being distributed and that local government was doing all it could after the tragedy. In the weeks after the shooting, OneOrlando — a partnership between Orlando’s mayor Buddy Dyer, Equality Florida, the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, and the National Compassion Fund — raised nearly $30 million dollars for families and loved ones of the victims.
As time progressed, and most of the nation’s attention shifted back to the upcoming presidential election, the Orlando community was left to heal and rebuild together. The Pulse mass shooting had exposed a stark necessity for organizations and institutions founded by people of color, for people of color.
The Pulse fund that collected nearly $30 million dollars held town hall meetings for the families and partners of victims and survivors — but, according to Rosado, failed to provide adequate translation services to Spanish so that the many Latinx families could fully understand and contribute to the conversation. And many in the Puerto Rican community in Orlando were frustrated that Mayor Dyer failed to appoint a single Puerto Rican person to the Pulse Memorial Fund Board, though more than half of those who died at Pulse were of Puerto Rican descent.
In the year since the tragedy, the larger Latinx community in Orlando has also had to confront the limitations of its existing institutions. The intentions of major Latinx organizations, like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “were in the right place, but many of them had historically erased LGBTQ people from their organizations,” Rosado said.
For many Latinx people living in the United States, including recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and other countries, conservative tradition teaches a rejection of and/or disengagement from queer issues. Many Latinx families find their spiritual home in Pentecostal and evangelical churches, where they are taught that the LGBTQ “lifestyle” runs contrary to Scripture. Even secular Latinx organizations have had trouble bridging this gap, which the Pulse massacre revealed
This has lit a fire underneath the Latinx LGBTQ community in Orlando.
A few weeks after the shooting, Nancy Rosado, with the aid of the Hispanic Federation, founded Proyecto Somos Orlando, which offers mental health and immigration services to the survivors and families of Pulse in a culturally competent way. Another group of grassroots activists founded an organization specifically tailored for queer people of color in the Orlando area, called QLatinX. They host informational and social events for the community, and provide a safe space for their community post-Pulse. New organizations like these are being funded by the Contigo Fund, an initiative started by the affluent South Florida LGBTQ community, in solidarity with queer people in the greater Orlando area.
And many evangelical leaders in the area have been confronted by the scale of violence that religious exclusion can help cause. In December, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a Republican with deeply held religious views, declared she had changed her mind on LGBTQ issues and now endorses full equality. Pastor Joel Hunter, days after the Pulse shooting, declared that “evangelicals must repent of LGBTQ oppression.” Since then, Pastor Hunter has continued the conversation within his church, inviting Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project to hold a discussion on the biblical arguments around LGBTQ inclusion and how conservative churches can help bridge gaps on varying interpretations of Scripture.
While few churches in the region have changed their theology toward queer sexuality and identity, for many of those affected by the Pulse shooting, faith has been a balm in the face of intense suffering. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan mentioned how important her faith has been to her since the Pulse tragedy. And Rosado said she has found faith to be a healthy method to process the trauma and sadness of Pulse — she regularly attends a United Church of Christ congregation, and her pastor held a vigil in the weeks after Pulse to honor the victims of the shooting and lift up the city in prayer. And many local churches held memorial services for the grieving families, comforting many of them in their darkest night of the soul.
Orlando in Trump-led America
Five months after the Pulse shooting, local LGBTQ activist and political operative Carlos Guillermo Smith became the first openly gay Latino man to be elected to the Florida House of Representatives. For the Latinx LGBTQ community of Orlando, this was a small victory in a political climate that seemed to be violently turning against them.
Rep. Smith said the election of Donald Trump was “re-traumatizing” and “triggering” for many of the victims and loved ones of those affected by Pulse. For those in Orlando, Trump’s campaign rhetoric against immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, and the anti-LGBTQ advisers he surrounded himself with, were affronts to their dignity as LGBTQ Latinxs. As the state of Florida voted for Trump, the election was seen by many as a cultural validation of his divisive ideology.
But leaders like Smith have not given up the fight for social justice. He introduced a bill earlier this year to ban assault weapons and, in the announcement of the proposed legislation, Smith and his co-signing representatives said that they were fulfilling a campaign promise to the families and loved ones of the victims of Pulse. Smith is also working to rally support across party lines to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Florida anti-discrimination statute. In Congress, Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando (the first Puerto Rican to be elected to Congress from Florida) has co-sponsored the Equality Act, which makes it a federal crime to discriminate against individuals for their sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, business, and government.
Their focus goes beyond LGBTQ safety and protection from discrimination. Rep. Smith pointed out that Florida is 50th in the nation in mental health care funding, with poor communities of color suffering disproportionately. Nancy Rosado, with her experience engaging with NYPD officers post-9/11, has dedicated her organization, Proyecto Somos Orlando, to tackle issues of access of mental health to communities of color. She said she saw a lack of cultural competency in the hospitals that cared for Pulse survivors and victims, citing the need to have translation services and Spanish-speaking mental health professionals; Proyecto Somos Orlando helps fill in the gaps for the families and individuals that have been personally affected by Pulse.
The Legacy of Pulse
In all of my conversations with community leaders in Orlando, the most surprising element in their experiences the past year is the hope that has pervaded the community. In the face of the senseless violence of Pulse, and the validation of anti-Latinx sentiment through the election of Trump, the community has remained resilient and forward-looking.
Being a gay Latino immigrant from Florida myself, I’ve struggled to find inspiration from our current historical moment. Perhaps I haven’t been looking in the right places. Local trailblazing organizations like QLatinX are creating spaces at intersections that have been historically ignored by society. Traditionally conservative churches are beginning to wrestle with their beliefs and are starting to work toward needed reconciliation.
In my conversation with Commissioner Patty Sheehan, she opened up about her personal religious story: She grew up Catholic, attended an evangelical congregation to attempt to “change” her sexuality, and then settled into atheism for most of her adult life. That all changed when Sheehan confronted her problems with alcoholism five years ago and found a home in a welcoming and affirming church in Orlando. Sheehan’s story arc is a fundamentally biblical one, tracing a theme of redemption also seen in Orlando — a demonstration to the world that resurrection triumphs over death, that one can trade ashes for pride and beauty.