These aren’t words I ever expected to hear connected to Orlando. Actually, that’s not true. I think most of us who live in the area, in the shadows of castles and other fantastic icons, in the post-9/11 world, have acknowledged the possibility. Of coordinated attacks against a park full of families. Of explosions and rubble. But a nightclub downtown? One person, armed with guns and a hate-filled heart?
I woke up to see a headline on my Facebook feed – a terror attack in Orlando, twenty dead.
It took another hour before the US media seemed comfortable mentioning that Pulse, the nightclub where the attack happened, was a gay club. (UK media, LGBT-centric websites, and my local Orlando friends all pointed it out immediately) It was my first inclination that this wasn’t just another mass shooting.* I don’t think I’ll ever know whether law enforcement was willing to say “terrorism” before they were willing to say “hate crime,” or if that’s just how the media was playing it – either out of fear of offending the victims and survivors or to focus on another narrative. But within hours, Orlando’s LGBT leaders were holding press conferences, offering support to the community, and taking control of the story by using the words that others in the public eye were unwilling to say:
This was a targeted attack against a specific population. These people, already marginalized by a huge percentage of the population, were targeted for nothing more than who they loved. These were not gang members or drug dealers. They were people enjoying a good time with friends. Most were gay. Some weren’t. Some just went to dance. Others worked at the club.
At a news conference around 10:30 am, Buddy Dyer updated the press. Initially they believed there were twenty dead inside the club. There were actually fifty. The gathered press audibly gasped. Sarah and I, sitting on the sofa eating cereal, froze. It’s a moment I will never forget. I looked over at her, and she was still, except for her trembling lower lip. My heart tightened, and time froze.
Fifty dead bodies.
Fifty-three injured in the local hospital.
Just over one hundred people hit by bullets, in one place, shot by one person. One hundred individual human beings literally physically impacted by his actions. Thousands of family and friends affected.
It didn’t take long before something amazing happened in the community: tens of thousands of people mobilized to give blood that very day. Those who couldn’t donate brought water, snacks, and umbrellas for the people standing in line in the sun. Local restaurants provided food free of charge. There was such a tremendous outpouring of love! Sarah and I tried to give blood that afternoon. The Big Red Bus was overwhelmed, and after an hour and a half of waiting (and eating and drinking and being loved on by strangers) we realized we wouldn’t be able to donate that day so we went home. I was so shocked and overwhelmed to see people in a fairly conservative corner of my world showing such support. Seriously. Even after seeing long donation lines in Orlando on TV, I thought Clermont would have its head in the sand. Sarah asked if I thought there would be a line, and I said that although I wanted to say yes, I seriously doubted it. I underestimated them.
I also underestimated the world.
London, New York, Los Angeles… it seemed as though every city in the western world had a rally or a vigil or a “come stand with us while we send love to Orlando” gathering. They came together to hug, cry, and show solidarity. And unlike the aftermaths of other international tragedies, when major icons in cities are lit with the colors of the flag of the country attacked, this time those same icons were lit with all colors of the rainbow.
One World Trade Center
The Eiffel Tower
Entire City Blocks
All beautiful rainbows.
The message was clear: while #orlandounited became the hashtag of choice, “Orlando” was simply a surrogate for LGBT. The world stood up and said “you have done nothing wrong.” “You deserve better.” “We love you and support you.”
We watched the Tony’s, and cried fresh tears as Lin Manuel Miranda proclaimed “love is love is love…”
Like a textbook grief sufferer, I hit the “anger” stage hard on Monday. I let hate seep in on my periphery in a way I never have before. I told Sarah that I wasn’t sure I could defend “those people” anymore. I just couldn’t say with conviction anymore that radical Islamic is not the same as Muslim. I started to think that my friends who say “how many times do they have to attack us before you believe they need to be stopped?” might’ve been right all along. Had I been naïve? Had my kindness been taken advantage of?
Yoda hit the nail on the head: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” But I never before realized it was a circle, and that the suffering led to more fear…more anger…more hate. My heart and mind were spiraling into a dark place. Work and the rest of the world continued around me, and I floated through, all the time wanting to dig in my heels and yell “I’m not done hurting!”
We went to a vigil in Downtown Orlando that night, on the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center. We broke out the rainbow tie-dye t-shirts we wore for the Rock ‘n Roll races in Brooklyn and Savannah for the occasion. I didn’t want to go. I’ve never been into public grief…or rallies…or large group things overall. But Sarah wanted to go, and I thought it would help her heal, so we went. And we met up with Amanda there. When we got there, we were surrounded by thousands of strangers – representing every letter of LGBTQ+, and also bikers, politicians, Muslims, allies, friends, journalists, and strangers. We were all so different, but brought together by the pain in our hearts. People handed out flowers and candles and bottles of water. Friends hugged and cried as they found each other in the crowd. Rainbow flags flew. We held hands and watched the spectacle. There were more smiles than tears. The lawn was full of love and joy.
I don’t remember all of the speakers, or what they said. I was heartened to hear Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs say, “we stand behind you,” but when she added “and we will stand in front of you and beside you,” my heart leaped in surprise. There were religious leaders saying prayers. There were community leaders promising support. The pastor of the AME church in Charleston, which suffered its own hate crime, brought me to tears. She must’ve said “love” a hundred times. “We love you.” “I love you.” And somewhere in her message, I realized what I knew all along – it’s not okay to hate. The day I allow myself to wallow in hatred of “those people,” evil has won. It felt like a gentle rebuke – a reminder of the way I was raised. The President of the HRC also spoke, and I don’t remember a single thing he said. But his words also lifted me up.
Someone at the vigil spoke about Pulse, and about its importance to the LGBT community. I realized then that it’s not EASY to be part of that alphabet soup, even when you live in a city as diverse as Orlando. For many people who go to these clubs, it is the one place where they feel free to take off their masks and be themselves. Where there are no bullies. For those of you who have ever had a guest-facing job at Disney, picture all the time working in the heat, reminding parents that it’s not safe for a toddler to stand on a 10-foot wall to watch a parade, answering the same question 100 times, and always have a smile on your face. Now picture that half hour in the break room where you get to relax your cheek muscles, make a sarcastic joke, and eat a sandwich. For many members of this community, their LIFE is lived “on stage,” and clubs are their respite. And today those safe havens are going to feel a little less safe.
Note: there was also a very strong anti-gun message woven through the vigil. I’m uncomfortable mixing grief with politics, but I understand the timing of a call to action.
All the Feels
Orlando is now part of an increasingly less exclusive club. In the past few days, Buddy Dyer has spoken with mayors from Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, New York... Obviously these folks can say "I know how you feel" in a way no one else can. It's wonderful that this unofficial fraternity supports one another, but terrible that it exists. I imagine the calls go something along the lines of "I'm sorry for your tragedy. Here's your grief manual. Here's the list of friendly members of the media. Let me know what I can do for you." The Aurora PD recorded a video for Orlando Police, saying "we're here for you." I dare you to watch it and remain emotionless.
It’s been fascinating to scroll through my Facebook feed recently. Many friends far and wide have proclaimed their solidarity with Orlando, and I don’t have any egotistical misconception that their gestures are in support of me personally. For the ones out of state, I happen to be geographically located near to the event. For the ones in state, I’m near the bottom of the list of people they know who might’ve been connected to Pulse. Still, I’ve gotten texts and calls and Facebook messages from a handful of friends and family, likely veiled attempts to check on my mental state, and I am grateful for their love and concern.
Here’s the weird thing with me - I don’t necessarily feel a deep connection to the Orlando LGBT community. I don’t actually easily, comfortably identify with any of those letters. I’m only half joking when I say “I’m not gay, but my girlfriend is.” All of my past romantic relationships have been with guys, and it surprised the heck out of me to realize that I had fallen in love with my best friend, who happens to be a woman. I’ve never been to a Pride event. I’ve only once been in a gay bar – on my 21st birthday, with Bill and his then boyfriend. I’m pretty sure that most of the people I work with don’t know the nature of my relationship with Sarah, although I’ve slowly gotten more comfortable using the phrase “my girlfriend” in mixed company. She was my date to two family weddings, and she’s in most of my Facebook photos. At this point, if any of my personal contacts haven’t connected the dots, they are severely unobservant! I don’t know who cares, who wants to know, who doesn’t want to know, who would be uncomfortable, or who would be supportive. I’d be lying if I said none of that matters, but I can say definitively that it doesn’t matter much.
Because of this complicated self-identity of mine, I sometimes feel like I’m not “grieving right.” I mean, this was an attack on a place I’ve never been, against people I didn’t personally know. So why can’t I get through a day without crying like a crazy person? Rationally, I know there’s no such thing as “grieving right,” but I’m a little sheepish about yelling “Hey! This affects me!” when I’ve never actually yelled “I’m gay!” But really, I think we’re all affected whether it’s personally, geographically, because we lost a loved one or friend, because we could’ve been there, or just because we’re members of the human race an capable of empathy. So I’m allowing my tears. I’m listening to friends who need to talk. I’m talking to friends willing to listen. I’m hugging – probably too long and too tight. I’m having angry conversations with God (though that’s a whole different topic for another day). I’m donating blood. I’m volunteering.
I’m proud to be a member on the outskirts of this community. My heart breaks for you, and with you. This shooting – this hate crime – has left its mark on me. But it’s also shown me that unimaginable love and support exists near and far, and given me the strength to keep moving forward. Orlando is stronger. The LGBT community will emerge from this stronger. And I’m hopeful that perhaps the world has come one step closer to understanding to appreciate differences instead of fearing or tolerating them.
* How the f--- did we get to a point where “just another mass shooting” is a thing people say with no irony behind the words??