A year ago, during the first weekend in June, my non-profit organization hosted the Chester County Pride Festival and Gala Weekend in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was the largest event of our year and a first of its kind in our area.
The following week, physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted from the weekend festivities, we relived our accomplishments through photos shared on social media.
But, our afterglow was short-lived.
On the evening of June 11th, my wife, Fay, and I stayed at a hotel in Philadelphia so we could attend the Philly Pride Parade and Festival the next day. I forgot to charge my phone that evening, so the next morning we had no idea what had occurred over 1,000 miles away in Orange County, Florida during the early hours of June 12th.
Later that evening, after plugging my phone into the car outlet, I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. My phone flashed uncontrollably with missed texts and voicemail messages. My parents had both reached out to us several times, knowing we were in Philly and concerned by our whereabouts.
Over the next hour, I would learn about the 49 LGBTQ lives lost, the majority of whom were of Latino descent, and the additional 58 injured at Pulse Night Club, in the second deadliest event in US history, following 9/11.
By 7:00 PM, we had rallied our non-profit leaders to plan our next course of action. As a fairly new organization still exhausted from our suburban pride fest a week prior, we weren’t prepared to support our community following a tragedy of this magnitude. Still, we knew our community would need a space for healing.
Over the course of a week, we had organized a memorial service and vigil, collected $2500 in donations and created a rainbow banner of love to send to the Orlando LGBTQ Community Center, and hosted a support group to share conversation and create cards for families of Pulse.
The roller coaster of emotions experienced in the Philadelphia suburbs that week provided only a glimpse into the lives of Orlando residents and Pulse victim families.
Last weekend, after hosting our second Pride Weekend, Fay and I traveled to Orlando to properly honor the families, victims, and survivors of Pulse during the June 12th Orlando United Day.
Hundreds of people from near and far gathered outside of Pulse to pay their respects. Media lined the streets surrounding Pulse Night Club, in hopes of capturing the perfect video footage to memorialize the day’s events. Families donning t-shirts with images of their loved ones solemnly walked around the building leaving flowers, lighting candles and saying prayers as strangers comforted one another with hugs.
After saying a few prayers of our own near the memorial fence, Fay and I joined city officials, families, friends and area residents inside a guarded fence, shielded by Pulse angels, to mourn the loss of Pulse victims with a memorial service. We respectfully made our way to the back, then held hands as various speakers took to the podium to share words with the audience, the most powerful and memorable by Pulse Night Club Owner, Barbara Poma.
“What has changed in my life? Everything. I have seen hearts change. I have seen a community join together,” she said. “Today, we are here to honor our victims and their legacy. We are here to continue to support our survivors. We know their recovery will be life long. We are here to recognize our leaders.”
She continued. “I miss Pusle. I miss everything it stood for. It breaks my heart that our sanctuary was taken from you. We are OnePulse. We are OneLove.”
As we wiped tears from our cheeks, a mother and daughter nearby handed us tissues, then placed their hands on our backs as we listened together to The Fight Song and Beautiful City by the Orlando Gay Chorus.
Several speakers shared words that afternoon, including county commissioners, pastors, and other community leaders. Toward the end of the service, Mayor Buddy Dyer made his way to the podium to speak to the audience. “Today our community returns to Pulse. We are not here to relive the horror of that day. We are here to remember the innocent lives that were lost. We are here to salute the survivors.”
He then turned to the families. “We say thank you for your grace, for your determination and your love. We stand with you.”
Following the memorial service, Fay and I hugged our new friends and offered them words of peace and encouragement, then headed to Eola Park where the evening event, “Orlando Love: Remembering Our Angels,” would take place.
We watched performers take to the rainbow colored stage to rehearse, visited with local non-profit organizations and learned about the new Inspiration Orlando mural from artist Michael Pilato.
Around 6:00 PM, the families arrived, along with the rain. Thousands of residents, community leaders, families, survivors, and performers filled the park protected only by rainbow umbrellas and ponchos. The entertainment was delayed twice, due to rain, but by 8:00 PM, the rain had stopped and the entertainment began.
Once again, city leaders and speakers said a few words, many from earlier that day. Some repeated their speeches from the afternoon and others found new words to share – words of hope, encouragement, and unity intended to pave a path forward together.
Barbara Poma recalled conversations she had with families and survivors following the deadly shooting. When asked where we go from here, she simply said, “Forward.”
Several community leaders, first responders, and servicemen/women were honored and thanked, including the first openly gay elected official, Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who, according to the Orlando Sentinel, “helped guide the city’s June 12 plans with the input of Pulse survivors and the LGBTQ community”.
The event also featured moving performances by Puerto Rican recording artist, Olga Tañón, and Voice contestant and Florida resident, Sisaundra Lewis.
As the evening came to an end, I felt the same type of exhaustion that I had felt a year ago, although with an added sense of hope.
I will never fully understand what it felt like to be an Orlando LGBTQ and/or Latino resident on June 12, 2016. As a resident of the Philadelphia suburbs, that day and those that followed were horrific. So, I can only begin to imagine the grief, sadness, and post-traumatic stress induced by the Pulse Massacre on area residents and families over the past year.
United Orlando Day provided exactly what it had promised – a day of remembrance, reflection, and rejuvenation. It was an honor to be in Orlando to witness the strength of the LGBTQ community and the support of city leaders.