This week marks the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The gay club was hosting Latin Night during Pride month when a 29-year-old regular there, Omar Mateen, charged past security. The internet-radicalized man opened fire on the club, which had nearly 320 patrons inside. In a three-hour storm of violence, Mateen killed 49 people before being shot by city police.
This article isn’t about that night, but rather how grieving communities chose to try to heal constructively in the year that followed.
Although there are reports of anti-Muslim incidents after the attack, they were not nearly as numerous as expected. With the exception of some tweets by then presidential-candidate Donald Trump, the reaction from Washington was largely sensitive and cohesive, and less politically exploitative than it could have been considering it was an opportune political time for Presidential race nominations. Locally, residents of Orlando did not make cohesive calls to boycott Muslim-owned businesses, shut down mosques, or deport religious minorities because of the incident.
The outpouring of support within the city immediately after the shooting was immense. The hospital two blocks away didn’t charge those trapped inside for their treatment. Houses of worship, including mosques, opened their doors to offer counseling and refreshments. People held vigils and fundraisers to directly aid the families of those killed. “Orlando Strong” became a city-wide mantra, with stickers and rainbow flags quickly popping up on the back of cars and through downtown windows.
Those from within and without the LGBT, Latino, and Islamic communities quickly flooded the club’s parking lot with flowers, photos, and candles. Several families and friends posted images of those they lost, showing visitors how incredibly young the victims were. Over half the victims were under 30, and all but two of the victims were under 40. The average age of the victims was 29.
Although the flowers are now wilted and the photos sun-bleached, the community memorial in the nightclub parking lot is still profoundly moving. I visited last month, and I was struck by how reverentially unpolished the monument remains. There is no publicly funded construction there, and the owners declined to sell the property in December. So, the site continues to host an organic collection of personal items placed by the victims’ families, handwritten notes by students, and Puerto Rican flags. The lack of engraved bronze and polished marble somehow makes the memories of the victims more accessible, the loss to the LGBT and Latino communities more palpable.
The steady stream of visitors, in the middle of a weekday, surprised me. There were individuals on foot who briefly paused on their walk to the bus stop or the Wendy’s across the street. A driver parked at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner rolled down her window to take pictures, either too hurried or emotional to get out of her car. Most of those taking their time at the club’s parking lot memorial appeared to be same-sex couples, walking hand in hand as they solemnly read the messages on the fence. Most cried. One male couple slowly took pictures with a high quality camera, perhaps tourists who wanted to witness Pulse as part of a vacation, or maybe as their ultimate destination. I wondered if they had lost a loved one that night.
The LGBT and Latino communities have paid the greatest honor to the victims outside the parking lot. It is what they did — and didn’t do — in the year after the shooting that truly honors the victims. They engaged in fervent peace building rather than backlash.
Moving on from that evening would never have been possible if not for their conscious choice to pull together across ideological differences with local Muslims. In the words of the Honor Them With Action campaign, Orlando’s residents “united in a commitment to challenge bigotry and hatred, not nourish it … at a moment when some sought to meet fear with fear and hate with hate.” Equality Florida, the largest LGBT organization in the state, described to me via email how survivors and their families committed immediately to combating hatred of all kinds. There was an “immediate solidarity and unity among the LGBT and Muslim community after Pulse.”
Even in the parking lot, I admired the pure positivity of the messages that mourners had scrawled in black marker. “Keep dancing” and “hugs not hate” were on nearly every section of the wall. Unlike any other memorial I have ever visited, the most common word among all the messages was “love.”
This year of healing has also entailed comparably little fascination with demonizing Mateen as a Muslim, instead focusing on his mental health. Such demonization would have been counterproductive, and complicated, because of the multiple identities he occupied as a Muslim, husband, and member of the queer community (albeit on the fringes of the latter).
A terrorist is someone who directs violence toward civilians to achieve ideological, political, or religious goals. Since 9/11, most Americans have conceived of a terrorist as heterosexual Muslim from the Middle East. One of the reasons the Orlando shooting was so meaningful is because it expanded our view of who a terrorist could be, including someone with sexual identity issues.
Although we can’t know what was in his mind, Mateen may have been ill at ease in both the Muslim and the LGBT communities. Research in the U.K.by Rusi Jaspal suggests that gay Muslims may adjust their responses to their sexual identities — by rebelling, conforming, innovating, retreating or merely keeping up appearances — based on the level of homophobia in their immediate surroundings. This means that turning to violence would be a reaction to a more religiously oppressive family.
Jaspal also found that queer Muslims in the West may blame their adopted countries for “making them gay.”He explains, “We tend to attribute aspects of our identity that we see as undesirable to external factors. This is a means of protecting one’s sense of self from threats.” Jaspal adds that even when trying to navigate the LGBT scene, gay Muslims may also experience Islamophobia from potential partners. This constitutes a double rejection in a sense. There are mixed reports on how other patrons at Pulse received Mateen when he had been there prior to the attack.
Whatever the reasons, Mateen manifested his hatred for others and for himself in the most violent way imaginable. Yet, there are fresh flowers among the wilted in the parking lot. Visitors continue to come to pay their respects. June 12 is officially “Orlando United Day — A Day of Love and Kindness,” where there will be memorial events at the site of the shooting and at downtown’s Lake Eola. The Council on American Islamic Relations and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community seem to remain stalwart in their condemnation of such hate crimes. Latino rights activists brought to the attention of authorities the gaps in interpretation and translation services for families during such an event. Most impressively, the LGBT community continues to channel their grief into awareness-raising, demonstrations, and fundraising for their causes, both domestically and internationally.
May Orlando’s LGBT population continue to be a model for all of us. They prove that even during the most divisive political times, we can, as a rainbow banner in the parking lot reads, “Love more, hate less.
*All Images via Author.