It doesn't feel right to keep publishing entries as normal, as things are not normal and not okay. Allow me to take a moment to get my thoughts out.
On June 12th, at the height of Gay Days and national Pride Month, a spineless man walked into a LGBTQ nightclub at the south end of Downtown Orlando and changed lives forever. He killed 49 beautiful people, committing the worst mass shooting in the US since the mid-20th century. While the 24-hour new cycle has led to endless speculation about organized terrorism ties, I have no doubt in my mind that he killed them because they were Latinx (looking at photos of the beautiful souls gone, they are almost all black and brown) and because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or any other sexual identification that this cold-blooded murderer did not agree with.
All of this is awful as it is. It is horrific -- so much mourning, so much unnecessary bloodshed, and so much pain. But every time I hear a news report that mentions the "Orlando" shootings, I twinge just a little more.
Orlando means a great deal to a lot of people. Orlando means a great deal to the LGBTQ+ community. Orlando means the world to me.
I grew up in an exurb of Orlando. I cheered for the Magic and spent entire homeroom class periods in middle school celebrating when the team made it to the NBA Finals. I saw concerts and ice skating shows at the old O-rena and have deeply seeded memories of the steps at the edge of Loch Haven Park, remembering field trips to the Science Center (the old or new one). I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel as a teenager.
The Sentinel had a circulation of over 100,00 and covered six counties in Florida. That is a lot of ground. And it covered so much because Orlando is a peak in the middle of valleys. There are many sleepy and often deeply Southern towns in the Central Florida area, many of which have also seen a rapidly rising Latinx population over the last few decades. Many of these towns, like the one I grew up in, have few opportunities for young people and some seem to be stuck in regressive cultural norms.
But Orlando. Home to Parliament House, Southern Nights, The Venue, the Fringe Festival, Gay Days at all of the major theme parks, and Pulse Nightclub. Not to mention the University of Central Florida, with the second largest student population in the country, and also my alma mater; a massive student population (and number of students who stay in Orlando after graduation) brings the average age of the city down a few notches. Orlando is a place where so many people from both the City Beautiful Proper and the surrounding areas gather to experience respite from sometimes backward views in surrounding towns.
Despite many aspects of its reputation, Orlando is more progressive than essentially all of its surrounding areas. Orange County, where the city is located, passed legislation in 2010 that protected workers and people in general from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. With the exception of some other major cities (Tampa, West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami), the remainder of the state lags behind in that area.
Thus, people from all around the region (and there are a lot of them) flock to Orlando, and not just for the theme parks. I have seen so many reflections of friends in the past few days stating that they either did not come out or did not come to terms with their sexuality until moving to Orlando. Many of the men and women killed late Saturday lived in surrounding counties. One of them was from the town I grew up in. They had gone to Pulse that night to be themselves.
I moved to Orlando proper (the east end) in 2001 when I started college. In my teenage dreams and based on the brochures I got after I took my PSATs, I was off to the west coast. Seattle. Portland. Heck, anywhere west would do -- even Florida State. But I ended up at the closest and cheapest school to me, and have never regretted the choice. UCF, and Orlando as a whole, were so formative for me in every way imaginable as a person, as a musician, and as an educator. Anything you've read on my blog would not exist had it not been for my experiences at UCF and in Orlando.
It broke my heart to move at the end of college, but a job and new opportunities awaited me. I was only three hours south, but anyone who knows Florida geography knows that is worlds away. I went back to visit so often that it put a strain on my relationship that apparently was too great to bear. Luckily, when I met my husband, he was also a UCF alumni and didn't mind sharing me with the City Beautiful. We got married in Winter Park (directly north of Orlando) and had our post-wedding party downtown. People have told me that visiting the city with me has changed their minds about Orlando. I've now lived away from Orlando more years than I actually lived in it, but my love for the city has never ever waned. I have been her champion and defender from afar.
What happened there early Sunday morning shocked and horrified me, as it did everyone. I hardly got out of bed the rest of the day, after the first notice of what we would eventually find out was a massacre. My mother and I cried while watching ol' Buddy Dyer on national television, correcting the numbers and letting us know that it wasn't 20 people who were killed inside of Pulse, it was 50. I watched the crews gather on Orange Avenue and Kaley, close to where one of my best friends used to live. I had eaten at that Dunkin Donuts I kept seeing on CNN. When another friend used o live near Lake Lucerne, I would visit and we'd walk downtown, immediately north of where Pulse is located, never afraid. I know all of those streets too well.
Later on Sunday morning, I started to text my friends who I knew were in Orlando. I had many LGBTQ friends in college and many who still live in & contribute to the City of Orlando. I checked in with everyone and found them all to be safe and well. Some of my friends did not find everyone safely.
In college, I had many LGBTQ friends from the marching band, and we had all experienced 9/11 together. On that day, I was 18 years old and had just moved away from home. So had my nextdoor dorm neighbor, who marched piccolo with me and was from Long Island. Her father was in New York City that day, and eventually made it home. We stayed together all day and organized transportation from campus to local blood banks. On that night, my mother cried on the phone with me and wanted me to come home, but I knew I had to stay in my dorm with my friend. She needed me. That same friend was in my wedding 10 years later, as I had been in hers, and she made my wedding cake.
Several people I spoke to on Sunday who lived back in Orlando told me that the shootout at Pulse felt similar, emotionally, to 9/11. The scale is incomparable, but the waiting and worrying to hear whether or not loved ones had been slaughtered by those who profess hate felt very similar.
I didn't know anyone who died on 9/11. And I didn't personally know anyone who died in the Pulse nightclub this past weekend. But my friends did. I surely had passed some of those murdered in various places in Orlando, even at UCF, over the years. There was at least one victim who I probably chatted with on the UCF Live Journal community, circa 2003. On any other given night, someone I loved very much could have been at Pulse and could have been cut down in an instant.
To know that these unspeakable hate crimes happen at all is heartbreaking. To know that they happen to friends of your friends in your hometown is shattering.
The man who committed this atrocity drove in from another town -- another sleepy, somewhat Southern town two hours away from Orlando that people long to get out of. He was not of Orlando. He was not of the community.
If he were, I don't think he would have done what he did. Because he would have realized that even mass murder would be foolish and in vain. The community is too tightly wound, too close together, too small but always making room for newcomers. And yes -- the murderer targeted people, specifically, at a gay club on Latino night where there were trans performers on the bill. But those people, all of them, were a part of the Orlando community. They were contributors to the city, and they are mourned by people all across the city.
Some poor excuse for skin and bones thought that he could right whatever wrong he perceived in terms who people loved, how they identified, and where they came from. What he didn't know is that he stomped on a community who valued all of those people, and who will in return make sure that the world knows that every single one of their lives mattered.
I wish there was never a chance to show the world how wonderful Orlando is. I wish it could have stayed a secret, and that the people who were murdered in the place they went to be themselves were still with us. I don't often fantasize about time travel, but I don't think I'm alone in wishing upon wish that someone could employ a device to change this particular course of events.
But this horror did happen. And if you think that the City of Orlando has done a fitting job so far in honoring the lives of those lost this past weekend, with blood donation lines wrapped around city blocks, donors of every race and creed and age waiting up to 10 hours to give, and literally millions of dollars put forth for the cause, you have seen nothing as of yet.
I would give anything to change the circumstance. But that is what I am proud to call my home.
To add your donations to the cause, go here.
[Lightly updated & edited for clarity, June 12th, 2017]