ANALYSIS | Five years after the Pulse shooting, they now use political power to heal

(CNN) – Gay bars and clubs are joyful havens where members of a marginalized community can turn to escape the institutions and families that too often harm them. People in the LGBTQ community can get together, enjoy drinks, and maybe freak out to the beat of the pop hymns of your favorite divas.What made the June 2016 massacre so horrible at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was how the attack completely violated that sense of liberation. It was the Latin night of the club, and as old and new friends from across the diaspora laughed and danced to the tune of bachata and reggaeton, pride turned into pain and tragedy when a gunman killed 49 people. Most of the dead were Latino.

A June 13, 2016 memorial service for the victims of the Pulse club shooting in Orlando, Florida.

“The term ‘safe space‘It has been perverted, especially by those who use it as a club against people who believe they are not’ strong enough ‘to live in the real world, ”said Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor. “But safe spaces are necessary for LGBTQ people.”

To understand the importance of places like Pulse, it must be taken into account that this has been a record year for bills against trans people in state chambers across the country. On June 1, the first day of Pride Month, Florida became the eighth state in 2021 to ban transgender girls and women from public high schools and colleges from participating in women’s sports teams.

DeSantis signs law banning transgender sports 1:32

In the five years since one of the worst mass shootings in American history, some Pulse survivors and other members of Florida’s LGBTQ community have turned their agony into fuel to break the status quo, because the stakes it is nothing less than your survival.

Turn agony into fuel

Wolf was not an activist before the killings.

He was a normal guy. He had built a career at Starbucks, where he worked for about 12 years and rose to the rank of store manager.

Wolf attended the Pulse with his friend Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Juan Ramón Guerrero, Leinonen’s partner. Both were among the club goers who were fatally shot.

The days immediately after the shooting were murky for Wolf and filled with grief and funerals. However, over time, “I found a purpose that came out of pain,” she said.


Christine Leinonen, mother of Christopher Andrew Leinonen, is comforted by Brandon Wolf (left) and José Arriagada (right), survivors of the Pulse club massacre.

In July 2016, in honor of his friend, Wolf helped launch the initiative The Dru Project, a volunteer organization that creates curricula for gay-straight alliances in high schools and offers scholarships to students who embody the principles of inclusion and unity.

Three years later, he joined Equality Florida as director of media relations and began to address LGBTQ equality more broadly.

“At the time of the shooting, my focus was very limited. It was: if we get this person elected or if we get this law to the finish line, we will have made the 49 victims proud, “said Wolf. But as I go through the work, I realize that we have a lot more to do. And if we are really going to honor the victims, we have to fundamentally change the way we treat each other.

Christopher Cuevas, former CEO of QLatinx, a community organization that was formed after the Pulse shooting to empower Latino members of Central Florida’s LGBTQ community, agreed with some of Wolf’s sentiments.

“It will take a lot of people a lifetime to recover from the trauma of the shooting,” said Cuevas, who considers himself non-binary and uses the English pronoun “they.” “But one way that people affected by violence can process trauma and confront oppressive systems is through the construction of their political identity.”

In other words, QLatinx is not just about healing. It is also about channeling into the defense the anguish that he feels at having been deprived of his people and his place.


Christopher Cuevas

Cuevas also spoke of the HR 49, a bill the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed in May that would designate the nightclub site as a national monument. (The House passed a similar bill last year, but it stalled in the Senate.)

“The commemoration would not only honor the 49 people who were taken from us,” they said. “I would also acknowledge the political work that has grown out of that tragedy, a tragedy that has influenced the LGBTQ equality movement in Central Florida and the nation.”

Ongoing political battles

Florida State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is the first Latino LGBTQ person elected to the Florida Legislature, panicked when he learned of the massacre at the Pulse club.

“I thought, ‘How can I determine who was there? It’s a gay club on a Latin night, and I am gay and Latino and I live in the city. All the people I know could have been there, ‘”he told CNN.


Carlos Guillermo Smith, representative for the state of Florida.

Unsurprisingly, gun control became a key issue for him.

“The first bill I introduced after taking office in November 2016 was a bill to ban attack weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines,” explained Smith, who is also the head of special projects for Equality Florida.

“It was the first bill I introduced for obvious reasons: It is important to make sure that we honor them (the 49 victims) with actions, that we elevate community campaigns with legislation to restrict the types of weapons that have killed people in our community. ».

But he underscored the profound difficulty of passing gun control legislation due to Republican obstruction.

“The Florida Legislature will remain the Florida Legislature,” Smith said archaically. Republicans have a majority in both houses. Every year for the past five years, I have been the main sponsor of the bill to ban attack weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, and it has never achieved a single legitimate audience.

He also has his eye on other issues.

“Republican Ron DeSantis, governor of the state where the Pulse attack occurred, began the first day of Pride Month by promulgating a ban on anti-trans sports and sending a message of hatred and exclusion to the transgender child population,” said the Democratic legislator. . And then the next day vetoed funding for Pulse survivors. It’s just cruel.

Barbara Poma, founder and executive director of the OnePulse Foundation, a local nonprofit created after the shooting, laid out an equally broad vision to advance LGBTQ equality. (Poma also owns the Pulse nightclub.)


Barbara poma

“The foundation focuses on what we call our four pillars: the Pulse memorial, the Pulse museum, our educational programs and our legacy scholarships,” he said. “But the pillars are not just what happened in Pulse. They also deal with the history of LGBTQ people in this country, and the struggles they face today.

In fact, five years later, thinking about the 49 disco goers who were massacred while having fun is still a blow to the stomach for many LGBTQ people. This is because violence, even fear of it, continues to determine how community members function in the world around them.

Or as Wolf puts it: “The ingredients of anti-LGBTQ violence are still here.”

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