One year ago, 49 lives were taken at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Fifty-three survivors — most LGBTQ — still bear physical scars. Thousands lost loved ones, friends or a sense of home.
It may never be known whether the gunman behind the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history targeted Pulse on June 12, 2016, because it was an LGBTQ club filled with people of color. But that’s who he hurt the most, and the small, increasingly vocal community at the intersection of those identities want its stories to be known.
For some people, the motive is less important than the pain. They want to be visible. But not like this. Not under the uncomfortable gaze of the international media, as victims or political pawns, but as whole persons.
“We’ve been here all along,” said Nancy Rosado, an Orlando activist and expert in post-traumatic stress. “The community of color has been here all along.”
A Hispanic lesbian, she understands the struggle of feeling overlooked. Pastor Debreita “Brei” Taylor, the leader of a nondenominational Orlando church with a mission to welcome the LGBTQ community, nodded in her seat next to Rosado. She lamented the fact that the nine African Americans who were killed at Pulse typically received less attention than their white and Hispanic counterparts.
“It’s never spoken about,” she said. “That is a continuation of erasing a community that says that we’re forever overlooked.”
But they and their communities are finding support in one another. Since the massacre, this partnership has blossomed into nonprofits that provide much-needed mental healthcare, language classes and support groups that speak to the communities they serve.
They’re doing their best to a build a safety net that never existed before. But there are still gaps.
Pulse was a home, a place where a diverse spectrum of people could feel comfortable. The black community feels it has been sidelined in the narrative of the attack and its fallout. Unmarried LGBTQ couples with families have trouble accessing benefits in a system that wasn’t built for their partnerships.
And overall, the powers-that-be were ill-equipped to handle tragedy in the LGBTQ community of color. Some victims were outed because of Pulse. There were undocumented survivors who were scared to come forward afterward if it meant an FBI interview. Money set aside for victims got caught up in court arguments between biological and chosen families.
“They never planned for us. They never planned to take care of us,” Rosado said. “And it cuts through down to the bone.”
#WeExist or #OrlandoUnited?
On a blisteringly sunny Thursday a few weeks before the one-year mark, a handful of mourners clustered at the memorial that dresses the chain link fence outside the shuttered Pulse nightclub.
A short, black woman knelt below the collage of pictures, poems and messages to a bright yellow pot, one of 49 bordering the tarp shielding the wreckage of the club. She straightened the sagging succulent and turned the pot so the name on its rim was visible — Tevin Crosby.
When Crosby’s mother wanted to know what happened to her son, she picked up the phone in North Carolina and dialed Charlotte “ChaCha” Davis in Orlando.
Members of the black LGBTQ community in Orlando don’t have a nonprofit that caters to their culture. They have ChaCha.
“I’ve always been the crisis advocate,” Davis said. “I’ve been there for every funeral, every birth, every family emergency.”
Davis worked as a club promoter in Orlando for more than a decade. She moved away a week before the shooting, but the day she got the call she came right back to her people. All of her possessions are still in a Fort Lauderdale storage unit.
She stepped into the role of community advocate. She brought candles and bottled water to vigils. She consoled loved ones. She cooked their meals and planned memorial events.
“It was like ‘ChaCha, ChaCha, ChaCha, ChaCha,’ ” she said, stomping her feet into the pavement. “I’ve been on the beat like this.”
Davis is the person Emily Addison calls when her grief keeps her awake. Addison’s partner of seven years, Deonka Drayton, was killed in the shooting.
They never legally married, and Addison said she never felt accepted by Drayton’s family.
Although Addison may not have a marriage license, she carries a stack of papers — printed-out Instagram photos, doctor’s notes, rent checks and shared bills — that document their lives together.
Even at the hospital, Addison had to show staff pictures of the couple on her phone to convince them to give her any information on Drayton. Only Drayton never made it to the hospital. She died inside Pulse.
“I have been proving I was a part of someone’s life since that day,” Addison said.
The OneOrlando fund, created by the city after the Pulse shooting, gave 308 people more than $31 million. Drayton’s family got its share for her death. Only a small amount went to Addison.
At her partner’s funeral, “I was treated like a stranger,” Addison said.
As the one-year mark approaches, Addison’s grief is still fresh. She can’t stand the memories she feels driving down the same streets and walking into the same stores. She’s moving out of the city with her three children.
“All these signs saying Orlando United and Orlando Strong just hurt me,” she said. “I feel like if you need to portray Orlando as united, then act like it.”
The ubiquitous rainbow #OrlandoUnited rubs Davis the wrong way, too. She prefers her own hashtag — #WeExist.
Davis and others in Orlando’s LGBTQ black community said they feel like “double minorities,” excluded from their racial community for their sexual orientation and from the larger LGBTQ community because of their race.
“No one knows I’m gay until I tell them, but this,” Davis said, touching her arm, “is something I can’t deny.”
Building new communities
Etched forever in ink on his right forearm in their native Spanish, activist Ricardo Negron-Almodovar carries a quote from Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti.
“Cuando los odios andan sueltos, uno ama en defensa propia.” When hatred runs loose, one loves in self-defense.
Underneath, the peaks of an EKG line frame a heart with “6/12/16” in the middle, the date of the massacre. The date when he escaped with his life. The night he doesn’t discuss very much at all.
“It is still, in some moments, mentally draining,” he said, sitting in a space he helped create to help others like him. He’s the director of Proyecto Somos Orlando, (Project We Are Orlando), a nonprofit center formed after Pulse that aims to serve the Latinx community with culturally sensitive services. This includes everything from counseling to support groups to English classes to HIV testing.
Somos Orlando seeks to fill part of that gap that was revealed after the massacre. The office in a nondescript building south of Orlando is one of the organizations that have formed to provide a space for the LGBTQ community of color, particularly the Latinx community. The term “Latinx” is a gender-neutral pronoun that replaces the male and female Spanish pronouns. It is meant to be more inclusive.
A group called QLatinx meets every week at Somos Orlando to discuss issues in their community that no one else understands: the struggle of being undocumented and in the closet, the language barrier, the pain of holding back your identity from family — all obstacles amplified after the shooting.
“You went through this horrible experience, and you can’t tell your family. Who are you supposed to tell?” Negron-Almodovar said. “You can’t tell your family that you moved here to give a better life to them back home, but you can’t tell them that you went through this, because you can’t tell them you’re gay.”
The group recently convened to talk about self-care, a timely issue as the anniversary of the shooting looms large. The rainbows, memorials and emotional Facebook posts can trigger a cascade of emotions.
Christopher Cuevas, executive director of QLatinx, said his community was brought to the forefront after Pulse, but struggles to remain visible outside safe spaces like Somos Orlando. Sometimes, it’s even tough around family.
“It’s also a journey of acceptance for the family,” he said. “That’s become an important part of the conversation.”
In each other, they find a chosen family. But they wish they could feel just as comfortable in everyday life in Orlando.
That sense of belonging feels distant for QLatinx attendees Sonia and Andrea Parra.
Sonia started going to Pulse when she was in high school. When she got married, she danced there with her wife, Andrea, and she almost went on June 11 to celebrate a former coworker’s birthday. Her five coworkers — and two other friends — were killed early the next morning.
Ever since the attack, they’ve felt the fault lines in their city. Neighbors who once smiled at the couple and wished them “good morning” went silent when the couple plastered their car with rainbow stickers in the wake of Pulse.
Just a few weeks after the shooting, their daughter came running home in tears. A neighbor told her she wasn’t allowed to play with her son anymore — the same boy who got her a Frozen-themed jewelry box for her ninth birthday and came to every sleepover — because she had two moms.
When Sonia marched down the street to confront the mother, her neighbor told her she “didn’t feel it was appropriate” for her son to be near “bad influences.”
“Pulse opened up wounds,” Andrea Parra said. “It doesn’t feel safe.”
Starting the conversation
In a modest warehouse development nestled in an industrial section of Orlando, Pastor Brei greeted a few dozen people at her church.
Her crimson curls framed her warm expression as she welcomed those walking into Oasis Fellowship Ministries. After attendees took their seats, she explained the significance of the space she has created there.
“We are intentionally inclusive,” she told he audience. “We are intentionally, on purpose, activists and advocates.”
Her use of the collective “we” carried a special meaning that night. A panel of six local activists — white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay — had convened to discuss racism and discrimination in the LGBTQ community.
Davis had invited the group to tackle the uncomfortable topic, sparking a nuanced conversation about how to recognize differences across communities, embrace their diversity and unify to support each other.
A panel theme was to get the world outside to recognize that they exist and that they want to be included.
Panelist Kent Marrero, a Puerto Rican Orlando resident who identifies outside of the gender binary (not specifically male or female), talked about the emerging conversations on the “queer experience.”
Marrero prefers to be called “they” instead of “he” or “she.” Usually, Marrero identifies primarily as either Latinx or LGBTQ, depending on whom they are talking to. Marrero and other LGBTQ people of color are now beginning to talk about what it means to belong to multiple communities.
“There’s been a shift in how we talk about ourselves. Specifically, that we talk about ourselves,” Marrero said in an interview with the Miami Herald.
Concrete needs — mental healthcare, financial support, visibility — are still unmet for many in the LGBTQ community, but discourse is now a first step for people who feel left behind.
Some panelists, like Tricia Duncan, founder of Orlando Black Pride, were skeptical of prioritizing talk over action. But she later said it opened her eyes and reminded her that the broader LGBTQ community of color does have allies — and they’re ready to get to work.
“I needed to hear other people who aren’t black say ‘I hear you, and I’m with you,’ ” Duncan said. “I’m looking forward to where we can go.”
McClatchy videographer Jessica Koscielniak contributed to this report.