When the Unimaginable Happens
One of my favorite times to travel is my birthday (June 10). This year we found discounted last-minute fares to Europe, and so on June 9 we set off to Oslo, Norway, for a quick trip.
We spent two great days in Oslo and then headed to Amsterdam on June 12. We woke up early that morning, excited for our busy day ahead. While getting ready to walk to Oslo Central Station to catch our train to the airport, I received a text message from my best friend that read, “Mass shooting at Pulse tonight.”
This must be some kind of mistake, I thought. It was hard to believe something like that could happen at Pulse, a safe place. But as we searched the Internet, our hearts sank. It was true. Since we were six hours ahead of Orlando, the shooting had only recently happened and details were limited. The first report we could find was a BBC article with the headline “A shooting has been reported at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The attacker is said to have taken hostages.”
So many questions raced through our heads: Did we know anyone who was there? Are our friends OK? How could this happen? Why would anyone shoot people at Pulse? Will we ever be safe again? Why a gay bar?
It would be a long time until we got some of these answers.
Trying to Understand What Was Happening
The day went on, and the news got worse. When we landed in Amsterdam, our phones began to vibrate with texts from friends and family members asking if we were safe. Many also shared whatever details they knew about the shooting.
At one point we received a text message from Brandon’s sister that read, “50 people dead.” Brandon started to cry, and I looked at him and said, “No, that’s not possible.” Up to this point the only thing we knew was that the shooter had taken hostages and that there may be as many as 20 dead, a number I thought was sensationalized and would eventually be lowered. I asked Brandon to wait until the police released more information. I didn’t want to give in to what, at that time, I assumed was nothing more than rumors.
Later that day we got another text from a friend reporting 50 dead, and again I thought it was impossible. Finally, after a long day of driving through the Dutch countryside we got back to the hotel and turned on the only English news station available. We sat on the edge of the bed in shock as we watched the news and tried to reply to all the text messages we had received during the day.
Reality finally sank in: Although we didn’t directly know any of the victims, we knew our city was attacked, and our community was suffering. 49 innocent people dead and 53 injured.
Helpless. That’s the only word I can use to describe how we felt. Here we are on vacation while our friends and community have been attacked.
That night we laid together in bed, holding each other and reflecting on the number of lives lost. The next morning, we quietly got ready, only getting about 3 hours of sleep, and headed to the airport. Not knowing what else to do we held each other close. I placed my head on Brandon’s shoulder as we waited to board our flight. When it was time to board, we held hands and walked down the jetway knowing that so much had changed for so many people in our community. Holding hands and showing our love was the only thing we could do to show our support.
When we landed in Orlando we could feel the city’s sorrow. Later that night we joined thousands at a vigil for the victims at the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. The vigil ended with the sounding of a bell for each of the 49 victims of the shooting. It seemed as if the bell would never stop ringing. It was a moving moment that cemented the incredible magnitude of this tragedy.
More Than a Nightclub
The shooter targeted more than a nightclub—he targeted our hearts. You see, a gay nightclub is more than a gathering place. It’s more than just a place to get together with friends, dance, or enjoy a drink. Pulse nightclub and other LGBTQ establishments like it are, as President Barack Obama aptly put it, places “of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” More importantly, this was a place where we felt safe to be ourselves. To express our love without judgement. It is incredibly unjust that the place that for so long was a safe haven for the LGBTQ community was the same place where so many took their last breaths.
Pulse was one of the first places I felt comfortable to be myself after coming out to my family and friends. It gave me hope that life could be better. I found comfort in being with people that accepted me just the way I was, and it was a huge part of my personal growth. Brandon and I have spent many nights at Pulse. We are better people because of our experiences there.
In the days after the shooting, Orlando has come together, united by love. There’s a certain vibration here that you feel while being in the city. It makes you feel connected. We are #OrlandoStrong and #OrlandoUnited.