While Politicians Argue Terror vs. Gun Control, Orlando's Gay Community’s Sense of Safety Is Shattered

'No matter whether he pledged allegiance to ISIS or not, it’s a hate crime targeting our community,' says Alex Mena, whose birthday celebration on Saturday morphed into tragedy, a seminal moment that to the gay community would go down in history as a kind of 9/11.

A memorial outside The Stonewall Inn remembering the victims of the Orlando massacre in New York, U.S., June 13, 2016.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - Lauren Wright and Evelyn Ruiz go to Pulse almost every week. But on this particular Saturday, they weren’t in the mood for a late night, and decided to give it a miss.

That chance decision likely spared their lives, but not the torment of waiting to receive news of friends who may not have survived the night of horror in which 49 people were killed and 53 injured in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Neither did it diminish their shattered sense of safety. For them and for many others, Pulse had been much more than a nightclub. It was a community hub – a place to feel at home.

“That was the only club that she and I would go to together and it was the only place I felt safe at, and that’s gone,” said Wright as she and Ruiz depart from a vigil here, each leaning on the other for support, eyes glossy from tears. “It was just a happy, welcoming, fun place to be, a place where everyone was accepted,” added Wright, a nurse wearing scrubs. “This is a city where people come to be entertained and enjoy. I never thought something like could come to Orlando.”

But it has, and that makes it seems as terrorism landed in Anytown, U.S.A. The presence of Disney, Universal, other major theme parks and convention centers make this a city that is as quintessentially American as Washington, D.C. Americans are covering it as if the heart of their nation was attacked, and in some senses, it was. The attack by Omar Mateen, 29, an American of Afghan descent, adds fuel to an already heated presidential campaign. While FBI officials began on Monday to release additional information they had on Mateen, including that he has been interviewed by them extensively in 2013 and 2014, many Americans asked critical questions: How, given his profile and the fact that he’d been questioned for possible connections to terrorist groups, was it so easy for Mateen to buy an assault rifle?

The massacre has ultimately reignited and ratcheted up partisan rhetoric: Republicans demand an exclusive focus on “radical Islam” and Democrats lament America’s lack of gun control, including the refusal of congressional Republicans to agree to a ban on assault rifles. But for people who actually live here the grief cuts much closer to the bone – and is about hatred of gays. 

“No matter whether he pledged allegiance to ISIS or not, it’s a hate crime targeting our community,” says Alex Mena, who had come to Orlando from Tampa for the day to celebrate his birthday with his boyfriend of three years.  The day morphed from a planned celebration into tragedy, a seminal moment that to them would go down in history as a kind of 9/11. 

Mena, who used to live here in Orlando and works in a gay bar in Tampa similarly popular with the gay community there, is stilling for news of a good friend who had been shot but was expected to survive. Mena’s feeling: If it was so easy for someone with an apparent history of psychological problems and a file with the FBI to buy guns, than he ought to get one as well. 

“I think tomorrow I’m going to apply to get a concealed weapons permit,” Mena says. “If people like this have guns, then I guess good people like me should as well.”

FBI director James Comey said in a press conference Monday that while Mateen expressed support for the leader of ISIS in his call to police during the standoff, there were no indications thus far that there was any foreign involvement in the attack or that it had been ordered by the Islamic State or any other group. Mateen, said Comey, had also bragged about having connections to other groups – ones that are in direct competition with each other, making it difficult to ascertain the killer’s motives. 

“First he claimed family connected to Al Qaida. Then he claimed connections to Hezbollah,” Comey said in the briefing, referring to the Shi'ite militant group in Lebanon that is in conflict with Sunni groups such as Al Qaida and the Islamic State.  

“He told co-workers he hoped they would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so he could martyr himself,” Comey said. Matten had apparently attended the same Ft. Pierce mosque as another Florida man who went to Syria and served as a suicide bomber for the al-Nusra Front. On the phone the night of the massacre, he’d expressed admiration for the Boston Marathon bombers as well.

“We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, and we have to look for the hay that someday might become needles,” Comey said.

Throughout Orlando, there were signs of a city in mourning – and a city expressing widespread solidarity with its gay community. Billboards and signs of businesses have been changed to “Pray for Orlando.” American flags were flying at half-staff, as they are at locations around the country following the suggestion of President Barack Obama.  Buildings were lit up in rainbow colors, a nod at the pride flag. Hundreds of people lined up on Sunday and again on Monday to donate blood. 

At the Orlando Regional Medical Center, a hospital just down the road from Pulse, and at a Hampton Inn and Suites nearby, distraught friends and relatives were waiting for information about missing loved ones, fearing the worst. Morgan Acevedo, a social worker who is also involved in gay rights advocacy and the struggle to legalize gay marriage, was one of the people placed on a list of mental health workers available to offer support. 

She’s on hand to help, but is also hurting. She lives near Pulse, and she and her girlfriend go frequently. For them too, Saturday night could have spelt their death, she said, but it happens they decided to stay home.

“It’s hard enough for gays and lesbians to feel safe enough to come out,” says Acevedo, 27. “Typically the first place you’ll go and try to be yourself is a nightclub. There, you can be around people who will let you be who you are and not judge you. Now, there’s nowhere to feel safe.”

Acevedo and other friends were praying for the survival of a friend who was shot eight times. In all, about a third of the 300 or so people in the club Saturday night were either shot or killed. For Acevedo, the support pouring in from around the country and the world was heartening. But it would not truly alleviate the trauma the community was now facing – and will continue to cope with in the days and weeks to come.

“We’ve come so far with the freedom to love and something like this happens around the corner to you, to people you love, and it leaves you questioning whether you’re safe and whether you’re allowed to be ‘out.’"