Just last week, the city of Orlando celebrated Gay Days, among the biggest celebrations of homosexuality in the world. Some 150,000 people took part this year.
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The high point of the event was a mass visit by members of the LGBT community to Disney World. The visit to the local theme park is a tradition that began in 1991, when 3,000 members of the community arrived there in red shirts, for the sake of visibility, and at other venues associated with family values.
But now, from a popular tourist destination, Orlando has become the site of the worst mass-shooting event in American history. One day later, the streets are blistering hot and empty; locals are troubled by the heavy silence that has descended upon the city. Police have closed off the streets leading to the Pulse Club, where 50 people were killed and 53 were injured on Sunday, but some people still get through, desperately seeking information on their loved ones.
Jim Pearson, 50, still awaits word on many of his friends who had been at the club Sunday; he’d often gone there himself, he says, but not on that night. He chokes up when mentioning his friends, but finally manages to say, “We know one of the barmen is gone. But we couldn't get a hold of the others."
Standing at an intersection near the Pulse, Trenten Venezia holds up a sign that states simply “More love, less hate,” in one hand. He waves the other, making the V-sign (for victory) in the air. Some passing drivers return the V gestures in solidarity; a few passers-by hug him.
Venezia and his friends had thought to go to the club to celebrate a birthday on Sunday, but stayed home. “Thank God, or we'd have been there too,” he says, and wipes away a tear. Still, it's important for him to make a statement: Love will vanquish hate.
The only vehicles allowed through the barricades are police cars and black limousines. Some evangelical Christians pray together near the cordoned-off area. Joe and Gigi Griffiths say they rushed over to the site on Sunday from services at church in a nearby suburb.
“They are our sisters and brothers. They were created by God,” says Gigi about the members of the LGBT community.
Back in the 1990s, a plan by Orlando’s LGBT community to hold a protest in Disney World engendered criticism among locals, who claimed the theme park was a place for “family values.”
Today everybody in Orlando seems to be lining up to stand by the victims of the Pulse. Half an hour’s drive from the club, hundreds of people – from elderly whites living in nearby pastoral suburbs, to adolescents, to husky Spanish-speaking men – are lining up under the burning Florida sun to donate blood. Volunteers comb the line for people with rarer, minus-Rh blood types. Everyone else continues to wait.
"It isn't fair what happened. People just went out to have a good time," says Cristine, 27. "They say they just need O-minus blood, but I'll stay here in line to donate [anyway]."
Some blocks away is a facility that's been converted by neighborhood residents to collect food and water to give the blood donors, the families of the victims and others waiting by the club for news. Veronica, 23, walks slowly carrying a six-pack of 2-liter water bottles that she bought at a gas station.
"I wanted to help," she explains. "We will be helping out and volunteering as much as we can for the rest of the week."
According to Adam Sharpe, another volunteer, the facility is brimming over with food and other items. The whole thing began with a Twitter call for blood, then people just started bringing other things. Surpluses, he adds, will be given the homeless.