That balmy Florida night, it was someone's first time at a gay club. Someone was celebrating a birthday. Someone was on a first date. Someone came out to dance for the first time in years. And then a troubled madman walked in with a couple of guns.
These are the thoughts I had as I visited the Pulse nightclub site recently. I was in Orlando, along with 3,000 other advocates, educators, and providers, for the 22nd annual U.S. Conference on AIDS, held Sept. 6-9. The conference took place a few months after the two-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting. The mass murder at the well-known gay club happened on June 12, 2016, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more. The senseless crime horrified the nation and devastated a community.
"USCA has returned to Orlando to stand in solidarity with those who lost a loved one at the Pulse massacre," said Paul Kawata, executive director with NMAC, which organizes the annual conference.
On my first night in Orlando, I, along with a fellow advocates Katie Willingham, Kevin Maloney, and Roscoe Boyd, visited the Pulse site. I didn't really know what to expect. The nightclub building is still there, with the sign advertising the club still glowing. It's on a neighborhood street corner in downtown Orlando, with a Wendy's across the street and a Dunkin' Donuts next door. Around the building, a curving wall has been erected with colorful photos of the days after the event. Photos show the gorgeous outpouring of love and compassion, people in rainbow colors holding balloons and streamers and signs saying "Orlando strong" and "We are Pulse." Part of the wall also starkly shows the mostly Latinx names of the victims.
As we lingered at the site, what struck me was how familiar it seemed. I had never been to Pulse, but I felt an eerie chill. I was reminded of other clubs I've been to in other cities. I thought of Charlie's in Phoenix, Arizona; Tribe in Nashville, Tennessee; Backstreet in Little Rock, Arkansas. It could have been any club in any town, and it could have been me in that club. I can imagine dancing the night away with my friends, gossiping, flirting, believing we're in a safe place, only to have that bubble violently burst in explosions from a Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle, a Glock 17 9mm semi-automatic pistol, and the screams of my friends. The thought shook me, and my heart ached anew for the terror of the victims at Pulse that night.
My fellow advocates and I wandered the site, looking at the faces in the photos, quietly acknowledging the gravity of the sacred place. We all were overcome with emotion. I was choking back tears, and Kevin said he found it hard to breathe and his legs were trembling. The memorial is that moving.
The next day, the conference was underway. Hung throughout lobby areas of the conference center were 12-foot square blocks from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Each block has eight panels, and each panel honors someone who died in the AIDS crisis. (The whole quilt of 49,000 panels is too large to exhibit at this kind of event.) Perhaps because I was primed by my emotional experience at the Pulse site, I was deeply moved by the handiwork. I was moved by the idea that every panel was crafted by a loved one of the loved one. I thought of the person who took the time to design and build a panel and the care, the love, and sadness in each stitch. Several times while looking at the panels, I had to stop and consciously take a deep breath. One panel struck me to my core. It says, "To all the artists who died before their time."
Related: HIV Advocates at USCA 2018 Speak Out About Pulse Orlando
To honor the anniversary of the massacre, Pulse was included as part of the conference's Friday afternoon plenary. Barbara Poma, owner of Pulse, addressed the gathering. The emotional Poma, who founded Pulse partly in honor of her brother who died of HIV-related causes in 1991, spoke of the personal impact of the shooting tragedy on her own life and how inspiring it was to see the city and community come together in love as a result. The Pulse angels also took the stage, beautiful but ghostly reminders of the tragedy. The Orlando Gay Men's Chorus sang a familiar anthem that reminds us to measure our years in love. But through the rest of the meeting, Barbara Poma's words echoed in my brain: "We will not let hate win."
I agree with Paul Kawata: We in the HIV community have a solidarity of emotion with Pulse survivors and the victims' friends and families. Certainly, we know about grief. We understand the devastating grief of the catastrophic deaths during the AIDS crisis, and the deaths that are occurring still due to HIV. We also understand the power of togetherness in the face of tragedy -- that grief shared cuts the pain in two.
Some of the USCA attendees also had messages about the importance of commemorating the Pulse victims. View their thoughts here.