At 5:30am on the morning of June 12, Orlando activist Roxy Santiago woke up to Facebook notifications on her phone asking whether Kate, her bartender friend at the Pulse Nightclub, was okay. She thought Kate might’ve been in a car accident or some other mishap, but after scrolling through her Facebook feed, she learned that a shooting had happened at the nightclub where Kate worked. Santiago immediately headed home to kiss her loved ones and watch the news, waiting to hear if Kate was okay.
Santiago had been to Pulse many times: she had attended breast cancer and HIV fundraisers there, partied with friends at Ladies Night and knew both the bar owner and the producer of the club’s popular Latin Night. During Santiago’s 20 years living in Orlando, she’d also gotten closer to the local LGBTQ and Latinx communities as a volunteer with the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Central Florida and a board member of the local LGBTQ center.
“When I realized that a shooting had happened at Latin night,” Santiago said, “and then also as a gay woman, that it affected my family — the LGBTQ community — it hurt.”
Santiago soon found out that Kate was okay, but Santiago and many other Orlando community leaders began coordinating immediately with local groups and businesses to help those affected by the tragedy. Together these groups arranged buses to deliver people to blood donation centers and trucks to deliver food and water to first responders’ and victims’ homes. But there were lots of other needs waiting to be met.
Some Pulse patrons had to keep their cars in the bar parking lot while police conducted their investigation, leaving them without transportation. Some of the victims’ roommates and family members suddenly found themselves without the additional income for rent, groceries and car insurance. Some survivors, particularly those who worked in bars and nightclubs similar to Pulse, found it difficult to return to their jobs. No one besides investigators even had a clear idea of everyone who had been injured, hospitalized or in the bar that night, making it very difficult to offer help to everyone who needed it.
“There’s little things that fall through the cracks when something like this happens,” said Latinx activist Carlos Carbonell, an activist who helped coordinate relief efforts.
Carbonell explained that while non-profits have the ability to help victims pay rent after such tragedies, they often require people to furnish proof like a lease with their name on it; if you’re subleasing or renting from a friend, your name doesn’t always appear on a lease, making it difficult to get financial assistance even if you were directly involved.
“Yes, you want to prevent fraud,” Carbonell said, “but sometimes you have to just cut through the bureaucracy, trust people or know that yes, they were a survivor, and help with those particular needs.”
To meet those needs more quickly, Carbonell and a fellow organizer named Jennifer Foster helped create an Alliance group bringing together 22 different local organizations — groups like Equality Florida, the Orlando Youth Association, the Orlando LGBTQ center, Hope and Help and Miracle of Love (two local AIDS/HIV groups). For the first time, these groups could talk directly to one another via a private Facebook group and hold a conversation about how best to heal the community in the days ahead.
With corporate help, they got gift cards and pre-paid credit cards to survivors in financial need, temporary phones for those who had lost theirs or given them to the police investigation. They even helped find new jobs for two survivors who had been fired for being at the gay bar the night of the shooting.
However, many of the victims and survivors came from the city’s Latinx communities, raising a host of other challenges: any ads about donations or survivor services had to go out through English and Spanish media; because some of the survivors were undocumented, they feared being deported or denied help; others had family members in foreign countries who wanted to visit but needed assistance with flights and visas. Carbonell worked with the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to address these issues and found an engaged group of people eager to help.
“Central Florida is different,” Carbonell said. “It’s embracing and welcoming and it’s not artificial — it’s pretty authentic. I think the world is not used to it, but it’s not news to us. It’s a pretty cohesive community.”
The pinnacle of the relief efforts was the OneOrlando Fund, a $20 million donation fund created by Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer which accepted contributions from people around the globe. Dyer had long supported his city’s LGBTQ community — Orlando had one of the nation’s first domestic partner registries, and on the day after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, he married 44 LGBTQ couples in front of City Hall. But now his city faced an unprecedented challenge: rebuilding after a major tragedy.
Two days after June 12, Dyer told the world, “Hate may have visited our community… It has shaken us to the core and broken our hearts. But, hate will not define us. And hate will not defeat us. Because we are ONE Orlando.”
He brought in Ken Feinberg, the “foremost expert on victim compensation”, and the National Compassion Fund, a group dedicated to helping victims of violence, to help distribute the fund. They assembled a 14-member board made of local LGBTQ, Latinx and business leaders; held local town halls to get feedback from victims’ families and survivors; and used local TV, print, radio and web to encourage survivors to submit claims — about 220 people did.
After the board assesses the claims and classifies each one based on need, they’ll distribute the funds on October 1st, just a week before the city holds its 12th annual Pride event, a multi-day parade and entertainment fest called “Come Out With Pride”.
The October 8 Come Out With Pride main event will show the different ways the Orlando’s LGBTQ community has progressed since June 12. It will be the first time that LGBTQ individuals, local organizations and businesses commemorate the tragedy while moving together towards a more hopeful future.
“The theme this year is Celebrate, Honor and Heal Orlando,” said Jeff Prystajko, Director of Communications for Come Out With Pride. “We want this to be a very uplifting day where people feel more united and stronger as a community.”
The Pride parade will begin with Community Grand Marshals, including first-responders from the Orlando Police Force, local political leaders who helped coordinate relief efforts, employees from the Pulse nightclub and families and friends of the victims. The parade will accompany a vibrant marketplace festival with live musical performances happening throughout the park. At night, Come Out With Pride will commemorate the victims and survivors before a nighttime fireworks display lighting the sky above Lake Eola.
While the parade has drawn about 140,000 people in years past, this year more people than ever are expected to attend as tourists and media come from around the world pour in to show their support and witness Orlando’s rebirth. The event will be in the national spotlight as a illustration of the enduring LGBTQ spirit.
Santiago, hopes people from around the world will visit during Pride; while most people know Orlando for its Disney theme parks, she adds that the surrounding area offers lots of fun and beauty, no matter your identity. But most of all Santiago hopes that people will keep dancing. The Pulse nightclub, she says, was opened after the owner’s brother died of AIDS. By dancing, we commemorate those who have died and celebrate the life and love that remain.
“It is more than just kind of a party,” Santiago said. “When do you get all of these people and organizations in one place celebrating life and our existence?”
She continues, “We need to show everyone that we love and we care for each other. We’re going to have all sorts of straight allies, gays, the Islamic community, everybody. We want everyone to come back into our city and celebrate Pride with us.”
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