Pulse nightclub in Orlando

Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. 

AP Photo/John Raoux

When Barbara Poma co-opened Pulse nightclub in 2004, her goal was to offer a safe place for Orlando’s LGBT community. She named it Pulse as a tribute to her brother John, who died from complication of AIDS in 1991. According to the club’s website, "it was important to create an atmosphere that embraced the gay lifestyle with décor that would make John proud. Most importantly, (we) coined the name Pulse for John’s heartbeat — as a club that is John’s inspiration, where he is kept alive in the eyes of his friends and family."

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For Orlando, a city with a strong local LGBT community that also stands as one of America’s top tourist destinations, Pulse became the safe haven that Poma and co-founder Ron Legler envisioned. At least until the events of June 12, when Omar Mateen took the lives of 49 patrons, and sent 53 more to the hospital.

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Despite the nightmare that unfolded at the club in those early morning hours, Poma has vowed to reopen. Whether or not Pulse becomes another club, it’s hard to imagine the location won’t become a kind of monument in Orlando to those who, through the decades, created real culture in the land of Mickey Mouse, or as a destination for Latino and LGBT people.

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We spoke to Poma about what Pulse meant to that community, and why places like it are worth protecting.

Orlando is one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations with plenty of places to blow off some steam, so why did people gravitate towards Pulse rather than somewhere in, say, Downtown Disney?

I remember there used to be buses that came from the Disney/tourist area to drop off guests who would then return on their own during their stays. I can't speak for all of them, but I imagine that LGBTQ people were looking for a place they knew they would be comfortable and free to express themselves. Gay bars are an important part of the gay culture for that very reason.

Is it the vibe? The people? What set Pulse apart?

I think Pulse differs from tourist clubs, as well as other local clubs, for a couple of reasons. One of our biggest goals was to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere that was family-like, with people who shared my vision.

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What about the clientele? Were there more new faces, or regulars?

New faces became regulars all the time. People who visited Orlando would come year after year. My bartenders would actually remember their drinks and faces. There are so many stories I would hear about that and I think that's another part of what made us successful.

For outsiders who might imagine Pulse as just a gay bar, a club, or a place to go and drink, what sort of role did it play as part of Orlando’s local LGBT community?

Pulse was a place that helped raise funds for big charities, small charities, all local; it also helped raise funds for my entertainers who wanted to raise money to help them enter pageants. We were advocates to the education and prevention of HIV/AIDS by providing protection, support and contacts for anyone in need. We did many events with straight allies to help raise money for their causes. We were never exclusive of any person's cause. Our doors were open to everyone.

Why are place like Pulse so important to support?

So many articles have been written saying gay bars will become obsolete, and I find that comforting to know that people believe no matter your sexuality so people can be themselves freely, but in the same breath I believe that gay bars have historically been the place for the LGBTQ community to come together with comfort and ease. The community needs to continue to support gay bars as they are a part of the gay culture and a home for many who don't have one.

How has the response been in the wake of the tragedy?

I can't tell you how many stories I have read over this week that have told me that Pulse was the first gay bar they ever went to, how they were shaking in fear, how they weren't out to their families and how Pulse welcomed them. People who aren't out, people who are exploring, people who are transitioning need a place to do this without judgment, they need acceptance; this is what Pulse was always about.