I can still clearly visualize the bathroom at Pulse. When I knew it, it was slathered in red and black paint and vaguely Gothic. Various local bands had scrawled graffiti promoting or slagging off one another. This was before Pulse was Pulse, before the bathroom was where people hid, were held hostage or ultimately lost their lives to Omar Mateen, in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
I’ve lived in New York for the last 13 years, but I grew up in Orlando, lived less than a mile from where Pulse is now, and spent several years covering nightlife for the Orlando Sentinel. I was in bands that played Pulse when it was a restaurant and art space called Dante’s. It was a hangout for music and art lovers, performers and all kinds of Sunshine State misfits who preferred the dark of the wee hours to squeaky-clean theme-park life and boy bands. The space continued that role as Pulse.
“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,” says owner Barbara Poma, who opened Pulse in 2004. “I can’t speak for all of them, but I imagine LGBTQ people were looking for a place they knew they would be able to express themselves.”
No one is hurting in the wake of this attack more than the families of the victims. They mourn alongside the LGBT and Hispanic and Latino communities, who appear to have been targeted the night of June 12. But the attack also has reverberated through Orlando’s local music scene. Decades worth of artists and performers of all stripes (local, national, gay, straight) called the club home. There is a wider circle of people than most outsiders realize who feel a personal connection to the attack.
At the start of most nights at Dante’s, I usually saw Billy Manes, then a fellow nightlife writer (for the Orlando Weekly), now the editor-in-chief of Orlando’s LGBT newspaper Watermark. “I was the door guy,” he says. “I would have been dead in this situation.”
The painful irony about the Pulse massacre and its hate-crime overtones is that Orlando is a well-established haven for the LGBT community. About 120,000 people from all persuasions show up to pride parades there. Same-sex marriage has been legal since January 2015. Rainbow flags have hung from lampposts along Orange Avenue since 1998 during National Gay Pride Month. “The city government has been very fond of the gay community,” says Manes. “There’s a huge concentration of us in the downtown area, and we have a mayor [Buddy Dyer] that is very supportive. We have a sitting LGBT city commissioner, Patty Sheehan. The environment is decidedly pro-gay.”
Other friends I’ve reconnected with following the shooting reminded me that a lot of venues where our own bands played or where we saw Fugazi, Portishead, Weezer and other groups were gay clubs the rest of the week. Which is another reason this attack at Pulse feels so personal and unreal all at the same time.
“It’s horrifying to me in the way I imagine it was horrifying for other people when Harvey Milk was shot,” Manes says of the Orlando massacre. “And I know that these weren’t politicians or whatever, but it’s 49 people. You look at that victim list and it was 21- and 25-year-olds. It reminds me of my first time going to a gay bar and feeling like I was safe, because I was at the gay bar. I imagine on a Saturday night, people were in a good place. And it’s Pride Month. And they were proud. But what proud got them was dead.”
It was a good place even before it was called Pulse, back when it was an indie oasis for locals looking for something Disney couldn’t offer. “I don’t think anybody’s really pinned down how diverse the community was -- there were all of these artists and musicians, people who weren’t part of the tourism infrastructure,” remembers Jason Ross, who played regularly at Dante’s, both solo and with his band, Seven Mary Three, which formed in Orlando, got signed to Mammoth Records and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart in 1996 with its single “Cumbersome.” “I tried new material there, songs I had never even played for Seven Mary Three audiences and haven’t played since. Whoever you needed to be or wanted to be, that was the safe place to do it.”
Poma has vowed to reopen Pulse. Whether or not it 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 or LGBT people. Stonewall South.
“There is a community of people who are not giving up,” says Ross. “The arts community, they’ve been there a long time and they embrace a multitude of talent. We’re lucky they’re there.”
Ray Rivera, aka DJ Infinite, who was spinning on the patio of Pulse when the shooting broke out, has said he’ll continue to play clubs in Orlando -- gay, straight, whatever. He has residencies at Universal Orlando but also at LGBT clubs such as Southern Nights in Tampa, Fla., and Parliament House in Orlando. But Pulse was special, Rivera told me when I reached him in the days after the shooting. “It is a place of love and happiness always -- one big family.”
Rivera is married with kids and grandkids and has a day job, but his passion is music, and he has been flooded with support from his fellow DJs and people he saw several nights a week in the close-knit Orlando-area dance music scene. “Honestly, right now I am overwhelmed,” he says, “and I’m trying to get things back to a place that I can get back to work.”
For Poma, too, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. “I can’t tell you how many stories I have read 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,” she says. “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.”