Orlando. The town known best for the Happiest Place on Earth, the Magic, boy bands… Carrot Top. If terror was the intent of the shooter who killed 49 people at the popular Orlando LGBTQ club Pulse on June 12, 2016, he couldn’t have chosen a city with a more defiant community.
In the year since the attack, Pulse owner Barbara Poma has declined the city’s offer to buy her property for $2.25 million. Instead, she formed the onePULSE Foundation with community leaders, artists and the families of victims, which is helping to raise money for grants, educational scholarships and an official memorial and museum.
“We need to memorialize this so future generations will know what happened,” says Poma, who opened Pulse in 2004 to honor her brother, who died of AIDS. “Otherwise you can’t have a voice to create change.”
The month of June is when Orlando, a southern oasis for the LGBTQ community, erupts in rainbows for Gay Days, which draws hundreds of thousands of prideful visitors to the area and its attractions, hotels, restaurants, and Disney or Downtown Orlando clubs such as Parliament House, Southern Nights, and, in years past, Pulse. This year, onePULSE partnered with Gay Days to host a slew of parties for its 27th edition, adding a renewed sense of purpose. The city itself is planning Orlando Love: Remembering Our Angels, a June 12 event at Lake Eola Park, with Grammy winner Olga Tañón and The Voice contestant Sisaundra Lewis, among others.
“In terms of the day of remembrance,” says Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, “People don’t realize the families didn’t get to see this outpouring of support; they were burying their kids. Now a year later, it’s really important for us to show those families what we all saw, that they didn’t see.”
Sheehan, the first openly gay elected official in Central Florida, says the Pulse massacre brought unlikely people together. The senior pastor from First Baptist Church in Orlando, for example, has hosted support groups for victims of the Pulse shooting. “If you had told me a year ago that Pastor was going to come into my office and hold my hand and cry with me and pray with me, I’d have said you were completely insane,” says Sheehan. “So what I’m telling you is things have changed, and they have changed for the better.”
However, memories are still raw for some of the 300-plus people who survived. Ray Rivera, aka DJ Infinite, was spinning on the patio of Pulse that night when the shooting broke out just before 2 a.m. In the year since, he has continued to play clubs all around Orlando, including those hosting onePULSE Foundation events. “Honestly I don’t think it’s changed me at all,” he says, but adds moments later, “I find myself, when I do venues and parties, looking where the exits are, looking at security… Before this happened I didn’t do that.”
Poma feels the aftermath more acutely. “I don’t think there’s one thing that’s the same,” she says. “I think we all know we’re changed.”
A few days prior to speaking with her, a terrorist bomb killed 80 in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a suicide bomber outside of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killed 22, many of them children. Just after our conversation, a trio of men crashed a van into people on the London Bridge and went on a knife rampage in a nearby mall, killing 7 before being shot dead by police. Poma says she now “shuts down” when news like this breaks, “because sometimes it’s too much to try to put in my head.”
Whether it’s Grande and her manager Scooter Braun throwing a star-studded benefit concert just 13 days after the Manchester bombing or the City of Orlando, Poma’s foundation, and Gay Days memorializing a historic attack a year later, defiance has become the common bond.
“I do believe I will find a new location and build another Pulse and bring Pulse back in a way to serve the community and honor everyone we lost that night,” Poma says. “It won’t be where it was. But it will re-open. That’s how, ultimately, we know hate doesn’t win.”