When I went to Orlando a couple of weeks ago on assignment for work, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with Pulse survivors. At the end of the first day of my trip, my friend and McClatchy co-worker Jessica Koscielniak told me I should wake up early and check out Pulse itself before I met with her in the afternoon.
I grabbed an Uber the next morning. I was nervous. I had seen the headlines last year and did a lot of research, but the shooting (the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history) stayed in the corner of my mind — until I got there and saw the nightclub and memorial for myself.
As soon as I walked up, I felt a shortness of breath and the hairs on my arms and legs raised, even in the heat. I read the poems and messages left by visitors, read the framed obituaries and studied the faces and names of those who were killed in the massacre. I didn’t lose it and cry until I arrived at the center of the memorial. There, prayer candles sat. The wax had mixed with rainwater, but they were still there — and many of them were lit by people who stopped to pay a visit and say a prayer.
The tears started falling as I remembered the times when I would watch people’s faces before mass as they walked to prayer candles, gave a donation, lit a candle and kneeled to pray. Those candles reminded me of going to mass at two different Catholic churches with my Papa when I was a kid. We’d go to Seminary on Saturday morning and Our Lady of the Gulf or St. Ann’s on Sunday with my Granny.
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I remembered being in high school and waiting for Life Teen mass every Sunday evening, remembered every time the acoustic band played “Your Love is Extravagant” after communion and being emotional as I prayed.
I also recalled the moment I fell out of love with mass, when the teachings revolved around gay marriage being a sin, and some of the youth leaders talked about it at a summer retreat. Although I wasn’t out then, I knew I was gay and felt hurt and like I didn’t belong. I stayed at church in Kiln to confirm for my mom and my Papa, who passed away when I was in middle school, and slowly drifted away.
In college, as I found myself more and more, I found a progressive Catholic church I loved. But when I graduated and moved home, I drew myself further away when I ran into a guy I went to church with in high school at a restaurant, and he asked if I was gay and if I stopped believing in God in the same breath.
The point of all of this, though, is that I lit that prayer candle and was brought back to my days in church. Because what many don’t realize is that a gay bar is exactly like church in many ways for the LGBTQ+ community. They both are safe spaces where its members can let go and be vulnerable. They can share their most suppressed feelings, whether it’s holding a man’s hand or praying to the man upstairs. It’s a place where, above all, you don’t feel like anything bad is going to happen to you.
Last year, 49 people were killed, 58 were wounded and countless others had to run for their lives inside of a place where they were supposed to be safe. A space where the world could not look at a couple with a quick glance of disapproval, or hurry by if two men or women were holding hands. A place where people could go to meet others who shared their beliefs. They were killed or wounded in a place where it was OK to let their guards down. And that is the most awful, tragic, gut-wrenching thing in the world.
On Monday, the media remembered the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016. I hope you listened and paid attention to what happened then and what it’s like now. And if you’re a person who prays — please pray for the victims and the survivors. A dozen prayer candles and one black building changed my life forever. And I don’t want to forget what happened there, and I don’t want you to, either.
You can listen to my interview with Chris Hansen, a survivor of the Pulse massacre, on a new podcast called Out Here in America.