As I took the exit to I-4, I began reflecting on why I was going to Orlando in the first place. When the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting broke, I was in a wifi-less cottage in the woods next to a lake in Ontario, Canada. When I eventually got online the internet lit up with reactions to the massacre and for the first time on my vacation in the middle of solitude, I felt truly isolated. I knew that upon my return I would visit Orlando to pay my respects to the victims, but I did not expect to be going under the circumstances I found myself in.
Only a week prior I was voicing my opinion about Pride celebrations and parades telling Mindy that I didn’t think we needed them anymore now that we have our rights, namely the right to marry in all 50 states. And then came the shooting at a gay and lesbian night club killing 49 people and injuring 53. I realized in an instant that Pride still serves a purpose and attending such celebrations seemed more important than ever.
As I drove on, I thought about what brought me to drive the two hours to Orlando on that particular Saturday. I had seen somewhere online that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church was planning on protesting at one of the funerals for a Pulse shooting victim. For those readers who are lesbian or gay, you are most likely already familiar with this hate group and are already understand why it was important for me to go. For those of you who are lucky enough to have never come across Westboro Baptist Church, let me explain: Westboro Baptist Church, based in Kansas, shows up with hateful signs like “God hates fags” and “God hates fag enablers” to funerals of lesbian and gay citizens, very often soldiers. They yell at family and friends attending the funeral saying things like, “The military let in fags, and now they come home in bags”, hoping to insight a violent response so they can sue and fund their organization.
I read that there was a silent peaceful counter-protest to these people and I simply had to be a part of it. No one should have to listen to that kind of hate as they walk into a church to bury their child, sibling or friend. Wanting to shield the mourners from such ugliness, I kept on driving.
When my friend Erick and I arrived, I couldn’t believe that we were able to find a place to park so close to the church. We could only pay for 2 hours at a time and so we did, hoping we would have a chance to sneak back to the car to put in more money as the time ran out. As we walked around trying to find out where the counter-demonstration was to take place, I realized I had never been to downtown Orlando before and it was quite a lovely place with lots of big trees and a nice park on the lake. This is where we saw a group of at least 200 gathered with signs like Love Wins, Orlando United, and We Are All One Pulse. This was definitely the group we had been looking for. We began to walk.
With the lake at our backs we began to silently walk towards Orange and Jefferson. As we moved with purpose up the street, I noticed a local woman on the sidewalk watching us march and our presence visibly moved her to tears. I went to her and asked if she would like a hug. She said, “yes” as she wrapped her arms around me.
There was also police presence there and every time I passed a policewoman or man, I thanked them. We also passed a group of bikers, who I later learned had also shown up to protect the mourners from hate. When we arrived at the designated corner, across the street from where the Westborons (that’s what I’ve decided to call them) were planning to hold their hate rally. I looked around and took stock of my fellow demonstrators. We seemed to be of all ages and races but what surprised me most of all was the number of straight couples.
I realized that the (straight) masses finally see us as people and not as gay or lesbian people. I spoke with a local seemingly-straight Black man who said he came because “hate has no place in my city”. I also talked with a straight couple who had flown down from New York state and a lesbian who had driven through the night from North Carolina to be in Orlando in time for the counter-demonstration.
The Angels Arrive
Costume crews of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and American Theater teamed up with volunteers from the Angel Action Wings Project to create large angel wings with a wooden frame and white flowing fabric. The angels date back to 1999 when they first appeared as a response to an anti-homosexual group applauding the killers of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten and left to die tied to a fence simply for being gay. Orlando sure needed some angels too.
Approximately 15 angels arrived in a line and the crowd instantly cheered and burst into applause. The media rushed in to get pictures.
Then came the moment we were all anticipating. Four Westborons (1 woman and 3 men) with a duffle bag arrived and stood at the corner opposite us. They looked like average people that you might pass on the street or in a supermarket…that is until they pulled out an upside-down American flag and signs that stated things like “God is not mocked” and something about God destroying Sodom. Someone in the crowd booed and everyone shushed them. Someone began laughing at them and again they were shushed by the crowd, who wished to combat hate with love.
And so we stood there in the hot sun sweating in silence. But then one of the Westboron men began yelling hateful things. All I could hear were words like “repent” and “sinners” and frankly I didn’t want to hear anymore. Yet our silence meant that this man had a captive audience and I worried that the crowd would get restless as our high-level emotions grew. But just then, someone to my left began singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” Others near him, including me, joined in, “…that saved a wretch like me…” The song got louder and louder as it spread across the crowd, “I once was lost but now I am found. Was blind, but now I see”. It was beautiful! Then all of us, on the same page, began singing again effectively drowning out the hateful speech and the Westboron eventually stopped.
After a few rounds of Amazing Grace, we stopped and it became silent once again. But within minutes, the man started yelling again and we countered in song until the man went quiet. And so it went on like that for awhile: every time the man started shouted hateful speech, we responded by singing. So simple yet so effective.
The Mourners Arrive
The leader of the demonstration told us that the mourners were coming soon and so I emotionally prepared myself. These were the people, after all, who were burying their son, brother and friend. These were the people who were grieving losing a friend and family member in such a horrid fashion. These were the people I and so many others came to shield from hate so they can grieve in peace. I thought for a moment about what they must be going through.
And then they came, walking in rows of three or four linking arms for support. My heart ached for them. The Westborons started up again, this time yelling louder than before with all of them shouting, “God sent the shooter to Orlando”. Thankfully, that’s all we could hear because we began to sing Amazing Grace and continued to do so until all the victim’s family and friends had walked past us. The mourners seemed very moved by our presence as they passed. Some were crying, some smiled at us with a grateful look on their faces and one held her hand up high making a fist of triumph.
Standing there, drowning out hurtful words with Amazing Grace, I reflected on what a beautiful thing I was a part of and my eyes started to tear. I was so glad I came. I sure would hate to think of them having to walk past the ugliness of Westboro alone.
Various news sources captured this including CNN, CTV News, who had come all the way down from Canada, and Telemundo, who was the only news network to interview the Westborons.
Westboro uneventfully put their hateful messages back in their unassuming duffle bag and walked away in the same direction from which they had come. The crowd hardly noticed. Instead, we began cheering in unison, “We love you, we love you” to all the angels as they floated away, followed by cheering and thanking the Orlando Police by shouting, “OPD, OPD”.
But this was not the only reason that love won that day. I have been a part of many demonstrations and protests throughout my life and I can honestly tell you that I have never felt the amount of love that pulsed through the crowd. People were passing out water to anyone who needed it (of which I partook on several occasions), people offered sunscreen to perfect strangers, people went out and bought snacks simply to share with the crowd. People were hugging each other and thanking each other and…loving each other. I turned to Erick and thanked him for being there with me.
Towards the beginning of the counter-demonstration, a man, who was passing out a double-sided information sheet, told us, “If you know any victims, please let them know there is help for them”. I looked at the paper entitled Pulse Victim Assistance and saw the list of services that local companies were providing for free. Everything from free counseling, free legal needs, free funeral and memorial services, free burial plots, free flowers for funeral services to free airfare and free rooms for victims’ families and the list went on. This sheet too was filled with love.
As we walked back to the car, we knew we were over the parking time limit and I was ready to accept whatever fine I might have received. But when we got there someone had paid for an extra 30 minutes for us and everyone else parked on that block to assure that we were not ticketed. We were blown away by such kindness. Love wins indeed!
Paying Respect at the Memorials
We decided to pay our respects at several memorials around the city. Our first stop was in a field in front of the Performing Arts Center, where there were a few distinct areas to memorialize the victims of the shooting. Seeing such large sections of grass filled with flowers, pictures, flags, signs and messages made me, for the first time, see the gravitas of the massacre. There was a love seat at one memorial on which people were encouraged to write a message.
We crossed the street to city hall where they had a very lovely wreath full of beautiful flowers for each victim. I couldn’t help but notice the Pride flag had been placed next to the Florida state flag. We were also encouraged to sign a book of condolences.
We then drove to the hospital where there was another memorial for those killed and those injured, some who were still fighting for their lives. The faces and names of the victims were starting to become familiar to me. I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt with a woman’s face on it that I recognized and overheard someone ask her if she had lost someone. When she replied that she had, this stranger gave her a hug and offered her words of comfort in Spanish.
Here, along the water, is also where the crosses were placed. A man from Ohio built a white cross for each of the 49 victims and drove 1200 miles all the way down to Orlando to deliver them. Someone noticed this and asked if he had a message for people and he simply said, “My message? Don’t judge anybody” and with that he got in his truck and drove away. People had added flags (we noticed that so many of the victims were Puerto Rican) and messages and flowers and candles and other meaningful items.
We decided to walk the two blocks up the street to get a glimpse of Pulse nightclub but I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it was simply the notoriety of the location or perhaps it was to see if somehow being there would bring me closer to understanding how such a horrible event could happen. My question was not answered.
A Grieving City
I could feel that the city of Orlando was in deep mourning and people seemed to be grieving in various ways. Some brought flowers and candles, others took part in vigils. One woman sat by a memorial and played a wooden flute.
What I took away from visiting Orlando was that while this tragedy hit home in gay and lesbian communities across the world, the loss that Orlando was facing is something quite different. A gunman entered a club and killed 49 people while injuring 53 others and this did not happen in some obscure location in a city far away that we see on the news; this happened in their backyard, right down the street, around the corner. At the memorials, it stopped being about an attack on a gay and lesbian community; it became an attack on their city and its people. For the people of Orlando, this tragedy was personal and unlike visiting memorials for the Orlando victims that have been set up across the nation and indeed the world, here there was a good chance that you would meet those actually mourning the loss of a person dear to them.
I got in the car and drove the two hours back home feeling emotionally and physically exhausted with a terrible headache and other signs of heat stroke but with the feeling that I had done something good, something beautiful that meant something to someone. And perhaps it would help me heal as well.
Attending Pride Parade in St. Petersburg, Florida
The next weekend Mindy and I made it a point to attend St. Pete’s Pride celebration, where the friends and family members of the Orlando shooting victims were invited to lead the parade. Seventeen minutes of silence was to begin the parade, giving 10 seconds to honor each victim that was killed or injured in the Pulse massacre. We got there early to find a good spot and waited.
Just after sundown we saw people start walking down the street in a single file line with each person (sometimes in a group of two) holding a large white sign bearing the name and age of each victim. I recognized several of the names from visiting the memorials in Orlando and so when they walked by I could picture their faces. The people just kept coming and coming, once again highlighting the gravitas of the massacre.
Most people walked by very somber and reflective and sometimes holding hands. I remember two people in particular: one was a younger man who walked by looking up at the sky and smiling as if the person he lost was looking down at him. He looked at peace. Conversely, the second was an older man who looked down as he heavily wept for the person he lost.
At the end of the procession were four people holding a Pride flag on which was written “Orlando Strong”. People began to cheer and clap for them as we shouted, “We love you Orlando”.
Later in the celebration, I saw a young guy walking with a sign above him that said, “I love you Mom” with her picture. I recognized her. She was Brenda McCool, the mother of 11 children, one of whom she was dancing with at Pulse that night. According to Huffington Post, she saw the gunman point his gun towards them and she yelled, “Get down” before putting herself in front of him, saving his 21-year old life. I had just read that she was buried only a few days prior and her son needed the support of two of his siblings just to be able to stand and give his eulogy. She was only 49. My expression turned to a sympathetic one as I thought about the long road of healing this young man had ahead of him. Hopefully, the Pride celebration played a small role in his painful journey.
We reached home just after midnight and the next morning, I woke up early and hung our Pride flag in the window.