ORLANDO, Fla. _ About 48 hours after the terror attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, The Hammered Lamb, a gay-owned establishment north of downtown proper, is buzzing with conversation. Everyone is talking about the tragedy. The Hammered Lamb announced on Facebook that it would be providing free drinks to employees of Pulse who needed somewhere to be and somebody to talk to. “A lot of people were here,” said Nikki Price, the general manager. It’s quieter tonight because there’s a vigil starting soon, she says, but they haven’t seen any drop in business. “Orlando is strong, but people need this.”
A man who identified himself only as John raised his glass in agreement as Nikki spoke. “I usually only go out once or twice a week,” he says, “but I have to prove I’m not scared.” The LGBT community, however, is no stranger to fear. Each year, the FBI data on hate crimes turn up over a thousand acts of aggression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. We have a practiced belligerence, a stiff jaw and a curled lip that we develop the minute we decide we can no longer live a closeted life. At The Hammered Lamb, where a rainbow flag hangs over the entrance and there is no security at the door, everyone is in agreement. Rishi Raghoonanan shrugs and inspects her bright red nail polish when I ask whether she’s more hesitant to go out now. “I had to go out. I have to support my community.”
Though Sunday night’s vigil was canceled at the request of Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the Orlando Police Department is ready for the crowds by Monday night. Helicopters hover over the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts downtown. Police on bicycles direct foot traffic while squad cars circle the block and park on corners. Snipers man the corners of every nearby rooftop. We’re safe, probably. Some people hold up posters and wear shirts with pictures of their lost loved ones. Volunteers circle the crowd handing out candles and tissues.
The massacre at Pulse was the largest in the United States since Wounded Knee and certainly the largest since modern trauma centers were developed. But the old courage that brought LGBT people to the streets at Stonewall in 1969, and to pride parades, AIDS benefits, and sometimes just to work or church before equal rights were even a possibility on the national radar, is alive and well in Orlando’s queer community.
I ask whether he was afraid to come out tonight. ‘No, but my whole family is straight, and they’re afraid to go places right now.’
A large man in a rainbow shirt introduces himself as Josh and says he’s there in honor of a friend who was celebrating her birthday at Pulse on Saturday night. She’s among the injured, he tells me. I ask whether he was afraid to come out tonight. “No, but my whole family is straight, and they’re afraid to go places right now.”
From the podium, a speaker reminds the crowd that Pulse was not attacked on just any night, but on Latin night, and this crime could have been as motivated by race as it was sexual orientation. Everyone in the crowd, no matter their color, nods in response. Tonight is not a night when we will refuse to acknowledge the many intersections of hate that brought us here.
Jacob Spragg, a tall, well-dressed gay man, tells me that he’s just graduated law school, and he knows how property is divided and sold. “I don’t think it’s a mistake that our bar was attacked and able to be attacked. If you have a crowd in Orlando [in downtown proper], there are so many police officers, but every gay club is on the outskirts of town. They don’t get the security that you do downtown, and it’s no mistake that the gay clubs are on the outskirts. I know that decades of non-LGBT inclusion is what caused our clubs to be down there. If you tried to walk into a club here with an AR-15, you wouldn’t get very far. There are police everywhere.”
With the exception of Hamburger Mary’s restaurant on Church Street, a relatively recent installment since 2008, Spragg is right. Southern Nights is the closest gay bar to downtown proper, and it is a couple of miles away. Pulse was beyond that. Parliament House is off to the west. The Hammered Lamb is a few miles north. Whether the layout was intentional or not, exclusion and reduced safety for LGBT revelers were the results.
The names of the dead were read from the podium while sign language interpreters spelled them out with their hands. Flowers were laid on an informal altar at the back of the park. Muslim, Christian and secular community leaders alike led prayers and moments of silence, offering words of hope and determination to stay united and rebuild Orlando.
Ramon Vidal and his partner did not attend the vigil. “I’m definitely on high alert since the shooting,” he says. “We canceled our plans to go out to a movie theater on Sunday. I think I’m definitely more afraid to go to specifically gay venues, though. I had been bugging my partner to go catch a show with me at Parliament House for a long time, but I don’t think that’ll cross my mind for a while now.” Even though he may not have left the house, that familiar stubbornness comes out in his words. “I’ve always been out and open about who I am. I go around town and I know my mannerisms show who I am and I won’t hide that. I have a rainbow pride flag in my closet and I kind of want to hang it up outside and just say ‘Hey! We’re here! Deal with it!’”