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August 31, 2016

Orlando’s Pulse LGBT Nightclub and Latino Theme Night—A Safe Refuge Attacked

Coming to Terms with Being Gay

As a young man growing up in Los Angeles, one of the hardest steps I had to take was to accept that I was gay. Being Mexican American and Catholic compounded what I felt at the time was a shameful “situation.” As a teenager, I would ask myself “why me?”

With no role models who were gay, I was lost. The lesbian couple who lived in the apartment above us were sadly ostracized by the rest of the building because they were considered different. As kids, we were told to stay away from them. In spite of the warning, I would smile and say hello to them. They always reciprocated. We would eventually speak, and they were no different than my aunts. In fact, they were just as nice, I thought. Seeing them together brought an incomprehensible calm. They were my first contact into the LGBT world. My future.

Fast forward, the first place I went to as a gay man was the Buena Vista Bar—a gay men’s “sweater club” located in the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. By the time I stepped into the Buena Vista, I was already in law school. This was my first experience of being in a gay public establishment.

The Buena Vista became my utopia. I felt safe, accepted. I also felt awkward, shy, and afraid at first. I had to look around before walking in or out of the bar for fear of being spotted, labeled, or harassed. Would people outside the bar make fun of me, or not? Would people call me the negative names I had heard growing up when referring to gay men and women? None of that happened, and the fear of going in and out of the bar would soon dissipate.

In the ensuing months from my discovering the Buena Vista, I would look forward to the weekend when I would travel into the city from Santa Clara to go be with others like me, where I could be me. From the Buena Vista, I would build the confidence to start going to other clubs and to foray into the Castro—the gay mecca in San Francisco. Places like the Midnight Sun, Harvey’s, and the Stud Bar would become my common safe haven. It was at these gay bars and clubs that I would come to terms with being gay.

It was at the Stud Bar, San Francisco’s oldest gay club, that I would meet my future husband—he was 26 and I was 29 years of age. The year was 1991—the third Monday of November of that year. This year (2016) we are celebrating 25 years of sharing our lives together, and eight years of being legally married.

The safe havens of places like the Buena Vista and the Stud had the deepest impact—being who I am and what I am today. But for such safe places, I might not have met my husband, Dr. Matteo Garbelotto, a prominent scientist in California.

A Horrific Attack on One of Our LGBT Refuges— The Mass Shooting at the Pulse Gay Club on Latino Night

The June 12, 2016, mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub on Latino theme night was an attack on a safe refuge for the LGBT community and particularly for young Latino men of Puerto Rican descent and their friends and families.

Pulse is a gay bar, dance club, and nightclub in Orlando, Florida, founded in 2004 by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler. Ms. Poma named the club after her brother who died of AIDS in 1991—so that John’s pulse would live on. Pulse is home to themed performances and hosts a monthly program featuring educational events aimed at the LGBT community.

The night of June 12 was Latino Night—a cultural tribute embracing the rich diversity of Florida’s community. Latino Night themes are common in the LGBT community across the United States. It provides the LGBT community an opportunity to come together to celebrate being members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community and also provides a venue and opportunity to celebrate our Hispanic ethnic roots, among ourselves and with friends. Music ranging from Ricky Martin to Selena to Gloria Estefan, as well as salsa and other Latin flavor music, is played to celebrate being LGBT and Latino. These theme nights are a true celebration of life.

The party at Pulse was no different from any group of friends getting together in a public venue to celebrate a birthday party, a picnic/barbeque on the 4th of July, an Oscar night party, or going to a concert. The point is that it is an opportunity to hang out and celebrate life and a common interest in a safe environment. At Pulse the celebration was that of life and the common interest was music and dance.

The gunman shattered a safe haven, one of our refuges.

The June 12 tragedy, an attack on our Latino LGBT youth and friends, was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in the United States and the worst national catastrophe since the events of September 11, 2001. The shooter killed 49 beautiful people and injured 53 others—causing incomprehensible pain, anguish, and incredible loss in the lives of so many families. He took away innocent lives in the prime of their lives and wounded others who will not soon recover.

This tragic event was unquestionably a targeted hate crime. Hate towards an entire community. Hate towards the LGBT community. Hate towards the Hispanic community. Already, the Hispanic community has felt disenfranchised for a very long time, within the mainstream LGBT community and the mainstream community in general, which in part is the reason that we come together on Latino night—to find solidarity and a safe space to be with others who are accepting of our differences. The targeted hatred aimed not only to take lives but also to create fear.

Yet, this deep-rooted hate harbored by a disturbed individual towards an entire sector of our community is symptomatic of greater societal ills.

The explosion and shooting that took place at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris on an early Saturday morning in November 2015 where nearly 100 people were killed was very similar to the June 2016 attack at the Pulse nightclub. Both horrific attacks shattered lives and shook the core of our existence.

As I saw the Hispanic names of the victims of the Pulse LGBT club scrolling down the television screen, tears poured down my face, not unlike those when I saw the second tower being hit on September 11, 2001. With Pulse, I saw myself in the young lives that were lost—young Latino gay men. In the tragedy of September 11, I saw myself, as a patriotic American. In the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and now Dallas and Baton Rouge, I simply saw myself as a human being, whose heart has been deeply hurt by all this cumulative violence and loss of lives.

Life Lessons

We are seeing unprecedented violence in the United States and abroad towards innocent people—from young children and youth to older adults. While we cannot ignore that our safe heavens and refuges are being attacked and destroyed, we also cannot be deterred from enjoying life to the fullest. We must be vigilant, however, and look out for one another, while being tolerant of all people irrespective of their race or ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, among other attributes.

Even with all the hate and violence that we are experiencing on an almost daily basis, my hope is that we may work together to protect those places that represent safe havens for all people regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation and gender identity.