Patrons on Orlando's Pulse Before the Tragedy: "We Could Be Our Authentic Selves"

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A vigil for the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.

"Pulse wasn't about violence; it was about acceptance. And I hope it can once again be a place where people come together to be themselves."

On Sunday, Orlando, Fla.’s LGBT nightclub, Pulse, became the site of the most brutal mass shooting in U.S. history. It’s natural to focus our rage on the arrogant hate of the assailant, Omar Mateen, and the fact that he obtained assault weapons with unnerving ease. But it's also a moment to understand the importance of Pulse and what it was: a gem of a club where a diverse and engaged community regularly found joyful common ground.

Co-owner Barbara Poma opened Pulse in 2001 as a remembrance of her brother John, who died of complications related to AIDS. Since then it’s been a haven for Orlando’s LGBT community as well as anybody wanting a great night out. Hosting everything from drag-show benefits and talent shows to Latino dance nights, the small, 500-capacity club featured a central dance floor and a covered patio area and was a grounding presence for a community that basked in the glow of equality.

Isis Miller, 29, a community manager for a South Florida daily newsletter, was a regular at Pulse. Still waiting anxiously for news of her unaccounted-for friends who had gone to the club on Saturday night, she shared what the club meant to her. "Pulse wasn't just a place to dance. It wasn't just a club," she said. "It was a place we could be our authentic selves and not worry about being judged. It was our place to convene with the family we had made after our own families had turned us away. It was where we could laugh and flirt and dance and exist with like-minded folk. We forged bonds under the club lights and music. And even then maybe we didn't know how much it meant for us to be able to be together and free in that way. But it mattered. That's all we knew."

"The first time I went to Pulse I was caught off guard. I didn't know there were gay clubs like this still," dancer Chris Hodgson, 56, told Billboard recalling his nights at Pulse. "There were just as many lesbians as gay guys there, all partying together. I also couldn't help but notice how many straight kids were there with their gay friends, all getting along. It was almost utopian."

The enormity of the attack affected him deeply. "To think that some sick deranged individual could so casually walk in and take that all away in an instant, leaves me stunned," said Hodgson. "Those kids' lives are forever changed. Fifty lives were taken. Fifty. Families ripped apart and dreams extinguished. There is simply no sense to be made of any of this."

As word of the tragedy spread on early Sunday morning, former patrons as well as off-duty officers and EMTs flooded the scene to offer support. Lawyer Aly Benitez, 35, who had frequented the club since its opening, stood quietly among them marveling at the "straight dudes" exchanging stories about the great times they had at Pulse. One officer told the crowd he had just celebrated his girlfriend’s birthday there a few weeks ago. Benitez was moved, but not surprised.

Pulse wasn’t a club 'in' Orlando. It was very much club 'of' Orlando, representing what the city has been able to achieve. "People like to bash Florida for the crazy headlines, but we are more than that. Orlando is more than Mickey Mouse," insists Benitez. "Everyone from our Mayor, Buddy Dyer, to our council men and women have fought passionately to ensure that our community is open and welcoming to all. Pulse is this little place created out of love. It’s horrifically ironic to me that a massacre like this could happen at place that is about love."

The tragedy may have broken her heart, but Benitez says it won't break her unshakeable faith in Orlando. "This city’s heart is bigger than any other city I have ever lived in. I have no doubt that this community is going to rally around each other and show the world that the love in Orlando is far greater than the hate this massacre inspired," she said. "Pulse wasn't about violence; it was about acceptance. And I hope it can once again be a place where people come together to be themselves." 

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.

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