Orlando's LGBT Community "Will Survive" After Pulse Massacre
Former publisher of city’s gay newspaper with a love for the town talks about what it has to offer.
As much as the date 9/11 has come to represent tragic loss and pain for our country, so, too, will Sunday, June 12. In the early morning hours, just after 2 a.m., shots shattered the sound of Latin music as fear and confusion ripped through the largely LGBT Latin community that had come to Orlando, Fla.'s Pulse nightclub for dancing, drinking and socializing.
Patrons were quickly dropping to the floor — some in an effort to escape the hail of bullets, while others fell victim to fatal gunshots from Omar Seddique Mateen, 29, a New York-born American of Afghan descent.
After the initial onslaught, Mateen took several of his surviving victims hostage inside the club. Nearly three hours later, shortly after 5 a.m., a heavily armed SWAT team used an armored vehicle to smash down a doorway to the building, which allowed approximately 30 trapped club attendees to escape and the armed team to kill Mateen.
At press time, reports indicated Mateen had taken the lives of 49 individuals and injured 53, with most listed in critical condition in what has been called the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Despite the horrific terrorist slaughter, Orlando’s LGBT community will survive — and thrive — as it has for many years.
Tom Dyer, 60, is a well-known figure in Orlando’s LGBT community. He founded the publication Watermark in 1994. Although he sold the company that produces the paper and website earlier this year, he still continues to write for both. With a long history in the city, he’s a wealth of information when it comes to what Orlando has to offer. "Pulse is generally a great club," he says. "It’s been open for eight years or so and caters primarily to a younger crowd, mostly twentysomethings. They usually have a lot of different theme nights, which is probably one of the reasons it has continued to be successful for so long. Great management, pretty club, pretty people."
Dyer is particularly proud that Orlando is a supportive and welcoming city, and he’s happy to share its recipe for success. "Orlando has always had a sizable gay population, because of Disney and the other attractions here," he beams. "A lot come to visit, and a lot work here. It’s a diverse group of people. I’d say most of the growth [within the LGBT community] has taken place over the past 20 years. That’s when the gay community became involved with the gentrification of downtown, which they were pretty much responsible for. There are a lot of other contributing factors that make it a welcoming and supportive place for the gay community and LGBT businesses."
Dyer continues: “Our mayor, Buddy Dyer, is very gay-positive and liked by the community. He’s been in office since 2003. And we have an openly lesbian city councilwoman — who was open when she ran. Patty Sheehan has been in office since 2000 and she’s up for re-election again this year. This is a great city to be gay and open in. It’s very supportive."
Even though the shooting and deaths of so many have left the entire city broken and fearful, Dyer is confident it will regain its strength over time.
"No one ever saw anything like this coming," he explains. "Most of the victims are really young, which makes it so sad. But I don’t think this will take the spirit out of our community. We’ll bounce back. I think most people realize this is just one isolated incident, perpetrated by one individual. Our gay community will survive, and tourists will still come to visit just as much as they always have. We’re not going to let this person or this tragedy, as horrible as it is, make us step back."
Another personality who’s known around the country and in Orlando is Linda Clifford. She’s responsible for such R&B and dance music hits as "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Red Light" and "Don’t Come Cryin’ to Me." They’re all previous Billboard Dance chart toppers and still popular favorites on retro disco nights in dance clubs. Most recently she joined forces with Evelyn "Champagne" King and Martha Wash to release the dance single "Show Some Love," which hit the top ten of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs Chart last July.
Clifford has been a regular performer in Orlando, and still maintains a dedicated fondness for the city and its gay community. "I'm devastated, like most people," she says. "These are my people, family, and friends. I feel the loss of every mom. Many of them are like my children, too. My professional life has been spent primarily in the gay community. They danced to my music, we danced together, we cried together during the AIDS epidemic.
"There really are no words that can ease the pain these families must be going through," she adds. "When you think about the ages of the victims, it’s heartbreaking. Twentysomethings are just babies. They have been robbed of a life that could have brought any number of joys to the world. Future doctors or inventors, or presidents. Who knows what could have come from this group of young people?"
Like Dyer, Clifford is certain Orlando will rise from the ashes.
"It’s a strong, wonderful city with a lot going for it," she professes. "I’ve enjoyed coming here as a performer and bringing my family here many times for vacations. People aren’t going to just stop. We have to go on living!"
David Aaron Moore has served as an editor for Southern Voice, Q-Notes and Jezebel magazine. His written works have appeared on Al-Jazeera America, Fox News, Yahoo! The Advocate and more. In addition, he is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem for History Press/Arcadia.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.