Every queer in Orlando has memories at Pulse. Located about two miles south of the main nightlife action of downtown, it was the perfect distance to be convenient to reach and also comfortably separated from predominantly heterosexual nightclubs and bars.
The flamboyantly gender-nonconforming among us would either tone down our expression or be eyed suspiciously in downtown proper, but we were safe at Pulse. Until Saturday night, the modestly sized nightclub was a sanctuary where we could gather and let our hair down, dress comfortably, play with gender, get serious about gender, flirt, and kiss our partners without fear.
When I first came out as a lesbian about six years ago, Pulse was the first place I went. My brother came with me and brought the woman who would become his wife. It was their first date. We hung out on the patio. I drank too many buttery nipples and made some humiliating passes at some unfortunate nearby women. Thankfully, they were kind enough to make their exits with nothing more damaging than an eyeroll. A cheerful gay man finally saved me from myself by giving me a big hug and asking me to join him for a drink on his birthday. By the time the night’s drag performers hit the stage, I was all smiles. Every worry I had over the years about whether people would find out about the real me just flaked off like a shell I had finally grown out of. I was home.
It seemed only fitting that four years later, my maid of honor should take me there for my bachelorette party. She’d flown in from California and I didn’t want anything big so it was just the two of us. It was a His and Hers exotic-dancer night and so the club was divided informally into a men’s room and a women’s room. The lesbian dancer, however, had apparently been waylaid and all of the action had migrated to the men’s side. This was before marriage equality was the law of the land and I’d spent the entire week explaining to straight family, friends, and coworkers that while, yes, I was calling the weekend’s event a “wedding,” it would not in fact be a legal wedding—and yes, I knew that, and no, an Iowa marriage certificate would not be considered valid in Florida.
At Pulse that night, I didn’t have to explain any of this. When our bartender, a tall, dark, and extremely handsome man with bigger muscles than I’d ever seen before, asked me and my maid of honor what we were doing there, I responded simply “I’m marrying my girlfriend this weekend!” There were no questions. There was no moment where he stared at the ceiling contemplating the legal implications of my endeavor. There wasn’t even a second of hesitation before he broke out in a thousand-watt smile and said “I am so happy for you! I want to buy you girls some shots!”
On Sunday morning, I was woken up by worried texts from my mother. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and then reassured her: I wasn’t there. Immediately, I texted every gay person I know and slowly—too slowly—their responses came back. Not everyone has been so lucky. I checked in with my favorite online groups, Orlando Lesbians and Orlando Gay Parents, where we shared pictures of missing friends and loved ones as we desperately waited for answers. We watched on television as victims and witnesses described jumping over the fence to escape the back patio where I lounged happily with my brother six years ago. We shared stories of people we’d met and girlfriends we’d canoodled on the couch. Later in the day, we watched as police dragged body bags from the room where I’d celebrated with my best friend and maid of honor.
Pulse was founded 12 years ago by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler. Barbara named the club Pulse in memory of her brother John, a gay man who died of AIDS. The owners of the club made it a priority to serve the gay community and became a fundraising powerhouse. They were heavily involved in events supporting The Stafford House (aka The Gathering Center) and Zebra Coalition, which are youth-outreach programs that offer counseling and services to LGBTQIA kids in various states of crisis. Before the Supreme Court decision that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, Pulse supported Out4Immigration, an organization that helped same-sex couples who were denied access to immigration and citizenship benefits afforded to their heterosexual peers. True to their inspiration—John—Pulse also had a hand in fundraising for HIV/AIDS research and patient assistance. They didn’t just make a profit off of us; they were a part of us and they had their hand in everything. The money we spent on nights out drinking and dancing always turned into assistance for our young and our sick.
The Orlando LGBT community is a family. This weekend, the Zebra Coalition along with The Center community group are now the ones supporting Pulse. They are overwhelmed with requests for their counseling services and almost every LGBT person with something to offer has delivered. Pulse has been there for us for 12 years and we are there for them now.