“Lost 49 friends I’ll never know, two weeks ago today.”
– Pearl Jam “Love Boat Captain” (slightly modified)
Mass shootings have become so commonplace in America that I thought I was starting to become numb. Sure, with each Aurora and Sandy Hook, I would always feel bad and then frustrated that these keep occuring, but the reality of it all never set it. Metropolitan white male privilege, I guess. When the shootings happened in Paris last year, I mourned, but at that point they felt so frequent that I was losing any emotional connection to that type of tragedy.
Two weeks ago, on Sunday morning, I woke up late, as I normally do on a Sunday morning. I checked my phone. There was a text from my mom telling me to call her. Facebook had sent me a notice to check in to say that I’m safe. “What? What the fuck is this? Why wouldn’t I be safe, Facebook?” I checked in because I figured it was just some weird new Facebook feature they were rolling out. I was still waking up, so that’s why my logic was fuzzy. After gathering my wits, I sat down at my computer and checked back on Facebook. A bunch of notifications were waiting for me. This wasn’t unusual. I post stupid stuff throughout the day and comment on my friends’ posts just like everyone else. I clicked the notifications, and the top one was telling me that 29 of my friends in Orlando had checked in as safe. “Weird,” I thought, and started to scroll through my news feed. Then I saw the posts, the articles, the pictures, the questions, the hysteria, etc. The worst mass shooting in American history had happened at the Pulse club which is barely 15 minutes from my house. A gunman had killed at least 49 people and injured 53 others. My heart stopped. I realized what the safety check in was for. I immediately went back to the notifications to see who had checked in. You see, Orlando is a city that prides itself on its diversity. There is no “gay” section of town. The whole town is LGBT friendly. Pulse may have been a gay nightclub, but many of its patrons were also LGBT allies who would just go out for a fun time with their LGBT friends.
It didn’t take long for the news to sink in. This happened in my backyard. This happened to my brothers and sisters. Yes, I bitch and moan about Florida a lot, but deep down, I truly love Orlando and what this city represents. I found myself crying later that afternoon. I didn’t know any of the victims, yet I felt that I did know them in a way since we’re all Orlandoans. But at almost the same time that the extreme grief came in, feelings of inspiration arrived as well. Fellow Orlando residents were lining up outside of blood banks since the morning the news broke. Most lines stretched out so far that the blood banks had to start turning people away because they were running out of supplies due to the massive turnout of people whose kneejerk response to this tragedy was, “How can I help?” This. This is what Orlando is. We take care of our own. People were willing to wait for 6 hours in sweltering heat just to help someone in need. Others would drive by and drop off cold water and snacks for the people in line, just out of the goodness of their hearts. I ended up giving some of my blood at 8am, Monday morning. Anything I could do to help a victim of this senseless crime.
And this unification of Orlando continued well throughout the two weeks that followed. A number of candlelight vigils were held at various points downtown. The most recent one had a turnout of 50,000 people. 50,000! I went to a walk/march around Lake Eola as part of a tribute to the victims. It was basically a bunch of people circling the river, but even still, a shitload of people came out on a rainy day to do what they could to show respect and solidarity. And those who didn’t participate in the walk still showed up to high five the people in the walk and give us cold water. “Orlando United” and “Orlando Pride” t-shirts were made with 100% of proceeds going to help the victims’ families, and people bought them out like hot cakes. Local businesses were donating proceeds to the various charities. Almost all of the letter signs outside of shops changed to “ORLANDO UNITED”, “LOVE CONQUERS ALL” or some variation of such. And just in general, people stopped being dicks to each other. People were letting you cut in front of them in traffic, nobody would give you a weird look if you walked into the supermarket with puffy eyes because you had been crying earlier. Orlando was operating on an NYC post-9/11 level of community support.
No amount of goodwill can ever outweigh the trauma of what happened that night, but Orlando certainly tried. And in a weird twist of events, suddenly, for at least a brief period of time, Florida wasn’t the butt of a joke. Cities not only across America, but around the world as well, were standing with Orlando. The showing of love and support for our town and the LGBT community silenced the homophobic minority. Don’t fuck with the LGBT community. They’ve worked hard to get where they’re at, and we’re doing our damndest to help them along the way. This isn’t the America of 30 years ago where being gay is weird, gross, or whatever. This is an America where gay people are finally getting the same rights as the rest of us, and the allies are proud to wear rainbows to show solidarity. It’s a beautiful thing.
The question is, where do we go from here? The cynical side of me know that we’re all gonna start being assholes to each other sooner rather than later and go back to our usual ways of cutting people off in traffic and not holding the door open. How can we prevent more tragedies like this from happening? I don’t know. We ask that every time this happens and the conversation always dissolves into screaming at walls with armchair constitutional scholars and nothing fucking gets done. I don’t know what to do. All I know is that I can try to help my fellow Orlandoans, and I have seen with my own eyes that love is way stronger than hate. And that’s what Orlando is doing right now: helping others heal and loving even if we don’t know each other. The Orlando response to this has shown me that the true nature of human beings is compassion. Hate will always be around, but love will always prevail over it.
To all of you outside of Orlando who have sent thoughts and prayers, made donations to charities, given blood, or even just changed your Facebook pic, know this: we appreciate it and we thank you all.