5 years after Pulse horror, LGBTQ+ community feels less safe than ever

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Pulse Nightclub Attack Timeline

Five years after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, some members of the LGBTQ+ community say they don’t feel any safer after what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

“Anytime there’s a mass shooting, it stops you in your tracks,” said Maria Palladino, whose wife, Kirsten, is editorial director and co-founder of Equally Wed, an Atlanta-based online LGBTQ+ wedding resource. “But five years ago, this one was more personal. I’m from Orlando; I didn’t know any of the victims or nightclub owners, but as a gay person, you realize that could have been you.”

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, 29, walked into the Pulse nightclub and opened fire, killing 49, wounding 53 and traumatizing hundreds more. Orlando police shot and killed Mateen after a three-hour standoff.

At the time of the shooting, Pulse was hosting a “Latin Night,” and most of the victims were Latinx. In a 911 call made after the attack, Mateen swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said the May 2016 U.S. killing of Abu Waheeb in Iraq triggered his attack. To date, the Pulse shooting is the deadliest incident against the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history and, at the time, was the nation’s worst mass shooting.

(On Oct. 1, 2017, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 61 and injuring 867, with 411 of those victims hit by gunfire).

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“There is so much gun violence in the U.S., as are the levels of hatred and animosity in our society,” said Jamie Ferguson, executive director of Atlanta Pride. “Guns are barely regulated in the U.S. compared to other nations. It’s not safe to be a marginalized person in America right now, and we need to work on being a more welcoming society overall.”

Gun reform advocates vowed action after the Pulse shootings, but recent spates of violence not only in Florida but also around the nation have advocates worrying the U.S. is becoming numb to the violence.

ExploreAtlanta set to remember Pulse shooting, 5 years later

“We’re living now in a culture that has normalized these mass shootings,” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a senior adviser to the gun reform group called Giffords and a former Democratic congresswoman from South Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re living in a culture where Americans love their guns more than they love their community members, their neighbors, their friends. And, unfortunately, many people think that this is one more incident that’s happening in another city, and it doesn’t touch you.”

Days after the Pulse attack, Democrats held a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House trying to force Republicans to vote on gun control. But the effort failed, as did Democratic calls for a special session of the Florida Legislature to address reforms.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, has introduced bills to ban sales of assault-style rifles in Florida every year since his election in 2016. None has come to a vote in the GOP-controlled chamber.

“We’ve got problems in Tallahassee because we appear to be going in the opposite direction,” Smith said. “We have not been given a single hearing by the majority party, even if symbolic. They refuse to put this issue on the agenda. [But] the issue is not going away.”

Just this year in Florida, Democratic bills to require background checks for the sale or transfer of ammunition, increasing requirements for safe storage of firearms, and to allow local governments to set their own gun laws all failed to come to a vote on the floor.

Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law preventing local governments from regulating guns. A bill allowing guns on properties at churches attached to schools also passed, though bills introduced by state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, allowing open carrying of guns on college campuses have died in committee for three consecutive years.

GOP leaders say their opposition to gun reforms comes down to personal rights.

“The Republican Party of Florida supports all rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and the Second Amendment is no exception,” Florida Republican spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said.

ExploreHere are the gun violence bills now before Congress

Some recent polls have shown most Americans, Republicans included, support some reforms.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll from March showed 84% of voters, including 77% of Republicans, supported closing the gun show “loophole” and requiring all gun buyers to go through a background check. That echoes similar polls over the past few years, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll from 2019.

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, cited Pulse as one of the reasons she decided to run for Congress just weeks later.

“One of the key areas that I focused on when I got to Congress was on trying to lift the 22-year ban on gun violence research,” she said. “And I’m proud to say that we were able to achieve that.”

DeSantis and Florida Republicans are also under fire from LGBTQ+ activists on budget issues. Earlier this month, DeSantis signed a state budget that slashed funding from Orlando’s LGBTQ Community Center; eliminated $750,000 approved by Florida lawmakers for the Orlando-based Zebra Coalition to create housing for homeless gay and transgender youth; and rejected appropriating $150,000 in state funds that would have provided counseling for Pulse survivors.

Equality Florida, a civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community, said the cuts represented the entirety of state funding for LGBTQ programs.

“Let’s be clear about what this is: DeSantis has declared war on Florida’s LGBTQ community,” said Brandon Wolf, spokesman for Equality Florida and a survivor of the Pulse massacre, according to NBC News. “Before the 2019 Remembrance Ceremony, DeSantis stood on hallowed ground, steps from where I escaped the building in 2016, and promised me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting.

“Almost two years later to date, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget.”

In an email to The Washington Post, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw denied the governor’s actions would hurt Pulse survivors.

“No Floridian in need should go without mental health care, and of course that includes survivors of horrific traumas like the Pulse shooting,” Pushaw said. “The fact that Gov. DeSantis vetoed funds earmarked for a specific organization doesn’t negate his administration’s historic investments in mental health for all Floridians, including LGBTQ communities. Gov. DeSantis has been a champion on mental health since day one — and he absolutely supports each and every Floridian who has experienced such horrific trauma, which has a lifelong impact on survivors.”

Researchers say at least 40% of the nation’s homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming. They are also more likely to be suicidal and struggle with substance abuse, unemployment and depression.

Multiple Orlando religious leaders met this week at a local church in Orlando to remember the victims, with several other events planned ahead of June 12.

The Rev. Terri Steed Pierce of Joy Church said the Pulse nightclub shooting is an unforgettable tragedy that brought so many people together including churches that opened their doors and created relationships with the LGBTQ community.

“I’ve created many friendships that would have never existed prior to this, and I’m so thankful that that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Pulse,” Pierce said.

“As a conservative faith leader, it wasn’t until the tragedy of Pulse that I realized that I may have been complicit in that kind of denigration and hatred,” said Dr. Joel Hunter, a former Northland Church pastor.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim, a synagogue founded for the LGBTQ+ community, organized a vigil immediately after the Pulse shooting at downtown’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. One of the many poignant moments he remembers came when a local imam embraced a woman.

“This woman was Muslim, a person of color and also a lesbian,” Lesser recalled. “In this moment of challenge she was trying to hold onto all of her identities together. I’d known this imam for many years, and when he embraced her, he said, ‘You are part of our community.’ In that one moment, she was able to fully claim who she is, with all of the anger and grief and pride coming together.

“I’d never witnessed that kind of healing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.