Hate does not define us

It has been the most difficult four days of my life. Being so far away from Orlando right now and knowing so many of my loved ones are hurting in the most profound way has torn my heart into pieces. The vigils around the world have been awe-inspiring, and the Orlando vigils that came together in such rapid response to the devastation have left me breathless.

In the year I worked for Equality Florida, I witnessed the barrage of attacks against our community. It is abundantly clear that Tallahassee does not stand for my LGBTQ+ family. They have actively worked to dehumanize us, to vilify us and to segregate us. Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Sen. Marco Rubio might be saying they are with us, but their previous actions speak much louder than their words.

Congress does not have our interests at heart, either. I work in Washington just blocks from the White House. I look with hope to our government to act. We have voices and advocates who refuse to be silent for us. But there are far too many who remain deafeningly silent. We hear them and their hollow thoughts and prayers.

The biggest struggle I have been balancing is fear. Fear for my brothers and sisters who endured this hateful violence knowing that such hate exists throughout this country. We have suffered bloodshed, an ocean of tears, heartbreak and profound sorrow. This attack was on me, on all of us. But it has stoked a fire in me. We must stand up and be heard instead of remaining fearfully silent.

I’ve needed to do something, even from so far away. My activist heart does not stop beating for us all: the staff of Pulse who are reeling from this tragedy, the families of the innocent victims who are stricken with paralyzing grief, for those survivors whose trauma can only be unimaginable and for the city I have called home my whole life.

I spoke to a dear friend recently about how helpless I feel and how much I want to do something. She reminded me, “You can be a voice.”

There are so many youths hiding in the shadows, fearful of being outcast and alienated. I was there with them. So many lawmakers are working to enact hate into statute. I have witnessed it. Discrimination and hate come in many forms, and they exist in every corner of this country. When all of us come together, when we don’t stop speaking our desire for change and calling out the hate wherever we see it, when we act with clear minds and full hearts, our capacity to inspire change may well be limitless. Our unity remains unbroken, our bond unshaken, and our hearts continue to pulse for our LGBTQ family. We must keep standing together.

Today, I remind myself of those who stood out before us when it was more than just politically inconvenient. I remember Harvey Milk’s own words: “Hope will never be silent.”

When our LGBTQ family stands together and our progressive partners and allies standing with us refuse to be silent, we can inspire the change we seek and ensure those who come after us remember us not for the hate we endured, but for how we remained resilient in the face of it. No bullet can shatter the dream of a better future, and together we will break down every barrier to make this world better and kinder. It starts with us.

-Submitted by Tyler Kraus, a UCF alumnus and former communications associate for Equality Florida

Orlando’s Latino community will emerge stronger

It didn’t take long for the Latino community to learn that the majority of the Pulse nightclub casualties would be fellow Latinos.

For me, that moment came when I interviewed Francisco Hernandez, 24, who escaped the shooting shortly after it broke out. He said it was Latino night at the club, and he and others had been dancing to reggaeton music in the smaller of the club’s two rooms.

Others were quick to catch on, too, such as Nancy Rosado, a licensed social worker and retired New York City Police officer.

“There is no intervention here for this incident. It was Latino night so many are not English speaking,” she texted.

As Rosado made the rounds of the LGBT Center off Mills Avenue and other locations, she became angry that people were paying closer attention to the LGBT angle of the story at the expense of the victims’ Hispanic ethnicity.

Rosado, who is lesbian, and others sprang into action, volunteering the translation, mental health and other services the families were in desperate need of.

Others soon followed suit. Some members of the Orlando chapter of the Hispanic Bar Association are helping families outside the United States get emergency visas. Some volunteered their marketing skills. And so it went.

“Both of my communities are hurting,” Rosado said.

It took this tragedy for the Latino community to learn how truly rich it is and to discover the wealth of resources at its fingertips. The Pulse nightclub shooting unified an often fragmented population — there are more than a dozen Hispanic ethnic groups, although half of Latinos here are Puerto Rican. In nearly 20 years in Orlando, I haven't seen anything like it before.

We learned that community leaders can put egos aside to form the coalition Somos Orlando to better coordinate and allocate resources to victims’ families.

We witnessed a population that sometimes overthinks things immediately spring into action, understanding that they needed to be the bridge between law enforcement and families. Who else could fill the gap?

There’s no mistaking that the Orlando Latino community took a massive blow to the gut. This was personal. But the Hispanic community also took no time to cry. It couldn’t stay down. It had to get up and do something.

It’s my hope that that is the permanent lesson for Orlando’s Spanish-speaking community — that a new and stronger Hispanic voice has to emerge from the 49 lives that were so senselessly and cruelly snuffed out in an incomprehensible and cowardly act.

-Submitted by Maria Padilla, founder and editor of Orlando Latino

Pulse shooting not an act of Islam

Since the beginning of the month of Ramadan on June 5, I’ve devoted my nights to prayer and spirituality because my time during the day is allocated between fasting and my work duties. On the night of June 12, around 2 a.m., I performed my Tahjjud prayer (also known as the night prayer, a voluntary prayer performed by followers of Islam) read the Koran till dawn, had a light breakfast before I went to sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, I was greeted by the worst news imaginable. The same time I performed my duties to my God, another man used my religion to kill 49 innocent men and women at the Pulse nightclub. The Religion of Peace that I believe in was once again hijacked to justify senseless mass murder.

I am a Muslim, and I’m an unapologetic follower of Islam. I’ve never once claimed to be a perfect Muslim because, in my opinion, only the Prophet Mohammed was the perfect Muslim in Islam. Omar Mateen, the man responsible for the worst shooting in U.S. history, was not a true Muslim. Over the next few days, Islamophobics in the mainstream media will try to paint him as a caricature of all Muslims, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If Omar Mateen were a true Muslim, he would have been at home praying as most Muslims are during the month of Ramadan. If Omar wanted to serve God, he would have spent his days fasting and his nights praying. The crime committed by Omar was not an act of Islam but rather an act of terrorism, and terrorism has no religion.

-Submitted by Rezwan Haq, a junior political science major at UCF involved with the Muslim Student Association

We must keep fighting

On Sunday morning, a shooter opened fire inside a club in Orlando and took 49 innocent lives. It seems simple enough when it’s laid out like that, but the truth is that it’s a lot more than just the deadliest mass shooting in US history — and isn’t that saying a lot? — because it wasn’t just any club, it was a gay club, and it wasn’t just any night. It was Latin night.

As a member of both the LGBT+ and Latino communities, it’s been a weekend full of anger, sadness and grieving, but even so, it’s hard to not get caught up in the politics of what happened. There are so many factors that come into play here — the shooter was Muslim and allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, and the shooting took place during a time in which the US is constantly discussing gun control laws due to the large amount of shootings we’ve witnessed over the last few years.

Of course, this tragedy affects us all, especially those of us living in Orlando and in the Central Florida area. Many of us have been to Pulse, most of us probably knew one of the victims or knew of them — it’s hard to not be affected. But what I’ve seen glossed over and forgotten about, mostly on social media but also in the news coverage of the event, is the fact that this shooting targeted LGBT+ people.

I don’t want to make this about gun control, because plenty of other people have and they will likely have better arguments about it than I would. I don’t want to make this about religion, because that’s not the driving force behind this attack. I want to call it for what it is — homophobia, pure and simple.

At this point, we have heard that the shooter had allegedly been on gay dating apps, and according to the Orlando Sentinel, multiple Pulse regulars recognized him from seeing him around the club. Yet seeing two gay men kissing in Miami made him angry, according to his father.

It’s chilling to think that a place that meant safety and comfort to members of the LGBT+ community will forever be tainted by the memories of this tragedy. The one and only gay club I’ve ever been to is Pulse, and both of my visits were definitely memorable. It was in Pulse that I first felt welcomed by the LGBT+ community, and it was in Pulse that I saw LGBT+ couples showing affection and being their true selves without fear of judgment or discrimination.

We can’t forget what this attack means to the LGBT+ community, and we can’t forget the impact this will inevitably have on our community. To us, it means fear of not being able to show who we are or be comfortable in public. To us, it means that society and the world is far from being where we hope it might be, and it’s a reminder of the dangers we face just by being proud of our identities.

You might not think of a nightclub as a place where people go to feel safe, but for the LGBT+ community, clubs, bars and other venues have been a safe space for a long time. It’s where you know you’ll find like-minded people, where you know you won’t run the risk of getting dirty looks or rude comments toward you and your significant other. But now, LGBT+ people all over the world will question their safety in places where it used to be something they took for granted, and it will take a while for Orlando and the LGBT+ community to recover.

If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that life is too short to hold grudges, you should always tell your friends and family you love them and that your race, gender, religion or sexual orientation don’t matter in the face of a tragedy, because a true community will come together and help the affected heal and recover. We may have been knocked down, but we’ll get back up and keep fighting, because we’re #OrlandoStrong.

-Submitted by Valentina Boré, a UCF alumna who is LGBT and Latino

Fight for full equality isn't over

I’m a proud gay, Latino, cisgender male. That intersectionality left me experiencing a mix of emotions in the wake of the hate crime massacre that took the lives of 49 of our friends-- most of whom were also young queer Latino men. These emotions included grief, anger, and a sense of denial that an attack like this could happen in such an inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly city like Orlando.

This act of terror was committed by a radical American homophobe who had easy access to an arsenal of deadly weapons. It seems clear that he was inspired by a homophobic hatred of others or perhaps even a homophobic hatred of himself. Knowing that, it is important to talk about the LGBTQ identities of most of the victims. Not doing so would be an insult to their memories, because it was their queer identities that inspired this type of hate. A hate that was an attack on the LGBTQ community, on Latinos, as well as on our core American values of freedom and equality for all.

It’s true that in recent years we’ve made remarkable progress for LGBTQ people, but even today we face discrimination, harassment, and hate violence. That’s why we must continue the fight for full equality and acceptance and put an end to all types of hate and bigotry once and for all.

We can’t do it alone. LGBTQ Floridians must be joined by Latinos, by our Muslim brothers and sisters, and by other minority groups in opposition to the intolerance, discrimination and hate crimes each of our communities continue to face. With dialogue, love and understanding we can work together to eradicate all phobias. Homophobia. Transphobia. Xenophobia. Islamophobia. These ugly attitudes are our common enemy.

As we mourn and heal together, we must also form a plan of action to disarm hate and keep our communities safe from gun violence.

It’s time to demand action from our elected leaders. Thoughts and prayers as the official response to another mass shooting is not acceptable. They need to get their heads out of the sand and out of the pockets of the NRA to pass real gun safety laws and save us from this epidemic of gun violence right now.

That’s why Equality Florida has joined a coalition of nonpartisan organizations in calling on Tallahassee leaders to convene a special legislative session to implement commonsense gun safety measures immediately. This includes new laws to implement universal background checks and a prohibition on the manufacturing, sales and transfers of semiautomatic assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

We are heartbroken but our community is strong and will not be defeated. We know that love trumps hate. We have a pulse. We charge on. We bleed black and gold. We bleed red, white, and blue. We bleed rainbow colors.

Together we are Orlando strong. We will persevere together. Juntos somos fuertes. Somos Orlando.

-Submitted by Carlos Guillermo Smith, a UCF alumnus and the government affairs manager for Equality Florida Institute, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group

We're all human beings

As I continue to read on and on about the Orlando shooting victims, I can't help but feel a large amount of devastation. The shooting in itself is one of the most horrible things I can image but to hear about the victims lives, victims families, mothers fathers, sisters, lovers it breaks my heart. I've always been such a large supporter of the LGBT community, even before I realized I was in it myself. Being a 14 year old female, questioning my sexuality has always been the biggest problem for me. A year ago I came out to my parents as gay and it was the biggest weight off my shoulders. Growing up and living in a small, judgmental community, it's always been hard. Especially when they get news of things like this. The words I hear people say, they sicken me. It's only been a day since it happened and and I've already heard so many disgusting things, not only from idiotic teens, talking about things they don't know but from adults too. For kids to say things like this is upsetting but to hear adults, middle aged educated, working adults say things so horrible and disgusting brings a sick feeling to my gut. Articles upon articles talk about the hard facts of the shooting, the death count, the survivors, the exact times but as I go on reading more and more an article in the Orlando Sentinel stands out the biggest to me. The article was written by two reporters, Andrew Gibson and Charles Minshew and it makes my heart ache as I read it over and over again. This article drives away from the hard facts and tells you about the victims themselves, who these people were. I read about lovers dying together and bouncers dying doing what they love and my heart breaks more and more each person I hear of. As I read I learn just how human these people were, and it makes me wonder how people can talk about talk about these other human beings as though they are not. If we bring sexuality out of the picture, the truth comes out. All these innocent, beautiful human beliefs will not be able to spend another day of their wonderful lives with us. While this event is absolutely devastating, I hope that it can open some people's eyes. Make people remember that the LGBT community is a community and we are people. We deserve the same as everyone else. My heart goes out to everyone in the shooting, whether your a victims mother or just an acquaintance, whether your a police officer having to watch lives taken, or a bystander on the street, whether your a person donating blood or a person being taken, or a bystander on the street, whether your a person donating blood or a person donating money, whether your like me writing a letter hoping maybe it will help someone, no matter who you are, I hope that tonight you can fall asleep easy and dream that someday this world will be a better place.

- Submitted by Janelle Rose Johnston, an eighth grader at Eatonville Middle School in Eatonville, Washington

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