TOBIN: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
[SLOW THEME MUSIC]
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And I'm Tobin Low.
LALY: This is a recent memory. This was for his birthday, actually, um ... in 2015.
TOBIN: This is Laly Santiago-Leon. She lives in Orlando, Florida. And the birthday boy she’s talking about is her cousin, Dani Wilson-Leon.
[GENTLE MUSIC IN]
LALY: And he had a big party. He wanted to have an amazing party. And he wanted everybody to dress in hot pink, so all of us had the same shirts on. And the two of us started dancing. Like, pretending to waltz. And I almost fell over. It was just the comedic timing of almost falling [LAUGHS] -- falling over [LAUGHS] and then being caught and then lifted like I’m some ballerina. Totally awkward! But that’s just how we -- that's how we acted [LAUGHS] and that never changed. And he’s just such a sweetheart ... so, so awesome. [TEARS UP]
LALY: He was like a brother to me because when he moved from Puerto Rico, he lived with my parents. And so we’ve always been very close. He met Gene at the store that Gene worked at, Perfumania. And they were smitten for each other. In Puerto Rico he didn’t really have the social outlets that he was afforded here to be who he was, given a more machismo culture in Puerto Rico. He wanted to see, y'know, "What was life like here?" So I took him to Pulse. This was when he first moved in 2004, and he loved it. He was just like, “This is it.”
TOBIN: If you ask queer people in Orlando, especially queer Latinx people, they all talk about Pulse in a similar way. It was the place to be.
[CLUB MUSIC IN]
RICARDO: First time I went to Pulse was in 2014.
MARCO: Pulse was the very first club I ever went to. It's 18 and up, so that was my very first, um, nightclub, and it's also the first club I took my sister to when I first came out.
RICARDO: I saw Pulse online and I went. And it was so, like, welcoming.
MARCO: The hanging beads at the front entrance ... the long line coming out the door to get in to pay your cover and go in ...
PATTY: And they had these tables that came out of the floor and they had these glass beads in them and LEDs and everything in the whole room changed color. And then there was this dance floor that looked Moulin Rouge, and ...
CHRIS H: The music was awesome. There was a DJ on the patio and the main DJ in the Latin room and the Adonis room which was hip hop.
RICARDO: We would go mostly on Saturdays because it was Latin night. And it was packed. It was always packed.
MARCO: Like over ten years of knowing the same the bartender who would always give me a discount on my drinks or something. [LAUGHS] Yeah, it was, uh, it was like, a different form of family. It was definitely a chosen family.
[CLUB MUSIC OUT]
[OUTDOOR TRAFFIC SOUNDS IN]
TOBIN: Pulse nightclub is about 15 miles north of Disney World, in downtown Orlando.
TOBIN: There’s so many handwritten messages.
KATHY: And beads.
TOBIN: "Love from Texas," "Love is love" ...
KATHY: And flags.
KATHY: It’s an overcast January afternoon when we visit. From the outside, it looks like a quiet, abandoned building. It’s guarded by a chain link fence covered by a makeshift memorial of posters, stuffed animals, and flowers. They spill into the parking lot.
TOBIN: This one looks like -- Oh! It’s a map of Orlando. It’s a map of all of Orlando.
KATHY: And you know, we talk a lot on the show about these moments where people are figuring themselves out, finding a new definition for who they are. And on that night -- June 12th, 2016 -- the entire city of Orlando found itself faced with that exact kind of moment.
[OUTDOOR TRAFFIC SOUNDS OUT]
TOBIN: When did you find out what had happened?
TERRY: I got the phone call -- I guess it was about 3:30 in the morning.
PATTY: My phone was off, and people had been calling me all evening on my phone. And I have a house phone, too. And someone finally thought to call me on the house phone. It was about 8 o’clock that morning.
TERRY: I’m Terry DeCarlo, I’m the Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Central Florida.
PATTY: My name is Patty Sheehan, I’m a city commissioner in Orlando, FL. I was the first openly gay elected official in central Florida.
TERRY: My husband and I were asleep, and he happened to get up to go to the kitchen. And he walked in with my cell phone and he said, “Your phone is blowing up,” he said, "And mine keeps going off. Something is happening."
PATTY: And it was the chief of staff Frank Billingsley, who was also gay. And he says, “Commissioner, are you sitting down?” And I said, “What happened?”
TERRY: And I looked at Bill, my husband, and I said, “There’s a shooting down at Pulse. It sounds kind of frantic. Let’s get dressed and go down and see what’s going on.”
NEWSTAPE 1: Breaking news at this hour from Orlando, where there are reports of a shooting at a nightclub ...
NEWSTAPE 2: Witnesses that we have spoken to at the scene say that they were inside the club around 2 AM this morning, the music pumping. That’s when a man entered the club and then opened fire.
NEWSTAPE 3: The gunman has been identified as Omar Seddique Mateen.
NEWSTAPE 4: We’re here at the intersection of Orange and Miller. We are just blocks outside of downtown near this nightclub ...
TERRY: And we pulled up to where the police cars were, and the policeman who happened to be standing there, I knew [him]. And he knew who I was. So he said, “I’m letting you through. Pull down and to the left, and you’ll see a parking lot.” We went down, we pulled in, we got out of the car, we started hightailing it down towards the building -- towards Pulse -- when another officer, a friend of ours, came running at us.
TERRY: And at that point I looked at him and I said, “Jim, what the hell is going on?” And he said, “At this point --" [STARTING TO CRY] Sorry. "-- Right now, we have about 20 dead on the floor.” And I lost it, I went down.
LALY: These lists would come out with names, and, um ... their names did not appear. Neither Gene nor Dani. In my heart, I had a feeling. Because if he was still alive at that time, he would have called or something. And nothing -- nothing came through. So we had to wait until later that evening. That’s when it had been confirmed that the both of them had died there. I know the question was initially, y'know, “When did I find out?” -- I knew. I just felt it. But, um ... it took me a long time, and it still does, to try to accept the fact that he’s not here. It still feels like the same day.
PATTY: From there it was like, it was just: We’re having a press conference. At first it was 21, and then there was the press conference, where it was announced that it was 50, and then they took the shooter out, of course, because he was not considered a victim. And then the number went down to 49. And just being in that crowd and hearing the gasp -- and it wasn't -- y'know, usually media people are just taking notes and not reacting. Everybody who was there reacted.
KATHY: We’re in Patty Sheehan’s office at city hall.
PATTY: Pardon the boxes and stuff. These are actually memory boxes from all the victims.
KATHY: There’s stacks of paper everywhere. The walls are covered in artwork and banners.
PATTY: A rainbow flag from the mayor of San Francisco, cards from all over the world.
KATHY: Patty has spent the last several months trying to locate families so she can send them the memory boxes made for each victim.
PATTY: And I managed to track down -- out of the 49, I’ve only got 17 left.
KATHY: She says all of this -- the locating of families, the organizing of resources and gifts -- it completely changed her job description.
PATTY: I mean, I’m usually dealing with someone who’s upset about a tree limb. You know, infill development and filling the potholes and restoring the brick streets and historic preservation and those kinds of things. And you know, I mean … Unfortunately, though, now I’m working on some very sad things -- finding 49 plots in our cemetery. You know, I don’t deal with mass shootings everyday. And I kinda wonder where we’re gonna put all this stuff, but for now it’s become my office, and I’m fine with that because I’m not quite ready to let it go anyway.
MATT: What was the most unusual thing you got, as a donation?
TOBIN: This is our producer Matt.
TERRY: Do you really want to know?
TOBIN: And this is Terry DeCarlo, who runs the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Orlando.
TERRY: It was the actual state flag from the state of North Carolina that was sent to us by the Governor. And when it came in, it came in with a certificate signed by him. And the press was here when it came in. And I said that I’m going to be hanging that flag in a gender neutral bathroom. [ALL LAUGH] And I actually have the flag in my office -- with the certificate.
TOBIN: The center sits in a storefront on a busy street. You might miss it if it weren’t for a colorful mural painted on its side. As Terry shows us around, he keeps apologizing for the state of things. They were already in the middle of a construction project before all this started, and things just keep coming in from all over the country.
TERRY: You know what’s weird? It happened so quick and everything was in seconds, y'know, between when we first got the call. By the time we got down there, we were met by the police -- everything was happening so fast, you didn’t really have time to process. You just had time to act.
TOBIN: His memory of that day is fuzzy. But he’s forcing himself to write down every detail he can recall. He plans to write what he's calling a playbook.
TERRY: If we can put down on paper and put a book together of what we did, what they can expect, what they can be ready for … They’re going to have to tailor it to their city, but if we can put what happened here down on paper, and what we did, we might help another city. So we’re working on that now.
KATHY: The book has directions for everything he can think of: booking flights for family members of victims, connecting over Twitter, organizing donations. It’s all in there.
TERRY: Okay, we need an 18 wheeler -- a refrigerated 18 wheeler -- because we ended up with 35,000 cases of water. And you see the space. We had no room!
It's something you can't prepare for. Y'know, we're hoping this playbook will help people prepare. But ... we weren't ready. We were not ready.
KATHY: Pulse also changed how Terry runs the Center.
TERRY: I do not hire anybody right now who is not bilingual. Because, as the families after Pulse came in, and so many of them did not speak English, I realized,I didn’t have a Spanish-speaking person at my front desk. So we needed to rethink the whole center’s operations.
You know we’re the owners of the angels, too?
TOBIN: Oh, the angel wings.
TERRY: They’re ours. They’re out back right now.
TOBIN: He’s talking about these giant angel wings made out of white cloth and PVC pipes. There’s an entire history of people using them to literally block anti-gay protesters from view. The first time was in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. A hate group called the Westboro Baptist Church decided to show up at the murder trial with signs that said stuff like “God hates fags.” People wearing the angel wings blocked the Westboro protesters from view.
TERRY: And Westboro decided to come here and protest our funerals. The day of the protest, we kept them hidden in a parking garage. We showed up that day, and sure enough, Westboro came. And our people sat there and they held their signs up, and Westboro started yelling. And one guy started singing “Amazing Grace.” And the next thing you know, there’s 4,000 people singing “Amazing Grace.”
[AUDIO OF THE CROWD SINGING “AMAZING GRACE”]
TERRY: We took the angels out of the parking garage, and they walked down the middle of the street and created a barricade. And they were led by the priest, who walked the family of the parishioners through the crowd to get to the church. So our angels were there to protect them. And as soon as they packed their signs up and started walking, all of us went like this and said “Go for it!” And everyone started erupting. It was an amazing sound just to hear everyone erupt.
[YELLING AND CHANTING, "ORLANDO UNITED, ORLANDO IS STRONG"]
KATHY: Coming up after the break: How the events at Pulse affected even the unlikeliest of people.
TOBIN: We’ll talk with the pastor of one of Florida’s largest evangelical churches --
JOEL HUNTER: [FROM A RECORDED SERMON] So Jesus affirms that definition of marriage. That will be our definition of marriage.
TOBIN: -- a man who previously had an uneasy relationship with the LGBTQ community. But after Pulse, [he] found himself at a crossroads.
KATHY: This is Nancy.
TOBIN: When we were talking to people in Orlando, there was something that, across the board, everyone would say. What happened at Pulse changed the entire city -- even people you wouldn’t expect.
KATHY: Which is why we took a drive about 25 minutes north of Pulse to Northland Church. It’s this huge evangelical church with a congregation of about 20,000 people.
KATHY: I mean, I feel like it’s better than some concert halls I’ve been to.
TOBIN: We’re getting a tour of the sanctuary from Bradley Nolff. He does PR for the church.
BRADLEY: This is another audio position. This is our broadcast studio. So this is mixing the audio just for people online.
KATHY: Northland’s congregation is split between people who attend services in person, and people who tune in to watch services online.
[CLIP] JOEL: Have you not read the scriptures? “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” So Jesus affirms that definition of marriage. That will be our definition of marriage.
KATHY: This is head pastor Dr. Joel Hunter during one of his broadcasts from 2015. He’s responding to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision.
[CLIP] JOEL: We have no animosity toward anybody else. You know, we can -- you don’t have to be mean just because you’re right.
KATHY: Joel was one of President Obama’s spiritual advisors at the time. He was ambivalent about Obama’s support of gay marriage. And around Orlando, he and his church had a reputation of being pretty unfriendly to the LGBTQ community.
TOBIN: But when something like Pulse happens -- when it’s undeniable that the LGBTQ community has been targeted -- how does it change a someone whose faith has previously gotten in the way of acceptance?
JOEL: The week after this happened, I got up in front of the congregation and said, “I’m so undone by this. Not because I had so many relationships in that community, but because I had so few.”
TOBIN: Did you have a moment when you realized you actually didn’t know anyone?
JOEL: Yes. When the names started coming out, I was looking for folks that I would know. And there was no one on the list. And usually, we’re a large enough church that when any tragedy happens, we’re one of the first places people come to. Nobody came immediately.
TOBIN: This sort of admitting of not knowing ... So, Kathy and I are new hosts, and in that sense kind of new leaders. One of the things I’m definitely learning is admitting -- that part of leadership is admitting when I don’t know something. [LAUGHS]
JOEL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah!
TOBIN: For you, what you’re saying with the LGBT community: there was sort of an admitting of not knowing, and I'm wondering if that’s how you would characterize how you thought about the LGBT community before Pulse?
JOEL: Yes. Of course I’ve had, y'know -- I've had friends and acquaintances that have been gay. But, first of all, I’m from a generation -- if your listeners could see me, they would see just an old guy who, you know, grew up in a small town. So part of it is generational. But yeah. The first thing to admit, and I was just telling my congregation, ”Smart people are the people who realize how much they don’t know.” I got over that barrier a long time ago. But it was the personal, emotional barrier that couldn’t … [GETS EMOTIONAL] I'm sorry … Pastors are people who really care about other people. And if there’s pain, the first thing we want to do is reach out and somehow give comfort. Somehow. And the fact that I couldn’t do it -- not only to the families that had been through that -- but I realized there were a whole lot of people who were in pain that there was this chasm there. That’s what hurt me personally. It wasn’t just admitting ignorance. I can do that all day long, and I do. But it was facing the fact that you didn’t care enough to establish conversations out of what is normal and out of what is predictable in order to care for people who were especially vulnerable. That just wiped me out. And so -- and so that’s what really hurt.
[CLIP] JOEL: I will not presume to know what this community is going through. The LGBT ... Q community. And so I asked Equality Florida to send someone.
KATHY: This is Joel leading a service a couple weeks after Pulse.
[CLIP] JOEL: And my new friend, Victoria Kirby Yorke, who is the National Director of Campaigns for the National LGBTQ Task Force [SOME APPLAUSE] -- I’m going to keep saying those initials often enough so that they roll of my tongue -- I asked her to come, and maybe just share with many of us who would not know what to pray for in that community right now.
KATHY: I think I have a hard time reconciling what you’re saying right now about loving people without judgment, and also the other side of it, which is knowing that conservatism and the church historically has not been on the side of LGBTQ people.
KATHY: And I don’t know how to, like, be okay with the existence of both.
JOEL: Yeah. That’s the challenge. And that’s what makes it worth the conversation. Ultimately we have to come to the place where we’re interpreting scripture the best way that we can. But it’s God’s judgement. It’s not even our job. It’s our job to interpret scripture the best we can. And the way we interpret scripture in a conservative Evangelical [context] is that all sex outside marriage misses the mark. So it’s just kinda where you are on the spectrum of what you need as a spiritual family.
TOBIN: And where would you say you are on that spectrum of understanding?
JOEL: My personal -- just as a student of scripture -- my sense is that sex outside a marriage between a man and a woman is missing the mark. Is not God’s ideal.
TOBIN: Could you see a further evolution for yourself for that conversation?
JOEL: It’s not impossible to think that could happen. But ultimately, for us, our identity is in Jesus.
[MUSIC COMES IN, THEN QUICKLY FADES OUT.]
KATHY: If you drive 10 minutes south of Pulse, you’ll get to the building that houses the Orlando chapter of the Hispanic Federation.
MATT: Hey Stephanie, it’s Matt Collette. I talked to Ricardo about coming to tonight’s arts night. I’m at the door.
KATHY: It’s a national nonprofit that provides services and funding specifically to the Hispanic community.
MATT: Awesome, thank you.
[ART NIGHT SOUNDS COME IN]
KATHY: Since Pulse, a whole bunch of new resources for the Latinx community have popped up, many hosted by the Hispanic Federation. They use this large meeting space to host community groups and meetings. Like, on the night we visited, there’s an art therapy group.
[ART NIGHT SOUNDS FADE OUT]
RICARDO: My name is Ricardo Negron.
TOBIN: Ricardo moved to Orlando about 2 years ago, and started working for the Hispanic Federation.
RICARDO: I started working with them as a canvasser.
TOBIN: Registering voters, that kind of thing. But after Pulse, he decided to change roles. He started working on a project to help Latinx people find bilingual mental health services.
RICARDO: And so I transitioned into this program because I was at Pulse that night.
TOBIN: Ricardo went to Pulse a lot. The night of the shooting, he happened to be near the exit and was able to escape.
RICARDO: There are other clubs that have Latin night. I personally don’t frequent them often.
KATHY: Is there a specific reason you don’t go?
RICARDO: Um … The one club that does have Latin night, I personally, having survived Pulse, don’t feel super safe in it. It’s too big: too many entrances, exits, and whatnot. And I feel it's not -- it doesn’t have the adequate security for me.
TOBIN: So that’s a thing you think about now.
RICARDO: It is. I go out -- ‘cause I go out. I go to other clubs and whatnot. But if I went to, like, a big club, I'd go to the ones that have visible police presence or security. That’s just my opinion right now.
STEPHANIE: A lot of the people who were affected were undocumented.
KATHY: This is Stephanie Pinero. She works with Ricardo helping people find the right kind of counseling for their recovery.
STEPHANIE: So they were already out in their own little bubble and able to feel safe in their own little bubble, and it’s like they were shoved back into the closet. And not just shoved back into the closet because of their sexuality or how they identify, but also because they’re undocumented. So, like 95% of my clients -- they speak Spanish. Like, that’s it. And that level of knowing, like, the culture and knowing, like, you can be very friendly and be like familia even if you’ve never known each other. I think Pulse changed this community. For better or worse. You know? There’s finally more of people trying to understand the struggle or the experience of a person of color in Orlando in the central Florida community. You know, they’re coming to Orlando, they’re coming to central Florida, you know, they’re coming to the mainland. And yet the services that are available aren’t tailored to what their needs are. They’re not tailored to what the specific intersection that they live at [sic]. So if there’s good things that have come from this, it’s that there’s finally that approach, “Okay, like, let’s really be a collective, let’s really try to understand this culture that’s already been here, that’s been well established …” But the social service community hasn’t learned to provide that service to them.
[BACKGROUND NOISE FROM ARTS NIGHT]
TOBIN: Would you guys be cool if I just quickly got you guys describing what you're working on?
VIVIANA: That's fine!
VIVIANA'S FRIEND: Yeah. You start, you start first!
VIVIANA: No, you start first! [TOBIN LAUGHS] You're like my idol!
VIVIANA'S FRIEND: What are you doing, Viviana?
KATHY: Also at art night, we met Viviana Troche.
VIVIANA: I’m doing a posterboard of different symbols of the native people in Puerto Rico, and I just wanted to bring a lot of the colorful stuff that has to do with back home. A little happiness that’s left, you know?
KATHY: Viviana stops by the Hispanic Federation a lot.
VIVIANA: I was just working to pay bills. I wasn't -- I didn’t have nothing going for myself at that moment because I was going through a really tough depression. Me and my ex had broke up. I fought ... My dad got diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My mom got triple heart bypass. And everything was just falling apart all at the same time. Me and my brother had a really bad falling where he, ironically enough, wished me dead because I was gay in a really awful fight that we had.
So I was basically just kind of like a tumbleweed in the wind, just trying to find something to convince me to not do nothing stupid. Like, I was just trying to find somewhere to belong. And -- and I found it here. They’re my family, you know, like -- who I feel the happiest around. It’s who I feel me around. And they got me to paint again.
So now, I’ve been able to enjoy the fun aspect of it now. Like, it doesn’t feel weird to laugh again, or to want to hang out and dance again. I found a purpose with my life again. So ... it’s exciting! I can’t wait.
NEWSTAPE A: … the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and also the three month anniversary of of the Pulse nightclub shooting. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Roberts is live in Orlando, where people there tonight ...
NEWSTAPE B: Today marks 4 months since the terror attack at pulse nightclub ...
NEWSTAPE C: It’s been exactly six months since one of the worst hate crimes in the nation …
NEWSTAPE D: Officials want the one year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub with acts of love and kindness …
LALY: No, no time has passed. When the 6 month mark came, and the 7 month mark, it was like the same day. Coming up on the year is … I will be honest, I think it’s going to be very hard.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
TOBIN: Our producer is Matt Collette. Jeremy Bloom is our sound designer. Jenny Lawton is our editor, and Paula Szuchman is our executive producer.
KATHY: Special thanks to Cathy Wong, Caleb Codding, Jon Schober, and Monivette Cordeiro.
TOBIN: You can see photos of the places and people we visited in Orlando online. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We’re @NancyPodcast.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.