Guest post by Elizabeth A. Boyd
Reflections of Pulse: Before and After
It was an ordinary summer Sunday morning. I had woken excited to try a new sausage and egg casserole recipe for my husband. Recently, I transitioned into an outpatient role as a medical social worker and was excited to have my weekends back after working weekends and holidays in the hospital for the majority of my career.
Though we now lived about 30 minutes from downtown, I was not new to Orlando. In fact, I was born at Orlando Regional Medical Center (now known as Orlando Health) and raised about 15 minutes away.
Pulse was a place that was very familiar to me as it was a daily part of my commute to high school just across town. It was also very close to where my mother worked and my own first job in college.
It wasn’t always a nightclub either. It had been an Italian restaurant that later expanded and even hosted some high school bands. One band was classmates of mine who performed mostly Oasis cover songs (at least as I recall it). Eventually, the restaurant closed and Pulse was born as a nightclub, but not just any nightclub. Pulse, while welcoming to all, was a nightclub for the LGBTQ community. It would later be described as a haven for those looking to live authentically while having a fun night out.
Within my own family, some generations apart, are beloved family members who are part of the LGBTQ community. Those in my parents’ generation have shared what it was like to grow up in a less accepting version of Orlando in the 1970s into the 2000s trying to find where they fit in (an early precursor to Pulse was the Parliament House) while also navigating the HIV/AIDS crisis and stigmas that resulted.
Still others from my own generation have been less fearful about living openly though they too have had to fight for policy changes including equal rights and the seemingly simple act to marry who they love. All of these family members have had to be brave in living authentically and I am so grateful our collective family has been accepting of who they have always been and are so proud of the families that have been created in love. While I couldn’t imagine it being any other way, I also know that not everyone is met with love and respect by their own families and this is profoundly hurtful.
While I hadn’t yet been to Pulse as an LGBTQ club before, one of my cousins had invited me and another cousin to an LGBTQ club in Tampa for a drag show and night of dancing and as usual, we had the best time. We danced until we couldn’t anymore and proceeded to have an amazing evening filled with laughter and unadulterated joy. The same laughter and joy we experienced as children whether we were spending time with our extended family at the holidays or our cherished time at the beach over the summer. Just about anything would start us laughing that would go on until we were sternly warned to go to sleep.
When that same cousin later invited me to join him at Pulse one night while he was in Orlando, I gladly came along. Pulse felt different than the other clubs downtown. You could come as you were and be as dressed up or down as you wanted and the other patrons seemed to be more respectful of physical boundaries versus other clubs I visited. I’m not sure how long we stayed that night at Pulse but I recall my cousin met up with friends he was working with at Disney at the time while I had to leave earlier than I wanted as I was in college and those early morning classes were indeed early.
That night, like the night in Tampa, stuck in my mind when my cousin moved away. I knew my life wouldn’t be the same because he was and still is one of a handful of people that can make me laugh out loud uncontrollably over the silliest things. He was in our wedding as a groomsman and was the only person allowed between my husband’s room and our bridal suite. He kept the party going at our wedding literally dancing out of his shirt. His joy is contagious. Just this past fall, he asked if I would help him write out what he wanted to say when proposing to his boyfriend. He planned a beautiful proposal and I cried during the proposal because it was just so special and I was so honored to have played a very small role in it.
Going back to 2016 and to the most ordinary of Sundays, I began to work on my casserole. I turned on the radio as I love to sing and sway to the music while cooking, but instead of music, it was news reports that were still very fresh, but indicated something serious had occurred at Pulse in the very early morning hours. I got the casserole in the oven and turned on the television to hopefully gather more information.
What I witnessed were scenes of absolute horror. Scenes that I didn’t think were possible in my hometown. It did not look to be a small incident and it didn’t look to be controlled. The videos were from the early morning hours where it was still dark, showing scenes of people carrying badly injured people out of the parking lot and either loading them into the back of police trucks or carrying them to Orlando Health just down the road. People were bleeding and appeared to be in shock or in excruciating pain. Other people were making makeshift tourniquets with their own shirts in an effort to help. Some people were helping their friends while others helped whoever needed it. Still others were seen across the street hiding behind a bagel shop.
The hospitals were overwhelmed with trauma patients, and it seemed every local police agency was responding. Parents and family members were standing in the middle of Orange Avenue, a main thoroughfare to and from downtown Orlando, asking the media to help find their loved one. Others were checking local hospitals in hopes their loved ones were alive.
Eventually, local officials held a news conference detailing what they believed happened and how they would be involving state and federal officials. We had been hearing that there were casualties, maybe up to 20. I was sitting glued to my couch when Mayor Dyer announced that 49 people were deceased and at least as many were either seriously injured or wounded. At that moment, my heart broke wide open and I sobbed for my neighbors who simply went to enjoy a night out at Pulse specifically for Latin night no less as I would later learn. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.
"When the call came for an urgent need for blood, the community answered"
I finally contacted my cousin’s sister to inform her of what happened as I was desperately afraid my cousin had friends there that night and I didn’t want him learning about it from the media. I later learned he knew people there though not close and at least one person was deceased.
Additional information trickled out that day explaining that this was no accident, but rather a well-coordinated terrorist attack, the worst since 9/11 and directed with hatred towards the Latin LGBTQ community. Details continued on that the attack lasted for hours upon hours. Some people were trapped in a bathroom while trying to escape and began calling their loved ones begging for help and then later to say goodbye. Some survived by appearing dead while under or behind those already deceased as the killer had no mercy.
It was later revealed what a daunting task the investigators had before them as the scene was beyond what most had ever seen and most chillingly, the bodies of the victims that remained on the dance floor had cell phones that rang and rang and rang from desperate family members. This would haunt many of our first responders forever. The ringing from the phones and the enormous amount of blood; it sounded like a nightmare.
Meanwhile the trauma unit at Orlando Health was as busy as ever and some patients were being transferred to Florida Hospital (now Advent Health) where I worked as an outpatient social worker. Doctors and nurses at both facilities who weren’t scheduled came into work. Mental health professionals and chaplains also volunteered their time without being asked. A command center at a local hotel was being set up for the families.
One of the most moving things from that day is when the call came for an urgent need for blood, the community answered willing to stand in line for hours in the hot June heat while others delivered water to ensure they didn’t get dehydrated doing so. We too learned that a friend of a friend from college had been killed in the attack and we knew his loss was enormous as he had been such a light not only for the LGBTQ+ community, but for the world.
In the days to come, organizations stepped up to ensure access to counseling and provide other resources. Greenwood Cemetery, one of Orlando’s oldest, would donate burial plots at no charge for grieving families. There were remembrance ceremonies held in Downtown's Lake Eola park and an iconic scene in the plaza in front of the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts where thousands attended to show their respect. President Obama visited and laid a wreath at that site shortly thereafter. My own organization prepared for people needing follow-up care though we never saw any victims in our own clinic.
These acts of kindness spoke volumes compared to the terror that was so cruelly inflicted. One memorable moment from me came from CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He was wrapping up reporting live from Orange Avenue near Pulse and instead of discussing anything more about suspected terrorist, he instead wanted to honor every name of every person lost early that Sunday morning. As he read the names aloud, his voice cracked, his shoulders shuddered, and he simply couldn’t hold back tears. I cried along with him for I knew that while Pulse was and remains a special place (now a memorial) to those who visited, our community lost 49 beautiful souls and while their family and friends will forever bear the pain of that loss, our community lost so much that day too. The day the unimaginable happened.
In the following years, the investigations have wrapped up. Pulse (the building) still stands though boarded up and surrounded by an updated fence that doubles as a wall to write condolences and reflections on. It has become the memorial for now.
Initially, it was shocking to drive by once the road was re-opened and to see the chain link fence full of mementos, flowers and seeing people gather. Today when I pass the building and updated wall, I pray for the people we lost, their families and friends and our first responders.
6 Years Later
Should you visit Orlando or live here, you’ll see lots of rainbows. Some painted on the road, the band shell at Lake Eola or on banners hanging from light poles. The person who committed such violent acts of hatred may have believed he did something and while it certainly caused pain and trauma and especially so for those who lost loved ones and for our first responders, he would be surprised. Surprised at how Orlando came together, grew stronger, prouder and more accepting. The Pulse of this community remains strong, and we will never forget that day nor the months and years that followed.
I suppose one day I might try to make that casserole again. The people at Pulse that night were simply living their lives and I think their message would be for us to continue living, loving, accepting and fully embracing one another knowing that living our most authentic lives is life giving and brave. I promise I still have radio dance parties in the kitchen and even more so, I promise to not forget those we lost, those who were injured, those who love them, and all those who came together 6 years ago and continue to do so today.
*As the content of the article can bring about difficult emotions, please know there are resources available in the event you feel you need support. You are needed. You are wanted. You are loved. Included are just a few resources (some national and some local to Orlando) below:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Heart of Florida United Way Hotline: Dial 2-1-1
The Center Orlando (LGBTQ+ Services including healthcare, counseling, food pantry): 407-228-8272
Zebra Coalition (LGBTQ+ Housing and Support Services ages 13-24): 407-228-1446
*I have no affiliation with the above listed organizations and please note this list is not comprehensive. For psychiatric emergencies, please visit your nearest Emergency Department or contact your local law enforcement agencies for assistance.*
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Arielle Haughee is the owner and founder of Orange Blossom Publishing.