ORLANDO – The LGBTQ community of Orlando came together last night at the historic Parliament House Resort gay club for the first Latin Night event held since the attacks at Pulse five days ago. The party was not only a show of defiance to those who would silence gay voices; it was also a solidarity fundraiser. After all, it was not only the 49 lives that were snuffed out by the bullets of an attacker’s gun last Sunday; the jobs of all the surviving employees at Pulse were also casualties.
In a display of support for their entertainment industry colleagues, the workers at Parliament House organized “Unidos,” a Latin-themed event whose organizers made sure that all admissions and cover charges were donated to the Pulse employees, who are coping with the stress of the shooting and the sudden loss of their livelihoods.
Headlining the night was Melina Leon, the “Merengue Queen of Puerto Rico,” who flew in from San Juan to contribute her voice to the efforts. She was joined on stage by the lovely ladies in drag who regale celebrants in Orlando weekly. Every dollar in tips that the queens collected were tossed into a giant box of cash – all intended for the workers of Pulse.
With the drinks flowing and the beats blaring from the speakers, “Unidos” looked, at first glance, like any other happy and carefree night at the club – a diverse crowd of men and women; gay, lesbian, trans, bi, and straight; Latino, Black, white, and Asian. But it only took a few minutes to feel the heavy weight which has fallen on this community.
The signs offering grief counselling at the admissions desk were the first indicator. The unfamiliar sight of metal detectors and armed guards were another. The white satin ribbons pinned to every shirt confirmed that this was no ordinary night at the bar.
There but for fortune
Walking into a gay nightclub is usually a moment of excitement. The lights flash, the shirtless bartenders grab your attention, and you scan the crowd – perhaps wondering who you’ll recognize if you’re at home or wondering who you’ll meet if you’re an out-of-towner.
Last night at Parliament House was different. It had a surreal quality.
Just a few nights ago in this same city, not more than a few minutes’ drive from here, some of these same people went through a horrific thing which will affect them all the days of their lives. What must it be like for them to be here in this setting so soon after Pulse? Is it jarring or upsetting? Or perhaps affirming? Familiar and comfortable? Maybe it’s a combination of some or all of these.
Any other night of the week, the patrons here in Parliament House might have been at Pulse dancing there instead. It could have been any of us. That’s the realization that makes all of us in the LGBTQ community feel connected to what happened here.
Standing in the crowd and pondering the possibilities, I couldn’t keep the old Phil Ochs’ line out of my mind: “There but for fortune, may go you or I.”
Laugh, cry, live, love
The dance floor is largely empty at first. Most people seem to huddle in groups, but the cliquish quality that sometimes pervades the gay club experience seems absent. Hugs are being given all around as people talk and intermingle. An arm placed around your shoulder, even from a stranger, signals that things are different – at least for tonight.
Those few who do step out onto the floor in the early part of the evening seem to be feeling a beat quite out of sync with what the DJ is playing. Rather than the quick, rhythmic gyrations that usually accompany this music, couples instead embrace one another and seem to move in time with a tune that only they can hear.
One couple seem to hold each other especially tight as they drift together out on the floor. One lays his head on his taller partner’s shoulder. A tear slowly falling down his cheek in the darkness is illuminated by the flashing lights. The moment of mourning is broken as he raises his head, looks up into his partner’s eyes, and a reassuring smile breaks across both their faces.
At midnight, the M.C. ascends the stairs signaling the start of the show. Embracing the crowd with outstretched arms, he announces the lineup of performers. Acknowledging what the LGBTQ community – and the Latino LGBTQ community in particular – has been through over the last several days, he tells everyone to let their emotions flow in whatever way they feel comfortable.
“We want you to laugh,” he says, “but we also want you to cry, we want you to love, we want you to enjoy life.”
We’re not going to be scared
The queens of Orlando – Lisa Lane, Shantell D’Marco, Angelica Sanchez, and many more – put on a show to remember. With their upbeat numbers, as well as their more introspective ones, they remind the crowd of the need to have fun. They embrace living. They radiate joy. The crowd absorbs it and responds in kind.
The audience also reaches deep into their pockets. Dollar after dollar is raised into the air as arms jut up toward the stage. The ladies collect each contribution and drop it into an already bulging box of cash. (Even organizers could not be reached to ascertain the final amount collected.) After Melina Leon belts out a powerful and soulful song, the evening’s program reaches its climax.
Survivors take the stage.
They are the workers of Pulse who, less than a week ago, witnessed unimaginable horror. They saw their loved ones, their co-workers, and their friends cut down by hate. The fact that they are here and able to address those gathered, just a few short days later, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. That strength is on show, but the trauma visited upon them is also visible in their faces.
Neema Bahrami, one of those workers who made it out of the club that night, encourages the crowd to stand strong: “We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to be scared. The more you are scared, the more he wins!” As the program ended, the queens and Melina embraced the survivors. Joining hands, they all stretched across the stage.
Arms went up together and a cheer from the crowd – “¡Unidos!”
It was the perfect ending to this night of solidarity and support for the Pulse workers, an expression of the unity that – in addition to grief, stress, and loss – is the product of the horror they experienced. Holding that space of unity in grief, it was possible to believe that life and love do go on.
Photo: C.J. Atkins/PW
Video: Filmed on June 16 at the iconic Parliament House in Orlando, two Pulse nightclub workers/survivors, Kenya Michaels and Neema Bahrami, speak at the first Latin night since a homophobic gunman killed 49 and injured 53 people. Translation help provided by Yennifer Mateo and Michelle Zacarias. Shot and edited by Patrick J. Foote | People’s World