Turning to hope: A weekend of healing and unity in Orlando
Sister Stryka Pose (center) and GLBT Center executive director Terry DeCarlo (right) salute those who blockaded the Westboro Baptist Church’s message of hate at the funeral of Drew Leinonen in Orlando on June 18. | Photo courtesy of Albert Harris.

From one end of Orlando to the other, this weekend was filled with events and commemorations all aimed at healing the damage wrought by a lone gunman seven days ago at the Pulse nightclub. Emotions are riding high, but so is the resolve to stand united. It is a spirit that can be felt in the streets, in the stadiums, in the parks, and even in the skies.

Beginning with a resolute show of support at the funeral of a Pulse victim, continuing with the cheering rainbow flag-waving fans of the Orlando City Soccer Club, and culminating in a mass vigil attended by 50,000 people at central Orlando’s Lake Eola, the past week of mourning has given way to a determination that hate will never split this city apart.

Saying farewell while blockading hate

One of the first victims laid to rest was Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, the 32-year-old man who lost his life along with his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero (22), at Pulse last week. Memorial services were held here Saturday morning at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke.

A friend of Leinonen and Guerrero, Brandon Wolf, was with them at the club that night and only managed to escape because he was in the bathroom at the moment the gunman began his rampage. “We all have those once-in-a-lifetime people, the kind of people who force you to think differently, speak differently, and love differently,” he told those gathered at the church. “The kind of people who stroll into your life and quietly change the way you live it. Drew was my once-in-a-lifetime person.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the cathedral doors, members of the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God Hates Fags” infamy) had arrived to protest. The so-called church is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” They had hoped to bombard the Leinonen family with their message of homophobia, hellfire, and brimstone. They should have picked another town for their roadshow of hate, however, because Orlando would have none of it.

Coming together to protect Drew’s memorial was a rag-tag, ad-hoc coalition of unconventional nuns in drag, leather-clad bikers, and everyday Orlandoans. Setting off at 10:30 Saturday morning, hundreds marched to the site of the funeral under a bright sunny sky. The vivid stripes of the rainbow banner were hoisted aloft, while a congregation of angels led the way.

Artists from Orlando’s Shakespeare Theater were dressed in robes of pure white, while on their backs beautiful flowing wings rose high into the air. These angels of hope stood side-by-side in front of the Westboro protestors, their wings joining together to create a solid white wall that completely blockaded the hatemongers. And to make sure that Drew’s family didn’t have to hear the Westboro chants, a team of bikers rolled in on their Harleys, revving the engines at full throttle. See no evil, hear no evil.

“I think the objective was attained,” said Bill, a biker who came out to support the counter-protest. “They were out shouting, these hatemongers across the street over there.” He said that his network of friends began organizing for the event online, adding, “The world’s changed a lot since I was growing up. I have a lot of friends who are lesbian and gay. Nobody should live in fear for who they are.”

“I didn’t protect kids who were picked on in high school for it, but I’ll damn sure do it now.”

Sister Stryka Pose, of the Orlando Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, has been working with her organization since the morning of the tragedy. “We were here to show love. It’s always about our community, we were ready,” she said.

Sister Pose was thankful that so many of the 45 members of her Abbey came out during this time of crisis because it meant someone was always available to volunteer wherever help was needed.

“We have a meeting on Monday to decide what we’re going to do next, but nothing beats just showing up. Everybody wants us to volunteer and that’s easy.”

Cheering the home team

On Saturday night, the Orlando City Lions faced the San Jose Quakes in what, from its start, was more than just a regular soccer game. Fans began organizing earlier in the week by assigning a different color to each section of seats in order to create a rainbow all the way around Camping World Stadium.

The largest, rowdiest section was behind the net on the southern end of the stadium, with everyone decked out in purple, the Lions’ color. In addition to flying their usual Orlando City flags, hundreds of excited fans also waved the rainbow flag and dropped banners proclaiming “Hate won’t break us apart,” “Love will keep Orlando united,” and “Not afraid.”

Rodrigo Guillen, president of the fan organization Iron Lion Firm, spoke to People’s World about their contribution to the night, his voice still hoarse from chanting. “Everyone’s first reaction was shock, you never expect it to happen to you. Once that settled in, it was our due diligence to use the stadium to voice grief, to voice jubilation. Just to lay it out there that we are supporting the LGBT community,” he said.

Guillen is from South America and it was important for him, when he and others created Iron Lion Firm, that they would never stop singing, chanting, and drumming. During the game, they never did. It was also important that everyone feel welcome. “Orlando City is for everyone: no racism, no sexism, no transphobia. You love soccer, come see the game.”

Video screens played clips of the members and owners of every Orlando sports team giving their condolences and, just before the game, first responders, surgeons, nurses, county and city government, law enforcement, firefighters, FBI, and the owner/workers of Pulse took the stage for recognition for all they’ve done and been through.

During half-time, the Orlando Gay Chorus filled the stadium with affirming words of the song “True Colors.” At the 49th minute, play was stopped for a moment of silence to honor the Pulse 49.

Orlando City would go on to tie the Quakes, 2-2. Not the outcome many at the stadium wanted, but as equality was the theme of the night, it seemed appropriate.

A rainbow over Orlando

The culmination of a week of mourning came on Sunday evening as an estimated 50,000 Orlandoans packed into the park around Lake Eola for a sunset vigil. Roads leading into the area around the park were closed hours earlier by local police as people began flowing in from all parts of the city.

Dark clouds and a few drops of rain just a few minutes before the scheduled start time portended a soggy night, but the threat passed quickly and was replaced instead by a much more positive omen. Rather than a storm, a bright rainbow suddenly appeared. The crowd noticed immediately and roared with approval.

A few seconds later, a small propeller plane darted across the sky with a 3,000 square foot banner in tow. Depicting a handgun, it was emblazoned with a message: #EndGunViolence. Framed by the rainbow over Lake Eola, this call to action was the work of Australian artist CJ Hendry. At that exact moment, planes with identical banners were also circling in the skies above New York and Chicago in a coordinated campaign calling for new firearms regulation.

Back down below on stage, the evening’s program began with remarks by a number of elected officials and community leaders. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a Republican, spoke first to straight society, saying, “We cannot let our children live in fear of telling their parents what is in their hearts. We cannot allow them to be forced to live secret lives just so they can feel the love and acceptance of the people around them.” Turning then to address the LGBTQ community directly, she said, “I tell you that you are not alone, not in your sorrow and not in this fight.” She told those assembled that in the future the city will be able to look back and know that “Pulse 2016 was the moment in time when hearts were opened and minds were changed forever.”

Patty Sheehan, Orlando’s first openly-lesbian city commissioner, spoke of how the LGBT community responded to the attack. “In the face of despicable treatment, we showed that we are a people of love,” she said. Pivoting to the policy implications of what has happened, she proclaimed the need for statewide legislation against employment discrimination and pointed to collaboration among different communities as the only way forward. “I want to be clear,” she solemnly said, “Hating a Muslim person is the same thing as hating a gay person.”

A number of other leaders followed Jacobs and Sheehan. Then, as a singer began the first lines of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” a couple of people in the crowd lit their candles. Then a few more. Dozens. Hundreds. Quickly thousands of candles were illuminated, forming a ring of light circling the entire 4,493-foot perimeter of Lake Eola.

The survivors of the Pulse attack then appeared before the crowd and were met with an outpouring of love and sustained applause.

The week following the attack at Pulse has been a harrowing one for Orlando, and especially for its LGBTQ and Latino communities. The many events and commemorations that have been held were all aimed at healing the pain inflicted by the loss of 49 beautiful souls. But they also served as a spur to unity.

It is a unity that in the coming months will make itself felt even more as the struggle to stop homophobia and racism and the fight to end gun violence move into higher gear.



C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.

Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.