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5 years after Pulse, community still struggles to live up to promises

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ORLANDO, Fla. – For five years, Joél Junior Morales has served on the front lines of the Pulse nightclub massacre’s aftermath, aiding grieving families and traumatized survivors. He has hugged them as they sobbed, helped arrange financial assistance when they couldn’t work, and linked them to mental-health providers to cope with the emotional wounds of having been hunted, shot and left for dead.

And when he learned last week that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had vetoed funding for counseling to those survivors, he cried.

“It may seem like five years is a long ways away from the tragedy,” said Morales, now director of operations for The Center Orlando, the region’s LGBTQ+ community center, “but we still have people suffering. We still have people coming forward for the first time [to get help]. And it just felt like a slap in the face to them when we made a promise not to forget them.”

In the days after the mass shooting at Pulse, tens of thousands of Central Floridians poured into the streets to proclaim, “We will not let hate win.” They packed candlelight vigils at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and encircled Lake Eola Park with the rallying cry on signs and rainbow-hued T-shirts. The mantra was carried to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., in pleas for LGBTQ+ civil rights legislation, tighter gun laws and more mental health resources.

But five years later, major gun law reforms have failed, the Florida Legislature has yet to pass a statewide anti-discrimination law for its LGBTQ+ residents and taxpayer-funded scholarships still go to private schools that ban gay and transgender students.

“It can be easy to get discouraged, like nothing has changed, because we haven’t had that headline moment where, like, the assault weapons ban has been reinstated,” said Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor whose best friend died in the massacre.

“But the truth is, if you dig a little bit deeper, a lot has changed. First and foremost, Orlando is not the same place as it was five years ago.”

The city, he said, has become “a hub on inclusivity” — and Wolf, 32, is in a better position than most to know.

As a Black and gay man, he has dedicated himself to honoring his friend’s activist legacy by leaving his job in upper management for Starbucks to advocate for gun safety and, in 2019, to work full-time for Equality Florida, the statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.

“We have 43 organizations that are now members of the One Orlando Alliance,” he said, referring to the support network of Central Florida nonprofits and civic groups that united after Pulse. “Florida passed the first gun safety legislation in over two decades in 2018 with a Republican-majority Legislature and a Republican governor. That’s a big deal. In 2020, we got another landmark Supreme Court ruling that said nondiscrimination protections apply to LGBTQ people. A conservative majority court said out loud that transgender people deserve to be protected from discrimination. That’s progress. We just elected, in 2020, our first out queer Black woman to the state legislature. We elected our first LGBTQ state senator. Those things are all progress.”

And when the safe space that the club had been for so many was gone, new seeds were planted to replace it.

A seat at the table

When Andrés Acosta came out as gay at age 14, his Colombian mother could not even utter the word. Acosta seldom spoke to her about it. He said he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. But after the Pulse tragedy, that changed.

“It was the first time that my mom saw on the screen other mothers that looked like her, that spoke Spanish just like her, crying over the loss of their LGBT children,” he said.

Both of his parents have since been able to attend events at Qlatinx, a grassroots LGBTQ+ Latinx organization, where Community Cocina (Community Kitchen) brings together LGBTQ+ individuals and allies to share Latinx, Caribbean and Hispanic traditions through music, language and cuisine.

“They were able to get around the table, and my mom was able to give them hugs,” Acosta said. “Things like that would not have happened if Pulse hadn’t happened.”

Acosta, media coordinator for Contigo Fund — launched after Pulse specifically to bolster Latinx and LGBTQ+ causes — credits Orlando’s Office of Multicultural Affairs for their support and symbolic gestures but adds the city is not among the largest donors.

“It’s been like an uphill battle to try to get people to recognize the importance of what we’re doing,” Acosta said.

The Contigo Fund has channeled more than $4 million toward the LGBTQ+ community, but the initial outpouring of donations has dried up.

It’s the same for many groups that launched after the massacre: Either the funding has dwindled, the need has grown — or both.

Some ‘safe spaces’ still unwelcoming

Pulse, for instance, had provided a sort of sanctuary for the Black LGBTQ+ community to find fellowship and acceptance, said Daniel Downer, an Orlando native and executive director for the Bros in Convo Initiative, a foundation that provides emotional wellness, health education and peer support for gay, bisexual and queer men of color.

“The reason why many Black LGBTQ folk went to Pulse is because other establishments were not as affirming and welcoming of Black LGBTQ people,” Downer said. “You always felt awkward.”

Angel Nelson, 30, Bros in Convo Initiative outreach and program director, began frequenting the club when he was 18 and said he was disheartened knowing younger generations won’t be able to experience the safe environment that Pulse cultivated. Although bars like Irish Shannon’s and nightclubs are beginning to fill in the gaps, he said, many spaces still feel unwelcoming.

“You become an ambassador and a reflection of your entire race — [and] nobody deserves to have that pressure put on them — but in certain spaces where there’s only maybe two or three of you that’s just the reality of it,” Nelson said.

The Pulse attack led to the birth of the Bros in Convo Initiative in 2017 with a $7,500 grant to respond to rising HIV cases. It now funds HIV education sessions, groceries and meal cards, along with health and wellness programs under a $400,000 budget.

Still, Downer said, the world around him — and many queer people of color ― is increasingly violent.

At least 37 transgender and gender-nonconforming people were killed last year, 25 of them being Black or Latinx women. Not yet halfway into 2021, at least 28 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed.

Since January 2020, the initiative has conducted monthly protective equipment drives and provided at least 200 tasers for transgender women. In addition, the Contigo Fund created the All Black Lives Fund in June 2020, raising $100,000 for Black LGBTQ+-led organizations. As one of the grantees, the Bros in Convo Initiative dedicated $10,000 in January to study how homelessness affects Black and brown trans women who are commercial sex workers.

Although the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department have established LGBTQ+ liaisons, Downer said he wants to see the city establish specific task forces for the Black, Asian, Hispanic and Latinx LGBTQ+ community and hire from the communities they serve.

“If you’re wanting law enforcement to be educated about how to deal with Black trans women, hire Black trans women as consultants. … If you’re wanting to learn how to engage with bisexual, gay, same-gender-loving men, hire from that community,” Downer said.

The fight continues

Heather Wilkie, executive director of the Zebra Coalition, helping LGBTQ+ youth, acknowledges the disappointments. In the same veto list as counseling money for Pulse victims was $750,000 to house homeless gay and transgender youth.

But she is also impressed by a unity and resolve that has grown out of the tragedy.

“I still feel that Orlando as a community is strong,” she said. “And we have done the work to make sure we’re connected. It’s just very frustrating to see that, at the state level, we’re not getting the support. But if we’re not going to let hate win, we need to keep fighting. We can’t give up.”

©2021 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.