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At Orlando’s LGBT center, tears give way to work

City’s activists focused on helping victims, giving back



Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade
Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade, LGBT Center of Central Florida

Workers at the Center form an assembly line to load pallets of donated water into a truck for delivery to blood donation centers. (Washington Blade photo by Kevin Naff)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Walking into the LGBT Center of Central Florida reveals a chaotic scene of activity. Reporters and TV crews are greeted at the door, then hustled into position to interview officials. Farther back, a room labeled simply “FOOD” is the gathering place for volunteers to exchange hugs and reassuring words over coffee and assorted treats. In the back room, a sweaty assembly line of workers fills a truck with donated water to be delivered to area blood drive centers and crisis centers.

One thing you may not see, however, are tears. The volunteers here cried those out yesterday.

“Yesterday was non-stop tears and hugs and finding out the status of friends,” said Nicole Elinoff, a six-year veteran staffer of the Center. “Today we’re in crisis mode, business mode, getting things done and taking action. The feelings are there but covered in tasks that need to be done. It’s been a whirlwind.”

She and others are busy gathering donations of water and other items to distribute. They have established a Go Fund Me page to raise money for victims’ families who are suddenly faced with bills for funerals, health care and travel costs. They are coordinating with airlines to get flights for families from out of town. The Center is also facilitating crisis counseling off site.

“As someone who’s been in this community for a long time, I’m mind blown that Orlando is the site of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history,” Elinoff said. “The community is so strong. We are heartbroken but we are going to get through this together.”

Despite the heartbreak, Elinoff stressed the importance of responding to hate with love.

“The message we want to send is to love each other,” she said. “Give friends hugs, support each other, because at the end of the day you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Love conquers hate and that is what we are demonstrating here.”

Despite talk in recent years that the gay community is now safely integrated into the American mainstream and no longer in need of LGBT-specific bars/centers/clubs/bookstores, the attack on Pulse nightclub highlights the importance of physical places where people can be themselves.

“Community centers are still important for LGBT people,” Elinoff said. “We need to have a place where they can feel safe. There’s no place like home.”

Not everyone in the Center on Monday was a veteran staffer. Kris Talbot, a law student, said Monday was her first-ever visit to the Center. She came to volunteer her time. Why did she show up?

“My city just got a black eye,” Talbot said. “This is our home, a real community, it’s not just Disney. It’s like seeing someone you love getting punched in the face and you want to do something to help.”

She’s still tracking down classmates who might have been at the club Sunday night and she has been to Pulse a few times herself.

“What happened is not typical of Orlando. I came here for college from Virginia and stayed here because it felt like a safe place for people outside the norm. Please don’t let this deter you from coming down, visiting, working, getting educated here.”

Her message to angry loners susceptible to online recruiting by ISIS and other anti-LGBT groups?

“Get out of the rage bubble, this was aimed at our community but could have been aimed at anyone. We isolate ourselves and learn to hate people who aren’t like us. I don’t think this was about religion. I think this shooter got stuck in a rage bubble. And this is what happens when you don’t touch people who are different from yourself.”

Another face at the Center on Monday advocating love over hate in response to the attack was Rev. Debreita Taylor of Oasis Fellowship Ministries, an LGBT-affirming ministry where “all are welcome.” She leaned against a wall in the Center, surveying the unthinkable scene, then said she’d had something of an epiphany last night.

“My message is love. Period. Love. Period. There’s nothing in the word of God that faith leaders can go to that teaches hate,” she said. “It’s the simple scripture we learned as kids, John 3:16, everyone knows it, for God so loved the world. We need to learn to love.  Love one another. Everyone who loves is born of God. It has no place for judgment, criticism, hate, no place for rejection or prejudice or biases.”

Taylor said that one of the victims who has been publicly identified, Eddie Sotomayor Jr., 34, had been to her ministry.

“Have faith and believe that evil and hate can be eradicated one person at a time,” she counsels. “How do you treat someone? How do you embrace someone who treats you wrong? We all bleed, laugh, hope and have great victories and major defeats. And so, you know me, even if you don’t know my name — I’m you.”

Taylor — or “Pastor Brei” as she’s affectionately known here — has operated her ministry in Orlando since 2005, catering to a largely LGBT congregation. She sees much work ahead in light of the Pulse massacre.

“The work isn’t over,” she said. “The work happens in the grassroots, not in the legislative floor. It happens one person at a time. I’m you and you’re me. You can’t say someone of a certain demographic doesn’t belong. God loved, period. And he acted in love and that’s what we need to do.”

Oasis, 3404 N. Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, will open its doors 6-8 p.m. all week she said, because “people need a place to go. I care about you and we can be here together. No one needs to be alone.”

LGBT Center of Central Florida, gay news, Washington Blade

Kris Talbot, a volunteer, had never visited the LGBT Center until Monday. (Washington Blade photo by Kevin Naff)

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami



Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)


MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

















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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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