June 13, 2016 at 12:04 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Orlando’s LGBT community comes together to grieve
Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade

Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith hugs GLBT Community Center for Central Florida Executive Director Terry DeCarlo during a press conference in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Jason Fronczek)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando’s LGBT community has come together in grief after a gunman killed 50 people and wounded dozens of others at a gay nightclub early Sunday morning.

“We are reeling from this tragic news that a gunman opened fire at 2 a.m. at a gay nightclub at maximum capacity,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, government affairs manager for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, on Sunday afternoon during a press conference at the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida in Orlando. “We denounce all acts of violence against all people.”

Lu Mueller-Kaul, president of MBA Orlando, which is an LGBT chamber of commerce in central Florida, said during the same press conference that she woke up “with horror and grief” to news of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Zebra Coalition Director Heather Wilkie said her organization that serves LGBT youth is “absolutely devastated by the tragic events that happened.”

Police say that Omar Mateen opened fire with AR-15 at the Pulse Nightclub near downtown Orlando shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday. The gunman also took hostages.

A SWAT team entered the nightclub shortly after 5 a.m. to rescue 30 people who were inside. Officers killed the suspect after they exchanged gunfire with him.

Law enforcement sources told NBC News that the gunman was born in New York to Afghan parents. The gunman most recently lived in Fort Pierce, Fla., which is about 120 miles southeast of Orlando.

The gunman’s father told NBC News that his son recently became “very angry” when he saw two men kissing in Miami. Media reports indicate the gunman pledged his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State and applauded the masterminds of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in a 911 call he made after the shooting began.

GLBT Community Center of Central Florida Executive Director Terry DeCarlo told the Washington Blade on Sunday after the press conference that he and his husband were sleeping at the home in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park when their phones “started blowing up” around 4:15 a.m.

They arrived to the area in which the nightclub is located about half an hour later.

“It was just mayhem,” an emotional DeCarlo told the Blade. “You had police and fire and the bomb squad and AK-47s. It was like a scene out of a movie.”

Billy Manes, editor of Watermark, an Orlando LGBT newspaper, lives two blocks from the nightclub.

He told the Blade during a telephone interview a few hours after the massacre took place that helicopters were still flying above the area. Manes also said people asked him if he had seen their friends as he walked to a 7 a.m. press conference with Mayor Buddy Dyer, Police Chief John Mina and other officials.

“I just feel terribly for anybody involved in this situation,” Manes told the Blade. “Our town has been ripped apart. It’s incredibly frightening.”

Kelly Williams and her girlfriend were among the dozens of people who were standing near a makeshift memorial in the parking lot of a Subway that is a block from the nightclub.

Williams told the Blade that she has friends who know people who were inside the nightclub when the gunman opened fire. She said that she knows they did not survive.

“It was just devastating,” said Williams.

Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade

A memorial in the parking lot of a Subway that is a block from the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Sarai Ortíz of Orlando told the Blade as she stood under the Subway’s awning during a thunderstorm that family members who live out-of-state texted her to make sure she was safe. She told the Blade that it “could be possible” that she knows people who were inside the nightclub, but she is not sure because authorities have only released the names of seven people who died.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what’s going on,” said Ortíz. “The fact that they were going out to have a good time and they didn’t come back home is the most devastating thought that a parent or a family member could have.”

Activists defiant, call for gun control

A GoFundMe page has raised more than $1 million for the families of the massacre victims.

A man who was inside the nightclub when the gunman opened fire was among those who spoke at a vigil that the Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando held on Sunday. Hundreds of people gathered at Lake Eola Park near the city’s downtown a couple of hours later.

LGBT activists are scheduled to gather at the same park on Monday.

“We’re really going to band together,” Williams told the Blade.

Many of those who spoke at the press conference at the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida were defiant.

“I stand here today with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers,” said Anna Eskamani of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, who noted she is an Iranian American woman from Orlando. “We know what terror is designed to do and we will not let it happen to this community.”

Smith said Equality Florida, Orlando residents and its LGBT community “stand in solidarity with all people, including the Muslim and Islamic community, and in opposition to the intolerance, discrimination and hate that both of our communities experience.”

He also spoke out against gun violence in the U.S.

“We’re heartbroken that senseless gun violence has once again destroyed the lives of people in Florida and around the country,” said Smith.

Reports indicate the gunman was licensed to carry a firearm in Florida. He was also able to legally purchase the weapons he used to open fire inside the nightclub.

“It was hatred that pulled the trigger in those early morning hours and that we won’t give into that,” said Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith.

“We have to ask ourselves what kind of culture feeds the kind of hatred that had to animate what horror unfolded in Orlando, what kind of messages have become normalized that could allow someone to do what was done and the steady stream of violence that has become so normal,” added Nadine Smith. “We have to ask ourselves why when someone has that hatred, why are they given access to weapons of mass slaughter.”

Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade

The GLBT Community Center of Central Florida on June 12, 2016, handed out cards to visitors that read, “You matter.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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