June 14, 2016 at 2:40 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Thousands attend memorial service for Orlando massacre victims

Two women hold candles outside the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center in Orlando, Fla., on June 13, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Two women hold candles outside the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center in Orlando, Fla., on June 13, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Thousands of people on Monday paid tribute to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre during a memorial service in downtown Orlando.

“Our city and our very way of life was attacked,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told those who gathered outside the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center near Orlando City Hall. “Someone purposely sought out men and women of our LGBT community and took the lives of 49 of our neighbors and loved ones and injured dozens more.”

An emotional Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs echoed Dyer.

“This act of hatred, of violence will not define us,” said Jacobs.

The crowd cheered enthusiastically when Ron Legler and Barbara Poma, the co-owners of Pulse Nightclub, and several members of their staff took the stage.

“We love Orlando,” said Legler. “We opened Pulse…to be a place of pride, a place where you could feel that you belong, a place where you feel safe.”

“We’re going to rebuild that Pulse,” he added.

Gay massacre victim ‘loved by a lot of people’

Many of those who attended the memorial service sobbed as the names of the 49 victims were read aloud.

The bell of the nearby First United Methodist Church rang 49 times in honor of each of those who died inside the nightclub. The memorial service ended with a candlelight vigil.

“We grieve with other places, but now it’s my place,” Lisa Cherrie of Casselberry, Fla., told the Washington Blade before the names of the victims were read aloud. “And I’m mad.”

Axel Rodríguez, an Orlando resident who was born in Puerto Rico, held a large Puerto Rican flag in rainbow colors throughout the memorial service.

Xavier Serrano Rosado, a 35-year-old gay man who Rodríguez described to the Blade as one of his “dearest friends” during an emotional interview, was dancing at the nightclub when Omar Mateen of Fort Pierce, Fla., opened fire shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday.

Rodríguez said he found out at 4 a.m. on Monday that Serrano had died.

“We thought he was one of the survivors, but he wasn’t,” he told the Blade.

Axel Rodríguez of Orlando, Fla., holds a Puerto Rican flag with rainbow colors on it during a memorial service on June 13, 2016, that paid tribute to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Axel Rodríguez of Orlando, Fla., holds a Puerto Rican flag with rainbow colors on it during a memorial service on June 13, 2016, that paid tribute to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Rodríguez said he does not know whether Serrano’s boyfriend, who was also at the nightclub when the gunman opened fire, survived the massacre.

He told the Blade that his friend leaves behind a 6-year-old son.

“He was loved by a lot of people,” said Rodríguez, referring to Serrano.

A woman who declined to give the Blade her name was holding a poster that had several pictures of Jonathan Camuy, her friend who worked on “La Voz Kids,” a Telemundo program that is similar to NBC’s “The Voice.”

A picture of Camuy, his boyfriend and a female friend that was on the woman’s poster was taken inside the nightclub less than an hour before the gunman opened fire. The woman told the Blade that the friend did not survive, even though Camuy’s body fell on top of her.

The woman said Camuy’s boyfriend survived and is in Miami.

“He was a great friend,” the woman told the Blade, referring to Camuy. “He loved to dance.”

Gunman ‘targeted minority communities’

Police say the gunman opened fire at the nightclub — which is less than two miles south of Orlando City Hall — shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday.

A SWAT team entered the building shortly before 5 a.m. to rescue 30 hostages who were trapped inside. Officers killed the gunman — who had pledged his alliance to the so-called Islamic State in a 911 call when the shooting began — after they exchanged gunfire with him.

Media reports indicate that the gunman had previously visited the nightclub and used Grindr and other gay hookup apps. His father said that his son recently became “very angry” when he saw two men kissing in Miami.

“Tonight we gather to memorialize those we’ve lost and to pray for those who are still fighting for their lives,” said Joe Saunders, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives who works for the Human Rights Campaign, at the beginning of the memorial service.

The White House announced shortly after the memorial service ended that President Obama will travel to Orlando on Thursday.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Monday reiterated his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

The billionaire said in a speech he gave in New Hampshire that he would suspend immigration from areas “when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe and our allies.” Trump also claimed that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton cannot claim she advocates on behalf of the LGBT community if she backs immigration from Muslim countries.

HRC President Chad Griffin, Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, GLBT Community Center of Central Florida Executive Director Terry DeCarlo and other activists who spoke at the memorial service did not mention Trump by name. They also did not specifically reference Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has come under fire for not mentioning the LGBT community in his public comments about the massacre.

“We can recognize that when we say we are the targets of a culture war, those words are no longer metaphorical,” said Smith. “We have to uproot the hatred at the core of what happened.”

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said it is “not lost on us” that the gunman “targeted minority communities.”

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said his organization is “united as Americans when it comes to standing with the LGBT community and their rights to live freely and to practice their lives here.” He and many others who spoke during the memorial service expressed their support of a ban on assault weapons in the wake of the nightclub massacre.

“We don’t want any more Sandy Hooks,” said Musri. “We don’t want any more massacres like Charleston. We are tired of massacres like San Bernardino and we are surely (tired) of the massacre like Orlando.”

“We want peace,” he added.

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

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