June 20, 2016 at 7:57 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Covering a massacre in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

Pulse nightclub, Orlando, gay news, Washington Blade

A large American flag has been placed behind the picture of a gay couple who died inside the Pulse Nightclub at a growing memorial in downtown Orlando, Fla. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

NAGS HEAD, N.C. — The beach has always been a place that has brought me solace and peace.

Some of my best early childhood memories were made at my paternal grandparents’ bay front house in Quincy, Mass., that had an unobstructed view of the Boston skyline. I drove to a beach in the Florida Keys last month after I returned from Cuba in order to write about the human rights abuses that I saw while on assignment in the Communist island. I was at Coquina Beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Sunday, a week after a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

It was shortly after 7 a.m. on June 12 when I read a WhatsApp message from an activist in Jerusalem who asked me, “What is going on Orlando?” I initially thought he was referring to Christina Grimmie, a singer on “The Voice” who was shot to death in Orlando two days earlier as she was signing autographs outside a theater in which she had just performed. I turned on MSNBC and saw a breaking news report about a shooting at a gay nightclub.

Officials announced that at least 20 people died inside the Pulse Nightclub. The news grew steadily more grim throughout the morning.

My partner and I were among those who marched in the annual Capital Pride Parade through Dupont and Logan Circles less than 24 hours before the massacre took place. I had been scheduled to work at the Washington Blade booth at the Capital Pride Festival on June 12, but I instead found myself at Ronald Reagan National Airport shortly after noon in order to board a 1:45 p.m. flight to Orlando. I was in the city that is known around the world as the “Happiest Place on Earth” less than three hours later.

The next five days were nothing short of heartbreaking.

Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, could barely speak through his emotion when I interviewed him shortly after he and other activists, clergy and service providers held a press conference in Orlando on June 12. A local television station a few hours later broadcast live images of body bags that contained the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre being placed onto gurneys. Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state Attorney General Pam Bondi caused further heartbreak — and outrage — by not specifically mentioning the LGBT community in their public comments about this unspeakable tragedy.

There is absolutely nothing that a reporter can possibly learn in journalism school that will prepare him or her to adequately cover the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. There is absolutely nothing that a reporter can possibly learn in journalism school that will prepare him or her to properly interview someone who lost their loved one or friend to a senseless act of violence. There is absolutely nothing that a reporter can possibly learn in journalism school that will prepare him or her to adequately cope with the emotional toll that such a story will inevitably take on them.

‘We cannot be afraid’

The Pulse Nightclub massacre was also personal.

I am openly gay man who writes for the country’s oldest LGBT newspaper. I go out to gay bars and clubs in D.C. and elsewhere — including when I am on assignment overseas — when my schedule permits. I had also worked with Eddie Sotomayor, one of the 49 victims who died inside the Pulse Nightclub, on a story that I wrote in April about the first cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years.

I broke down several times while in Orlando, including each time that I visited the makeshift memorial between City Hall and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Outrage towards Scott and Bondi over their failure to publicly acknowledge the LGBT community increasingly consumed my thoughts as the days passed. I also felt anger and disgust towards a certain White House aspirant who claimed to speak on my behalf in the days after the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

These emotions and conflicting feelings came to the fore on June 16 when President Obama and Vice President Biden traveled to Orlando.

I was among the four reporters the White House asked to be part of the local press pool for the president and vice president’s visit.

I was about 50 feet away from Obama and Biden when they placed bouquets with 49 flowers at the same memorial at which I had broken down so many times over the last five days. I vowed to myself that I would not cry in front of the president, but that personal pledge became moot when Obama mentioned a gay Pulse Nightclub massacre victim who once said, “We cannot be afraid,” in his remarks to the assembled press pool.

I didn’t hear the last paragraph of Obama’s comments because I was sobbing. A fellow member of the press pool who realized I had broken down put her hand on my back to console me.

Orlando was anything but the “Happiest Place on Earth” during the five days I was there to report on the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. I very much look forward to the opportunity to return to Orlando and report on efforts to reclaim and reaffirm this moniker for which is known around the world.

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

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