October 11, 2016 at 6:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Returning to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

the Pulse nightclub, gay news, Washington Blade

The Abbey in Orlando, Fla., hosted a post-Hurricane Matthew party on Oct. 8, 2016, that paid tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Hundreds of people were at the Abbey, a lounge and performance venue near Lake Eola in downtown Orlando, shortly after midnight on Sunday.

The DJ was playing a variety of songs that included Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.” Partygoers were dancing bachata and merengue while others were smoking hookah pipes on the outdoor patio that overlooked East Pine Street.

Drag queens from the Pulse nightclub took to the stage at around 12:30 a.m.

“You have to keep the memories of your friends going,” said Neema Bahrami, the Pulse nightclub’s entertainment manager who emceed the party that took place after Hurricane Matthew lashed the area with tropical storm force winds and torrential rain. “You never forget the ones that you’ve lost.”

Neema Bahrami, the Pulse nightclub, gay news, Washington Blade

Neema Bahrami of the Pulse nightclub, left, speaks at a post-Hurricane Matthew party in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 9, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wednesday marks four months since a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the Pulse nightclub.

I flew to the city that is known around the world as the “Happiest Place on Earth” less than 12 hours after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history took place. The city in which I landed on that sultry Sunday afternoon in Central Florida was shell-shocked. I spent the next five days in the City Beautiful reporting on the massacre and its impact on Orlando’s LGBT and Latino communities. I was also trying in vain to make sense of a tragedy that was deeply personal to me as an openly gay man who writes for the country’s oldest LGBT newspaper.

Frankie “Jimmy” de Jesús, Angel Candelario Padró and Gilberto Silva Menéndez are among the 23 LGBT Puerto Ricans who died inside the Pulse nightclub. I interviewed De Jesús’ mother, Candelario’s aunt and Silva’s sister in July while I was in Puerto Rico to report on the massacre’s disproportionate impact on the island’s LGBT community.

I had the honor of meeting Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, who died inside the Pulse nightclub with his fiancé, Juan Guerrero, in August before she spoke at a gun control rally in West Potomac Park in D.C. I have reported on advocacy groups’ response to an issue that many LGBT Americans did not think impacted them directly until the Pulse nightclub massacre took place. My colleagues and I have also covered the way that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have responded to what transpired in Orlando on June 12.

The emotions and conflicting feelings that I had about the massacre were on full display when I was in Orlando in the days after June 12. I continue to struggle with the shooting that shook my community to its core.

I nearly became emotional on Sunday when I was eating lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant near the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida and began reading the ads in the Orlando Pride guide that paid tribute to those who died inside the Pulse nightclub. I felt sick a few hours later when I was watching the presidential debate on my flight from Atlanta to D.C. and Donald Trump specifically mentioned Orlando in his response to a Muslim woman’s question about Islamophobia in the U.S. at the presidential debate. I had tears in my eyes when Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer spoke at the opening of the 2016 Out & Equal Workplace Summit that took place at Walt Disney World last week.

People visit the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 9, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

People visit the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 9, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

I made a promise after I left Orlando in June that I would return to the city and report on the community’s response to the Pulse nightclub massacre and its resilience. The 2016 Out & Equal Workplace Summit allowed me to fulfill this promise.

I visited the makeshift memorial on the fence surrounding the Pulse nightclub on South Orange Avenue three times while I was in Orlando. I drove past it several times because the street on which it is located is a major thoroughfare through the Downtown South neighborhood.

Several young women who were offering free hugs were standing in front of the memorial on Sunday afternoon when I visited it while I was on my way to the airport. One of them embraced me after I took pictures for the Washington Blade. She approached a woman who was sobbing and hugged her as well. I walked to the other side of the memorial that faces a Dunkin’ Donuts and began to cry.

The emotions that I felt in Orlando after the Pulse nightclub massacre remain close to the surface, yet the community’s resilience that I saw on full display at the Abbey over the weekend was nothing short of inspiring.

Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan said at the Out & Equal conference that her city has become “a beacon of hope to the world” in the months since June 12. The “Happiest Place on Earth” and those who call it home have certainly inspired a reporter who remains profoundly affected by what happened at the Pulse nightclub.

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

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