ORLANDO, Fla. — Axel Rodríguez was drinking a cocktail on the terrace of Stonewall Bar, which overlooks the partially built Orlando City Stadium in the city’s Parramore neighborhood on Sunday afternoon.
Rodríguez, who was born in Puerto Rico, was speaking with a group of friends who had arrived shortly after 3 p.m. The men quickly began to talk about the massacre at the Pulse nightclub that took place less than three miles away from the gay bar on June 12.
“We have it on our minds,” Rodríguez told the Washington Blade. “But like everything you have to move forward.”
Wednesday marks four months since a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside the Pulse nightclub.
Rodríguez’s friend, Xavier Serrano Rosado, a 35-year-old gay man with a young child, was among the victims of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Rodríguez also knew Frankie “Jimmy” de Jesús, a native of the Puerto Rican city of Caguas who also died inside the nightclub.
“[Jimmy] was a very nice guy,” said Rodríguez.
Victims were ‘so young,’ ‘lively’
The Pulse nightclub is located near the intersection of South Orange and Kaley Avenues in Orlando’s Downtown South neighborhood.
A fence that now surrounds the building contains a large makeshift memorial to the victims. Other reminders of the massacre remain visible throughout Orlando.
Banners along South Orange Avenue on which the nightclub is located and signs on Interstate 4 read, “Orlando Strong” and “Orlando United.”
A large mural that pays tribute to the victims has been painted on the North Mills Avenue building in which the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida is located. An exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center near Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando that contains pictures, stuffed animals, handwritten messages and other items from makeshift memorials to the victims opened last week.
“As soon as you think you’re OK, something else will spark it,” said Joseph Greene of Orlando on Sunday afternoon while he was sitting outside the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida and encouraging passersby to register to vote.
Greene said he knew Serrano and two other people who died inside the Pulse nightclub.
He showed the Blade pictures of him that he has kept on his phone. Greene said that he knows people who attended 15 funerals in the days after the massacre.
“They were so young and they were so lively,” he said.
Rodríguez told the Blade he is still unable to drive past the nightclub, even though it is a couple of blocks away from his home.
“I can’t,” he said.
Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith said during a panel at the 2016 Out & Equal Workplace Summit that took place last week at Walt Disney World that she too continues to struggle with the massacre’s aftermath.
“In some ways the further away from the 12th I get, the harder it is for me to keep it together when we have these conversations,” she said.
Smith became emotional at times during the panel that included Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan and Joel Morales, who was an HIV counselor at the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida on June 12. A number of people who were in the audience were also crying.
‘We still haven’t recovered’
Nearly half of the massacre’s victims were LGBT Puerto Ricans.
A plaque with the names of those who were killed at the Pulse nightclub is adjacent to the island’s first LGBT-specific monument that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz officially dedicated on June 26.
A number of gay bars and clubs in the Puerto Rican capital also honored the victims. A makeshift memorial that contained their pictures and candles was outside the LGBT Community Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood in July when the Blade traveled to the island.
“The Puerto Rican LGBT community in the diaspora and in Puerto Rico was the hardest hit by the Pulse tragedy,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade on Tuesday. “We are still mourning, we are still recovering, we are still remembering.”
The family of Gilberto Silva Menéndez, who died at the Pulse nightclub, planted a tree in his honor in his hometown of Manatí, Puerto Rico, in August. His sister, Marynell Valentín, told the Blade on Tuesday that her family is coping as best they can.
“The family is better each day,” she said. “We are trying to rise above this unimaginable pain.”
Ángel Candelario Padró was a member of the Puerto Rican National Guard who moved to Chicago to pursue his nursing career. He was working at an ophthalmologist clinic and as a Zumba instructor when he was killed at the Pulse nightclub.
“We still haven’t recovered,” Candelario’s aunt, Leticia Padró, told the Blade on Tuesday.
City is ‘beacon of hope’ to the world
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer created the OneOrlando Fund in the wake of the massacre.
The fund raised $29.5 million, which includes the more than $9.5 million that Equality Florida raised through a GoFundMe campaign it launched hours after the shooting.
The families of the victims will receive $350,000 from the fund. It has distributed this money, but relatives and loved ones of some of the victims are challenging claims.
“We weren’t defined by that hate-filled act of murder,” said Dyer on Oct. 5 when he spoke at the opening of the 2016 Out & Equal Workplace summit. “We’ve been defined by our combined response that has been with love and compassion and unity.”
Sheehan, who represents the area in which the Pulse nightclub is located, echoed Dyer.
She noted during the Out & Equal conference panel that a group of Black Lives Matters protesters who marched past the makeshift memorial at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center in downtown Orlando after the massacre stopped to hug people who were there to pay their respects to the victims.
Orlando Health and Florida Hospital in August announced they will pay the medical bills of those who were injured at the nightclub. The Orlando Magic will dedicate its Oct. 26 home opener against the Miami Heat to the victims of the massacre.
“Our city is a beacon of hope to the world,” said Sheehan.
Advocates, officials remain critical of Rubio
The gunman, who was born in New York City to Afghan parents and lived in Port St. Lucie, Fla., pledged his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in a 911 call he made from inside the nightclub. There is no evidence to suggest that ISIS prompted him to carry out the massacre.
Muslim groups in central Florida and around the country quickly condemned the massacre. Syed Hussain, an Orlando resident who was with a group of Shiite Muslims in Lake Eola Park on Sunday, described the shooting to the Blade as a “terrorist attack.”
“That was a heinous crime committed against innocent people,” he said.
“We stand against any type of terror, whether it’s happening here in Orlando, whether it’s happening in Syria,” added Hussain.
Donald Trump in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre reiterated his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sparked outrage among LGBT rights advocates when he announced his re-election campaign less than two weeks after the massacre. The Cuban-American Republican and Trump in August both spoke at an anti-LGBT conference that took place at an Orlando hotel.
“You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself and then announce your re-election campaign, Marco Rubio, whatever,” Sheehan said angrily at the Out & Equal panel.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state Attorney General Pam Bondi also faced widespread criticism over their failure to specifically acknowledge the massacre’s LGBT victims.
“This was an assault on us,” said Sheehan.
Greene told the Blade he was “especially” furious with Bondi, a thrice-married Republican who opposed efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Florida. He praised CNN’s Anderson Cooper for challenging Bondi over her opposition to LGBT rights during an interview with her after the massacre.
“That just made me so happy,” said Greene. “I couldn’t believe it because no one’s been standing up to her.”
LGBT groups push for gun control
The massacre also prompted the Human Rights Campaign and dozens of other LGBT advocacy groups to endorse gun control efforts.
The PRIDE Fund to End Gun Violence, a political action committee that formed less than a month after the shooting, endorsed Hillary Clinton last month. Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, who died inside the Pulse nightclub with his fiancé, Juan Guerrero, has emerged as a prominent advocate in support of the issue.
“Unfortunately I have a voice,” Christine Leinonen told the Blade in August before she spoke at a gun control rally in D.C.’s West Potomac Park.
Smith reaffirmed her organization’s commitment to the issue when she spoke at the Out & Equal panel.
“We kept our first promise to do everything we could to take care of families and survivors,” she said. “Now we are keeping the second promise, which is to honor them all with action to change the law in the third most populous state in the country and to join our voices with those challenging the easy access to weapons of mass slaughter.”
Sheehan agreed, noting she supports the Second Amendment.
“I believe you have (the right) to be able to have a firearm to protect yourself,” she said. “A firearm that can have a 30 or a hundred round magazine is too much in this country.”
“It took that gunman less than five minutes to kill those kids,” added Sheehan. “It took nine minutes to ring the church bell at the vigil.”