The Media Has Moved on, But Orlando's LGBTQ Community Is Still Struggling to Heal
“There was a community that existed here before this tragedy and there is a community that will exist long after the media has moved on from this story,” Chris Cuevas, organizer with the new grassroots group QLatinx, told AlterNet over the phone from Orlando. “There are so many people who are still struggling to just grasp life at this point because of everything that happened and because of individuals they lost and how they are affected by being there that night.”
Cuevas is one of many Orlando residents struggling to pick up the pieces a month after killer Omar Mateen committed a massacre at the city’s LGBTQ Pulse club during its Latin night, killing 49 people, wounding at least 53 others and traumatizing far more.
Mateen targeted a nightclub that offered rare sanctuary for people at the intersections of marginalized communities, with the majority of the victims LGBTQ and "Latinx," a term that encompasses identities that fall outside the gender binary. “This was one of the only safe spaces for queer people of color,” said Cuevas. “Now that space has been taken from us."
Many of those impacted were forced out of the closet against their will by the violence. Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, organizer with the Popular Education Project who visited Orlando after the shooting, told AlterNet that such involuntary outing comes with considerable risk, including potentially “losing your job, your family or your right to self-determination.” Sousa-Rodriguez did not know precisely how many people were outed by the massacre, but in one widely reported case, a father refused to claim the body of an individual killed at the club, ostensibly because of the person's sexual orientation.
“What is really important is to emphasize that most of the people impacted were people of color—and mostly Latinx people,” Sousa-Rodriguez said. “If you understand the Orlando central Florida area, the Latino community is mostly farmworkers, people from Puerto Rico, low-income and immigrant communities coming to the area looking for a job and better life. For the LGBTQ Latinx community, many are looking for a place where they can feel safe.”
Of those killed, 90 percent were Latinx, 23 of them Puerto Rican and at least one undocumented. At least two undocumented people were among the wounded, hailing from El Salvador and Mexico, according to Jorge Rivas and Rafa Fernandez De Castro writing for Fusion. The Fusion reporters noted that undocumented status brings unique challenges, including “uncertainty about whether they qualify for state and federal assistance programs” as well as the high costs of paying medical bills and repatriating bodies.
But according to Sousa-Rodriguez, there were likely far more undocumented people in the club the night of the shooting. “The county right next to Orange County, where Orlando is, is Polk County, which produces the greatest number of oranges in Florida,” Sousa-Rodriguez explained. “Most of the people who work on these farms are undocumented and come to Orlando and Tampa to go to clubs and do other things.”
Denisse Lamas is the executive director of Hispanic Family Counseling and serves on the advisory board of Somos Orlando, which aims to support those reeling from the massacre. She says her networks are helping at least seven undocumented people who have been impacted in some way.
“One undocumented person is a family member of someone who passed away,” said Lamas. “He is the only family member who is living here in the United States. His family lives in another country. They are desperate, and he has difficult decisions to make.”
Lamas said many undocumented people are afraid to access the Orlando United Assistance Center, set up by the local government in partnership with United Way to assist those “directly affected by the Pulse tragedy," because the FBI maintains a presence there. This role is confirmed on the website for the center, which advertises an “FBI Office for Victim Assistance.”
Sousa-Rodriquez added that, after the Pulse shooting, “there is a really strong presence of cops everywhere there is an LGBTQ presence. People without papers are concerned that police will arrest them and take them to immigration. People of color and Latinx communities do not have the best relationship with the police."
Escalated police presence at LGBTQ Pride marches across the country in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre prompted multiple boycotts of the celebrations by organizations led by people of color. Black Lives Matter withdrew from the city’s Pride march after mainstream LGBTQ organizations boosted police presence. The New Orleans youth-led LGBTQ organization BreakOUT! did the same, citing negative experiences with police including “sexual violence, youth who feel unsafe and triggered when our bodies and belongings are searched, and youth who have already been the targets of private patrols and security in many of the gay bars in the French Quarter (including some that are notorious for not allowing transwomen inside).”
To address the loss of Pulse, Orlando community members recently formed the group QLatinx, which describes itself as a “grassroots racial, social, and gender justice organization dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of Orlando's LGBTQ Latinx community.” According to Cuevas, the organization was “built by members of the Latinx LGBTQ+ community, some of whom were there that night and victimized, who were attacked or lost loved ones in the attack.”
Among the group’s many initiatives is an effort to ensure that a memorial the city plans to erect on the site of the massacre reflects the cultural identity of the Latinx majority that was impacted.
“For the farmworker community, one of the main areas of work is immigrants’ rights,” Jeannie Economos, health and safety coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, told AlterNet. “Our hope is that one of the outcomes of this horrible tragedy is that there will be more support, compassion and solidarity and that people will feel that we are all one.”
According to Cuevas, Orlando's Latinx community faces the immediate task of meeting its most basic needs: “We need to make sure we are safe—that we can walk out of our homes, be unabashed and live our lives.”