World·CBC in Orlando

An LGBT 'safe place' is the latest casualty of shooting spree

The deadly shooting spree at an Orlando gay club has cast a chilling effect over how safe the LGBT community feels.

Club's safe-haven image was shattered that morning, becoming a scene of mass murder

A man holds back tears at a public vigil in Orlando as a speaker recites the names of 49 people who were shot and killed early Sunday morning at Pulse nightclub. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

There were no metal detectors inside, no bag checks, no pat-downs. There was little reason for any of it.

As with many gay clubs in LGBT America, Orlando's Pulse nightclub was considered a sanctuary for the community.

"A safe place," as regulars described it Monday night, shading candle flames with their hands during a downtown vigil for those slain at the venue on Sunday.

But the safe-haven image was shattered in a span of hours early that morning, when the venue became the scene of mass murder.

Around 2 a.m., approaching last call, Omar Mateen, armed with a pistol and a high-powered assault rifle, opened fire on the dancing crowd in an ISIS-inspired killing. He murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others before police killed him in a shootout.

He had reportedly been to Pulse before, with one man describing Mateen as a "regular" at the club.

The attack became the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in American history.

Mixed in with the grief this week in Orlando have been worries about safety for the LGBT community.

At the GLBT Center of Central Florida yesterday, ashen-faced volunteers exchanged tight hugs. Some wept together as the deadly shooting spree cast a chilling effect on feeling out and proud in Orlando.

"I got phone calls last night from a couple kids, telling me they don't want to go to the clubs anymore," says Dee Richter, a volunteer. "They're afraid."

Lizzie Tracy, left, and Dee Richter, volunteers at the GLBT Center of Central Florida, say the community is afraid to go out anymore. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Richter counselled some young callers, reminding them that it took decades for the gay community to win the rights it now has.

"To go and let somebody scare them enough to not go out anymore, not do their normal routine in life, they can't do that," she says. "Put them back in the closet? Not going to happen."

Armed officers were called in this week to stand guard at blood donation centres. At the GLBT Center, a sign posted to the door warned people their bags would be searched.

Anxieties over security dissuaded some people from holding makeshift vigils. The City of Orlando issued a statement asking that the community refrain from doing so.

"PLEASE hold off on vigils — they represent a serious strain on our limited resources, which we need to dedicate to law enforcement and victims," the city posted.

The concern over security being stretched too thin factored into Lizzie Tracy's decision to skip a Sunday-night memorial hosted by the largest gay club in town, Parliament House.

Tracy wanted to attend. But the loss of that sense of security is another casualty following Sunday's rampage.

"It takes away our safe places. They've been violated in an enormous way, and it's going to be hard to recover from that."

Terry DeCarlo, left, executive director of the GLBT Center of Central Florida, says he has fielded calls from people in the community saying they’re afraid to leave their homes after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The collective psyche has been shaken, says Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the GLBT Center. He has also received calls from panicked community members worried their sexual orientations could make them targets of violence, fears that bring to mind the 1970s, when people were more closeted.

"Now they're calling us saying they're afraid to leave their houses," DeCarlo says.

He recalls how Orlando police investigators described how the massacre unfolded. A night of dancing during the weekly Latin Night, punctuated by gunfire, then scenes of unspeakable horror.

"The carnage, the blood. It was like a horror movie," says DeCarlo, who lost two friends that day. "For the people being held hostage for three hours, to have to look at the people they might have been dancing with, or having a drink with, laying there. I can't imagine."

Sunday's shooting spree was the deadliest mass killing by a single shooter in U.S. history.

Investigators who entered the building after Mateen was killed were reportedly stunned by the death around them.

Some reportedly heard cellphone chimes ringing from the pockets of lifeless bodies, likely calls from loved ones, as police swept the rest of the building.

John Walls, 61, a gay retired police officer lived through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in Orlando, but says the shooting rampage is possibly the worst thing to have ever happened to his community. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

At the sprawling Parliament House, a nightclub and resort servicing the gay community, John Walls recalled seeing plenty of death in the 1980s while living as an openly gay man through the AIDS epidemic in Orlando.

But not like this. Not so violently, and so quickly.

"It's like a dagger through my heart," the 61-year-old says. "It's piercing. It hurts. It will never go away."

As painful as the moment has become, Walls says he retains faith in the resilience of the community. With hearts still heavy, drag queen Darcel Stevens vowed to go on with a scheduled performance at Parliament House.

At a large public vigil downtown last night, a church bell tolled 49 times, each toll signifying another life lost as the chime echoed through the park at Orlando's performing arts centre.

As with the victims, the reverberations were deeply felt. In a crowd of thousands, Migeul Pinero, voice shaking with emotion, says he was friends with eight victims, six of whom suffered fatal injuries on Sunday.

Miguel Pinero, 31, holds a candle for eight friends who were victims in Sunday’s shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Six of his friends were killed and two were wounded. One remains in an intensive-care unit, he said. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Pinero attends Latin Night every week at Pulse.

"It was my safe environment, my playground," he says. But he was late last weekend, arriving at the venue at 2 a.m. as the first shots rang out, and a stream of patrons ran past him into the darkened streets.

The LGBT community may have let its guard down.

"We just trusted too much. And we forgot to be prepared for something like this to happen," Pinero says. "I'm more concerned about my surroundings now. I'm paying attention to everything."

He's confident he'll dance again soon, maybe even at Pulse, for another Latin Night. Few places anywhere feel as safe and accepting as a gay club in America, he says. And for so long, Pulse was a second home.

Pinero believes he may feel that way again someday.

"We'll be seeing each other in the club," he says. "Maybe not so soon, but we'll be uniting with our friends, having fun, and protecting each other."

Mourners at a vigil in downtown Orlando on Monday clutch flowers in honour of the deceased. (Matt Kwong/CBC)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong