Growing up in the small town of Palm Bay meant that summer trips to water parks, birthday parties at Disney World, and back-to-school shopping sprees to the Florida Mall were a pretty normal occurrence in my life. There wasn’t much to do entertainment-wise in our area, so Orlando was typically the chosen destination when one was looking for an adventure. To this day, I still remember the look of sheer horror on my mom’s face when I walked out of the house prepared to embark on my first night out in Orlando. It was only an hour away, but you know how moms are. It was my 18th birthday, and I spent the entire evening dancing and laughing with friends at Pulse Nightclub. Two years later, I crammed everything I owned into my silver 2005 Ford Mustang, and moved to Orlando.
Fast forward to the early morning hours of June 12, 2016. I woke up around 8 AM from texts from my panicked mom and best friend, asking if I was home and safe because there had been a mass shooting a mile or two down the road from my apartment. This was the beginning of a real-life nightmare. I forced myself out of bed and turned on the news to see that every single station was now covering the tragic event as it unfolded. Hour by hour, the death toll continued to rise. By the end of the day, it had been announced: 49 innocent victims lost their life that morning. 49 people that will never be coming home to their loved ones. They will never laugh, smile, or dance again.
It’s hard to fathom the reality of it all. One of my best friends is gay, and I am so incredibly thankful that he wasn’t there on that particular night, but it breaks my heart to know that so many lives were taken in place that held such good memories for myself and many others. What is our society to do? Do we take away all of the guns, or do we try and make it harder for the bad guys to get them? Will either of these truly make a difference? It’s hard to say. What I do know is that the display of compassion and love that I have seen outpouring from my city in the past three weeks has been truly phenomenal. I have never, in my 25 years, seen a city come together the way Orlando has done this past month. Scores of people lined up in the scorching hot sun the following day, waiting to donate their blood to help the survivors of the tragedy. The very next day, a memorial site was erected at the Dr. Phillips Center, filled with hundreds of signs, flowers, pictures, and notes to commemorate the victims. Rainbow flags lined the streets, 49 crosses were set up outside of the Florida Hospital, supportive messages appeared on the windows of local shops and businesses from all over town pitched in to help fundraise for the Pulse Orlando victims fund.
So to Orlando, I say this: thank you. Thank you for proving to the world that hate will never conquer love. Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. Thank you for coming together as a city that is united, despite a person’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. Thank you for proudly supporting our gay community. Thank you for being such a wonderful place to live. We will always be #OrlandoStrong.