Growing up in the small, rural town of Palm Bay meant that summer trips to Wet and Wild, birthday parties at Disney World, and back to school shopping excursions to the Florida Mall were a fairly regular occurrence. We never had much to do entertainment-wise in the area, so Orlando was typically our chosen destination when we were 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 make my first solo excursion to Orlando. It was only an hour away – but you know how moms are. I even celebrated my 18th birthday in Orlando, spending the evening dancing and laughing with friends at Pulse Nightclub, a place filled with love and acceptance. Two years later, I packed up 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 my best friend, asking me 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 only the beginning of an actual, 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 catastrophic 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 others were killed and injured in a place that had nothing but good memories for me. What are we supposed to do now? Do we take away all of our guns, or do we try and make it harder for the bad guys to get them? Will any of these options truly make a difference? It’s hard to say. That’s another article all on it’s own. What I can say 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. Thousands and thousands of people lined up in the scorching hot sun the following day, hoping for a chance to be able to donate their blood to help the survivors of the tragedy. A memorial site was erected at the Dr. Phillips Center, in which hundreds of signs, flowers, pictures, and notes were laid across the ground. 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 different genres 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.