Shattering of a Sanctuary

By Meredith Rutland Bauer


There’s a unique sense of horror that passes over you when your city comes under attack.

The mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that claimed 49 lives shook the state. The city’s central location meant most roads—philosophically and literally—in Florida ran through Orlando.

When your hometown becomes the town that is on the nation’s lips, fear is no longer an intangible enemy. It is the vomitus taste in your mouth. It is the pounding in your ears—the physical pain in your limbs from the weight of your grief.

There is no hiding from fear when your town is the next Paris, the next Boston, that week’s Aurora, that day’s Sandy Hook.

Vigils from the state capital of Tallahassee to the island city of Key West lit up the state. Speeches and marches were organized from the college town of Gainesville to the conservative red city of Lakeland to remember the victims and honor the groups targeted, namely the LGBTQ and Hispanic communities.

There’s only embracing the new reality. Or realizing this violence was always part of the nation’s reality.

There’s only grabbing hold to what comes next.

For Heather Wilkie, that meant supporting the LGBT community in Orlando.

The mass shooting at Pulse by Omar Mateen, of Port St. Lucie, left 49 people dead, more than 50 wounded and an uncountable number reeling from the seemingly senseless murders. Mateen claimed he had targeted the gay club because he hated homosexuality, but possible causes range from terrorism to insanity.

Wilkie, director of Zebra Coalition in Orlando, which provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth, thought the country had moved past that hatred. At least, had moved past the open violence and hateful resistance the LGBTQ’s faced in their fight for equal rights. Yet rainbow flags flew at memorials, and 49 coffins were filled.

“I think that this place was safe. Yes, I do. I think that LGBT organizations and LGBT bars even, Pulse was safe,” she said. “That‘s what you keep hearing from the community, ‘it‘s like this was my safe haven, this is where I went and I felt like I was accepted and I felt like I had a community.’”

The destruction of that sanctuary—that place where men, women and nonbinary people could dance, laugh and talk, all without fear of shame or dismissal—doesn’t mean the end of safety for LGBTQ residents, said Orlando artist Orlando Blanco. But it was the end of feeling like the fight was over.

The era of Harvey Milk and Harry Hay ended long ago. Same-sex marriage is legal nationwide. Even some church denominations are allowing their pastors to officiate LGBTQ weddings.

But Pulse brought an unsettling truth into the limelight: The storm never really ended. They had just been in the eye of a hurricane. And now it was raining in Orlando. “You get a moment of calmness and you start to feel a little more comfortable and get less afraid and bam, they do it again,” Blanco said.

“Aside from mourning and grieving, (the LGBT community) all started donating blood, resources immediately, the day, the morning of,” said Orlando resident Raelynn Dittrich as she sat next to her girlfriend. “We all just kicked into it, so I think everyone’s a little bit closer now. I notice in public, we’re all nodding to each other and smiling at each other just to let each other know like, ‘Hey, everything’s OK.’”

One day while Nay Burton was working at Publix, a young man came up to her.

He “asked me if I was family, and I said yes, and he gave me a hug. And the cashier was like, ‘What did he mean, family?’” she said. “And I had to explain we in the gay community use ‘family’ as a way to connect to each other to know, hey, we’re the same and we’re in this together.

We’ve been through similar things. I think that’s been a big thing for us, being family.”

That doesn’t change the nausea when you have to text your friends to see if they’re alive. It doesn’t take away the tears when the names of the dead are named one after another.

“Maybe I was just being naive,” Nay said, “but I felt safe living here. I felt safe for years. And now I don’t. I should try. But it’s just scary; the thought that someone could hate you so much that they could kill you for it is just. The fact that there is someone on this earth that could do that is scary for me.”

Nothing could have prepared her for the horrors she would read about after the Pulse shooting. But being in that nightclub and living with the weight of surviving, that was another beast altogether.

Brandon Wolf went out the evening of June 11th with Eric Borrero, Christopher “Dru” Leionen and Juan Guerrero in an attempt to save his friendship with his then ex-boyfriend Eric Borrero.

As they arrived at Pulse it was late into the evening and they were already frustrated, since people were drunk and pushy by that point. Wolf says, “It was like everything was going wrong, everybody was mad that we were there. Things were really awkward with Eric so we stepped out onto the patio; it's has to be around 1:30 a.m.”

Christopher “Dru” Leionen, brought the four of them together as Brandon and Eric struggled to adjust to their new single status. Dru said, “One thing we don't do enough is remind each other how much we love each other. I'm going to be the one to say to you, I love you. I love you all."  And he insisted again after Brandon cracked a corny joke, "No, I need to tell you that I love you and we need to say that more often. Right? We're friends. We're best friends, we need to say that more often." We gave each other a big group hug and then Eric said, "Well I think we should dance now and just be happy. Right?"

They had no way of knowing that within half an hour, their lives would be blasted apart by gunfire. That a gunman would take his gun out from under his jacket and would begin the country’s largest massacre on a group of people who thought they were in a safe space.

Brandon and Eric headed for the bathroom as Dru and Juan stayed on the dance floor before planning to call an Uber and heading home. It was then five minutes until 2 a.m. on June 12, when the gunman pointed his Sauer SIG MCX semi-automatic rifle he had bought just two weeks prior toward the dance floor and open fired on Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Brandon heard the pops but he didn’t really hear them at the same time. A lifetime of cannon-like sound effects on movie rifles left him confused. So he stood in the bathroom, waiting for some sign that he wasn’t hearing what he thought he was hearing.

“I just kind of stood there for a minute. ... I guess I was processing. And you started to get this smell.” Almost like a forest fire. Gunpowder. A lot of gunpowder. People poured into the bathroom, desperate for any place to hide.

Bodies pushed him from every direction. He coughed on the thick smoke as it poured into the bathroom. The smell of blood flooded into his nose.

When the gunfire paused, he and Eric ran. Out of the doors, into the alley, away from Pulse. There was nothing in his mind but survival. As Eric ran beside him, they didn’t care who had broken whose heart. Whether they’d get back together. Nothing else mattered, nothing but surviving.

As they got far enough away to where the gunshots were muffled echo’s Brandon stopped, “I had been so strong until that moment. I was leading us out and we had to go, and I was making decisions. I just fell on the sidewalk. I couldn‘t carry myself anymore” realizing “Dru and Juan didn‘t come out of this,” Brandon said.

“Eric‘s like, ‘No, we‘ve got to go. We‘ve got to move. We‘ve got to move.’ I couldn‘t move. He tried to talk to me and I couldn‘t respond. He‘s like, ‘Just tell me what you‘re thinking.’

“All I could say, I just remember, all I could say was, ‘They‘re still in there.’”

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