Pulse Nightclub is not a glamorous downtown Orlando club, if such a thing is even possible. For 14 years it has stood on Orange Avenue, a four-lane road that, like the rest of the state’s infrastructure, is strained from overuse. If it isn’t clogged, you could get from there to Orlando’s real downtown in less than 10 minutes. But it’s always clogged.
The black concrete building sits across the street from a Wendy’s, next door to a window tinting business, and catty-corner to a Radio Shack that is somehow still in business. I’ve driven past it thousands of times because Pulse was always on the way to somewhere else: Publix, I-4, or friends’ houses. When I was young and terrified of my orientation, I had trouble even looking at it. I was afraid someone would see my eyes linger a second too long and my secret wouldn’t be a secret any longer.
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It is not a coincidence that the city’s premiere gay club was relegated to its outskirts. If you wanted to go to Pulse, you had to go to Pulse. And people did, from all over Central Florida. Straight people, or people who want to go to a not-queer bar, have the luxury of going downtown knowing that when they arrive there will be a suite of options from which to choose. There are different atmospheres, vibes, and themes. It’s entirely reasonable to arrive downtown and have no idea where you will start, let alone end, the night. Queer people who want to be with other queers don’t have that flexibility. Finding that space required commitment and a clear purpose: Tonight, this is where I want to be. Pulse Nightclub was a destination.
Now it is holy ground. In the immediate hours after the attack, mourners flocked to the dark concrete block building and constructed a memorial to the 49 victims. At the makeshift shrine built of flowers and flags, mourners lit prayer candles and knelt before the chainlink fence and in their lamentations, established the path of a pilgrimage that continues today.
Clubs have always acted as a kind of church for queer folks. They’re a communal space for people who share an innate love for something larger than themselves. We’ve lost these spaces before—usually to the gentrification that comes with the mainstreaming of queerness. But what about this space, this nightclub-turned-sanctum? It’s not filled with cishet women on their bachelorette parties—it’s the home of a stunning act of violence. Instead of losing a place where we felt safe, we have gained a place that reminds us that we never were.
And now, we have to decide how to handle that.
The onePULSE Foundation, a private organization founded by Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has taken on the responsibility of building an onsite memorial to the attack. After briefly considering selling the club, Poma created the foundation and an accompanying task force comprised of victims’ families, survivors, and community leaders, to collectively decide on a memorial and museum in the coming years. A survey was sent out last fall to gather community opinions, the results of which informed the interim memorial that opened in May. A permanent memorial, also onsite, will open at an undetermined future date.
The survey’s results were disappointing and mostly unsurprising. One of the questions asked respondents, “when you think of this memorial, what do you want to feel?” People rarely want to feel anything but “generally good,” so it’s not a shock that 43 percent of the votes went to the words “love,” “unity,” and “acceptance.” “Loss” garnered only four percent support. “Sadness” got two.
That desire to gloss over the harshness of what happened is reflected in the current memorial. It’s more polished and less personal now: A long wall winds around the club and obscures the building itself. There is a single glass panel through which visitors can see the names of the victims engraved on a dark vertical slab, and at night a light illuminates the holes in the bathroom walls where survivors escaped. There are no permanent pictures of the victims, nothing about their short lives. Instead, there are hundreds of photos of the response to the attack: the handmade mementos, mass gatherings, landmarks lit in the colors of our flag, and a sign with a rainbow outline of the city skyline.
Looking at it, I felt like I was witnessing a theft. It wasn’t much of a memorial to the victims, just a memorial to Orlando itself. That falls right in line with the larger narrative the city has pushed since the attack: We’re “one Orlando” with “one pulse.” That focus on communal grieving erases an essential truth: All of Orlando wasn’t attacked. Forty-nine people—mostly queer, mostly brown—were massacred. And that didn’t just happen, it’s another chapter in the long history of violence against our communities.
Even now, LGBT people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than any other minority group. And for hundreds of years, the government pursued queer people as criminals. This is not the distant past: Until 2002, it was still illegal in 14 states to have intercourse with a member of the same sex. Until 2014, towns in New Jersey had laws prohibiting dressing as “the incorrect sex” in public, and multiple states are still pursuing legislation policing where people go to the bathroom.
That kind of prolonged abuse doesn’t get erased just because I can receive a marriage certificate at city hall. It lives on today under the current administration—the one that calls people animals and jokes about hanging us all—as the acceptance of LGBTQ+ peoples goes down for the first time since we started measuring it. Hate crimes are up since the current president began his campaign, but my state, Florida, still voted him into office less than five months after the Pulse attack.
This treatment of marginalized groups is too ingrained in our society to attribute solely to Trump. It’s the life expectancy for trans women of color, the rates of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, and every bullet hole in the walls at Pulse. The memorial and the survey respondents are preaching the importance of love, unity, and acceptance. Do they understand what they are asking us to accept?
I am learning to accept that Pulse does not only belong to our community anymore. But I will not accept that anyone but us owns it. As the space enters its second life as a public memorial, its first life shouldn’t be forgotten. It was a home for a specific group of people, a haven where we could commune with impunity. Queer people built that place as a shrine to their humanity and they were murdered for it. Refusing to center their legacy is also an act of violence.
The interim memorial will stand for the next few years as we collectively decide how we want to honor the victims with this space. The only honor that would amount to anything would be to end violence against marginalized communities. But we have no hope of solving a problem so intrinsic to American society if we refuse to acknowledge that it even exists. Just like the LGBTQ+ community needs space where we can safely be ourselves, society needs dedicated space to publicly reckon with its role in fostering that violence.
I know a perfect place to start.