Metro Weekly

Tragedy in Orlando: A Special Report on the Pulse Nightclub Shooting

It was the largest mass shooting in American history. And it was aimed squarely at the LGBT community

pulse, nightclub, shooting, orlando, lgbtq

Anger is a powerful drug.

It clouds judgement, blocks reason, stymies common sense and blurs morals. Anger can overpower like few other emotions. Should we let it develop, unhindered, unfiltered, it becomes dangerous. At that point, we’re beyond reason. Anger becomes a weapon, a violent, brutal tool wielded by those past the point of no return.

Anger is what drives a conservative Christian to stand on the pulpit and condemn an entire community to an eternity of fire. Anger is what causes a group of people to stomp on the head of a gay couple daring to share a kiss in public. Anger is what fuels a man rejected by a lesbian woman to force her to the ground and rape her. Anger is what compels someone to stab a trans person because they can’t handle their gender identity.

On Sunday, we saw anger at its most destructive. Anger transformed a night of fun, of dancing, of carefree living into the worst mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil. Fifty bodies, dozens injured, a community in shock, families forever torn apart. All because of one man’s anger.

If ever America needed a reminder that being LGBT is still something to worry about, Sunday night was a loud, violent, bloody, brutal wake-up call. As the bodies of revellers lay strewn across the dancefloors of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, LGBT Americans woke that morning to the revelation that their lives were less secure, their freedom less certain, their safe-havens less safe.

Anger transformed a man with a history of domestic violence, connections to extremists, and some rather troubling comments to co-workers into the nation’s most renowned mass shooter. Until Sunday, June 12, no one person had extinguished life to the same extent as 29-year-old Omar Mateen. He succumbed to the same rage that had driven him to repeatedly assault his ex-wife, an anger so powerful and so destructive that her family had to rescue her, leaving all of her belongings behind because she was so afraid of him coming home and discovering her escape. Only this time, Mateen’s anger was focused, it was amplified, it was fuelled by homophobia. And it was coiled around the trigger of a high-capacity assault rifle.

As America reeled from the worst case of domestic terrorism since 9/11, a vacuum formed. It was a space left in the wake of Mateen’s cowardice, his brutality, his bigotry, and the massive loss of life caused by his bullets. As grief overflowed from families and friends of Sunday’s victims, that vacuum was filled by a familiar sensation: anger. Anger at Mateen, anger at gun violence, anger at politicians who offered empty gestures of sorrow. Anger that, as a community, we were once again being reminded of how susceptible we are to violence.

Many focused on gun regulation, demanding to know why a man twice investigated by the FBI was able to walk out of a Florida gun shop with a handgun, a rifle, and enough ammunition to wreak havoc in a beloved local nightclub. Why on earth was he able to buy those weapons? Why was he able to obtain a rifle fast becoming known as a mass shooter’s “weapon du jour”? And why are we even able to sleep at night knowing that as a nation we have a rifle — which citizens can freely purchase — that has gained the moniker of “most used by people who commit mass murder”?

What’s more objectionable: that we have sufficient mass shootings to have determined a weapon of choice, or that we make said weapon of choice available to mass shooters? Where do we draw the line?

And if we can’t be angry at the weapons, perhaps we can be angry at those who helped foster a society in which LGBT people feel forced to retreat into nightclubs and other safe spaces, where we are free to be ourselves without fear of retribution. For decades, powered by conservative radio hosts, cable “news” and numerous bigots, the political Right has demonized and scapegoated the LGBT community as part of their efforts to drag America back to the “good ol’ days” — when men were men and gay people were left for dead on Wyoming fences. Should we even be surprised that in the wake of a murder spree that claimed fifty lives, these same conservatives were quickly moving to erase us from our own tragedy? President Obama acknowledged Pulse as “a place of solidarity and empowerment” for the LGBT community. Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, couldn’t even say LGBT when pressed by CNN.

Instead, the response of so many who spend their days trying to quash LGBT rights turned to a familiar foe: Islam. Citing Mateen’s Afghan parents, his dalliances with Islamic extremists, and his apparent allegiance to so-called Islamic State, conservatives twisted the conversation away from one deranged individual slaughtering a club filled with LGBT people into us versus them, Christianity versus Islam, Republican versus Democrat, Trump versus Clinton, a travel ban versus common sense. While conservatives screamed “Radical Islam” and straight-washed an LGBT massacre, the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged its members to donate blood to help those still fighting for their lives in hospital — not least because many gay men are banned from donating their own. Empty tweets offering empty prayers and cries of extremism were trounced by pints of blood and support from a community as much the target of phobia as we are.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be angry at guns, or the religious right, or even Omar Mateen. Perhaps we should just be angry with ourselves.

How dare the LGBT community think that we have the right to go to a nightclub without the worry that we’ll never leave. How dare we believe that we won’t be erased from coverage of a massacre perpetrated against our community. How dare we try to donate blood to help our bullet-ridden brothers and sisters, only to be reminded that we’re banned from doing so by decades-old fear and misinformation.

Most of all, how dare we be so audacious to think that, in 2016, LGBT people can exist without someone getting angry, walking into a store, buying a gun, and murdering 50 innocent people.

BEFORE THE ANGER, the pain and the near-endless stream of questions, there was fun.

Pulse nightclub has existed on South Orange Avenue in Orlando for over a decade. Founded in 2004 by Barbara Poma and her friend Ron Legler, it commemorated Poma’s late brother, who had succumbed to AIDS in 1991. It was created to serve “as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community.”

Every night, Orlando locals and out-of-towners would flock to the club to enjoy drag shows, karaoke, fundraisers, and a host of other events. It even served as “a community hub for HIV prevention, breast-cancer awareness and immigrant rights,” according to the Washington Post.

“The first time I ever entered Pulse, everything changed. For the first time in my life, I saw people that looked like me living freely. I saw people in their joy. I saw people in their celebration of life,” Pulse regular Daniel Leon-Davis wrote in an essay for Fusion. “Pulse was where I learned to love myself as a gay man. Pulse was where I learned to love my community…. Pulse was not just my safe haven, but a safe haven for hundreds of LGBTQ individuals in Orlando.”

Saturday was a night like any other. It was Latin night at Pulse, RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Kenya Michaels was scheduled to perform, and the club was filled with about 300 people enjoying its dancefloors, bars and outdoors patio.

At around 2 a.m., the club was still busy, as crowds of people enjoyed a typical Saturday night out. In a Snapchat video, 25-year-old Amanda Alvear dances with her friends. The music is thumping, the crowd is moving, she focuses the camera on herself, all smiles.

And then the shots start ringing.

Her expression changes to one many reported from that night: confusion. Uncertain as to whether it’s the music or something else, she stares out into the crowd, her face bathed in white light from her smartphone screen. It’s clear something isn’t right as she looks around. The video ends. Alvear is one of 49 people whose lives would end that night.

It took a moment for anyone to comprehend what was happening. “No one put two and two together until the fifth and sixth [shot],” Luis Burbano, who had been at the bar, told CNN. “Between 10 and 20, that’s when everything really started getting real.” Some chose to drop to the floor, others crowded into the bathrooms, or shoved towards the exits, or headed out into the enclosed patio area.

“I heard the first two gunshots, I automatically just threw myself down to a floor,” Norman Casiano told Local 10 News. Amid the panic, he crawled into a nearby bathroom, entering the disabled cubicle and finding several others cowering in fear. As the group silently cried, holding one another for support, they heard the door open and a man enter. But it wasn’t the shooter. Instead, the man collapsed onto the floor. He saw the dozen or so people inside the cubicle and pled with them to help him.

“He’s bleeding everywhere and he’s begging to come inside the stall,” Casiano said. “We’re trying to get him in but he wouldn’t fit underneath and we couldn’t open the door.”

As they tried to help, the door opened again. This time it was Mateen. They watched, helpless, as he shot the man one last time.

“The scary part was that he didn’t say anything, and what’s scarier than that [is] when he shot the boy that was already shot, he laughed,” Casiano said. “And as he’s laughing, that’s when he fires through the whole front of the stall.”

Bullets tore through the door, hitting the dozen or so people trapped inside. They screamed for mercy, but Mateen was unwavering. “He put his gun over the stall and willy-nilly fired…. I just heard him laugh, then he disappeared into the other room and kept going.”

With bullets lodged deep within his body and several people around him dead, Casiano waited, terrified, until he heard police enter Pulse. Forcing his way through the bodies, blood seeping through his clothes, he was able to leave the bathroom and make his way to safety. Casiano was one of 30 people saved when police stormed the building, which forced Mateen to seek cover in a bathroom. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone.

Eddie Justice was one of several people who had sought safety in the bathroom. His mother Mina was asleep at home when her phone rang. It was a text from her son.

“Mommy I love you,” it said. “In club they shooting.”

Mina called her son, but there was no response. “U ok,” she typed.

“Trapp in bathroom,” came the reply. He urged her to call the police, telling her he was in Pulse. At 2:08, Eddie wrote: “I’m gonna die.”

She called 911, told them what was happening, and then tried to contact her son. Mina called, she texted, but there was no response. “Call me,” she pleaded.

At 2:39 am, he responded. “Call them mommy. Now.” He told her again that he was trapped in the bathroom. “He’s coming. I’m gonna die.” She asked if he was hurt. “Lots. Yes.” Then another period of silence. Mina asked if he was safe. “No,” was the response. “Still here in the bathroom. He has us. They need to come get us.” She told him the police were on their way. “Hurry,” he said. “He’s in the bathroom with us.”

“Is the man in the bathroom wit u?” she asked.

“He’s a terror,” Eddie wrote. The time was 2:50 am. Then, one final message. “Yes.”

Eddie Justice, along with several others, would be murdered by Mateen before police were finally able to end the siege. At around 5 a.m., a Swat team blew a hole in the wall, allowing those still trapped to escape. Police swarmed Mateen, shooting and killing him. For those lucky few who were able to make it out, their ordeal was over. But for many more, it was just beginning.

AS DOCTORS AND NURSES at Orlando’s hospitals fought to save those who had escaped the nightclub, a series of press conferences revealed to the nation the extent of the tragedy.

“Just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story,” Orlando Chief of Police John Mina said to reporters at one of several press briefings later that day. “Some of those officers had 20-plus years on [the force]…. You could tell that they were all shaken by this incident, by what they saw inside the club.”

Initial estimates had suggested that at least 20 people had died, but it was only when Mateen was confirmed dead, those still alive had been taken to area hospitals, and officers had started to explore Pulse that they became aware of the number of victims.

“It is with great sadness that I share that we have not 20, but 50 casualties,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced. An audible gasp rippled through the crowd of reporters. Overnight, Pulse nightclub had become the scene of America’s worst-ever mass shooting.

Soon, details were coming in thick and fast. The shooter was an American citizen, born in New York and a resident of Florida. His parents had emigrated from Afghanistan in the ’80s. President Obama issued a short statement calling it “tragic.” Hillary Clinton called it “devastating.” Donald Trump congratulated himself for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism” — drawing widespread condemnation.

Across Orlando, hundreds — if not thousands — of people flocked to blood banks, compelled to help fill up fast-dwindling reserves as surgeries took place all over the city. With the LGBT community prevented from donating thanks to an effective ban, city officials, celebrities, newscasters and Islamic groups urged Americans to donate. Soon, blood banks, their stocks filled, were turning people away.

With blood taken care of, water, food, snacks, blankets, clothing and other items started to pour in. People lent trucks to move supplies, while community centers and churches threw open their doors to house families and friends, distribute aid, and offer people a space to grieve or to just sit and try to absorb what had happened.

A state of emergency was declared in Orlando, while the federal government directed all available attention to the city to assist in the investigation that had just begun. Cities across America, from Boston to Chicago, offered Orlando’s Police Department access to their resources to aid in the investigation.

L.A. Pride, rocked by the news that a man had been arrested with a car full of weapons and explosives en route to West Hollywood, continued with heightened security and an outpouring of love for Orlando’s LGBT community.

“Our hearts go out to the victims and survivors in Orlando, an attack not just on our LGBT brothers and sisters, but on all of us,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. He followed it up by telling those gathered at the parade that they “are out here to march, to celebrate and to mourn. This march goes on. We go on. We continue to love.”

At Pride events and other gatherings across the country, people held signs declaring their love and support for Orlando. Several hashtags started trending on social media, among them #OrlandoStrong. Posts appeared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sharing grief, anger, resentment, fear, love, and a host of other emotions, as America’s LGBT citizens and their allies responded to the attacks.

In Orlando, however, a parallel scene was unfolding. While those who had survived recounted their relief to friends, families and news media, others were still waiting. Many didn’t know whether their friends, children, parents, partners or co-workers were alive. Information was sparse. While 53 people had been injured, their names weren’t readily known. For those who’d lost their lives, police urged patience as they slowly worked their way through the carnage inside Pulse, trying to identify the remains. All anyone could do was wait.

Christine Leinonen was one of those anxiously waiting to hear about her son. Christopher Andrew Leinonen had gone to Pulse with his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero. In the aftermath of the shootings, neither had been heard from. Those watching live news coverage would have been hard-pressed to miss Christine, who quickly gained the unfortunate position of being the face of all the families waiting to learn the fate of the missing. In an interview with Orlando’s WESH 2, overcome with worry and uncertainty, she broke down.

“I don’t know where my son is,” she told WESH’s Stewart Moore outside a local hospital, tears streaming down her face. “I know that he was sitting next to his boyfriend and his boyfriend was taken by ambulance with multiple gunshots. We can’t get a hold of him.”

She clung to Moore, telling him that she didn’t want to leave his side as the news media was apparently getting information faster than the families. It was heartbreaking to watch a mother desperately trying to find out the fate of her son. “It could be hours and hours,” she later told ABC News. “The hospital said there are some bodies that came in and they died and they’re not identifiable yet either.”

As Sunday rolled on, city officials activated a website, where the names of those confirmed as killed were added. For many, it amplified the agony of the situation — the page would only be updated after authorities had contacted the family of the deceased. For friends not privy to those calls, it meant sitting and waiting, refreshing the website or remaining glued to news coverage, waiting to see if a name they recognized appeared. It was a process that lasted throughout Sunday and into Monday, until all 49 dead were accounted for.

Cameras watched as, one-by-one, those gathered in public spaces to await news of their loved ones were overcome with grief. Some sank to the ground, others clung to one another, while many just sobbed, unable to process the news. Broadcast news became a twisted sort of voyeurism, as the nation — and, indeed, the world — watched the moments when families, friendships and relationships were forever changed by tragedy.

Monday afternoon, 48 hours after the shooting had first started, Christine Leinonen’s painful wait finally ended. Christopher and Juan were added to the website.

POLITICAL REACTION TO the tragedy was swift. Sunday afternoon, President Obama addressed the nation.

“Today, as Americans, we grieve the brutal murder — a horrific massacre — of dozens of innocent people,” he said. “As Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”

Unlike many Republicans that day, who chose to ignore that the shooter had specifically targeted the LGBT community, President Obama was unashamed in recognizing the significance of Sunday’s attack.

“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” the President said. “The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”

Obama also took a moment to remind America “how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub.” If he sounded at all exasperated, it could have been because the Orlando attack came almost a year after the Charleston church shooting, which claimed 9 lives. It also marked at least the fourteenth time since Obama was elected that he’s had to give a speech in the wake of a mass shooting — six of which have occurred in the last twelve months.

“We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be,” he said. “And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

While President Obama called for unity and resolve, a man hoping to take his job was calling for division and hate. As families grieved, Donald Trump tweeted, congratulating himself for predicting a rise in Islamic extremism. It was a revoltingly crass moment of masturbatory attention-seeking, given all that had occurred that day. But it was nothing compared to his words the following afternoon.

At a speech in New Hampshire, Trump railed against America’s Muslim community, ISIS, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and spewed a number of false statements and outright lies. Surprisingly, however, he acknowledged the LGBT-specific nature of the attacks, which few in his party had managed when tweeting their “thoughts and prayers” the previous day.

“A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation,” he said, later calling it an “assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.”

Trump then tried to brand himself as best candidate for the LGBT community, telling those watching that by banning Muslims from entering the country and inciting distrust in American Muslims, that LGBT people would somehow be safe — all while attacking Hillary Clinton.

“The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why we should admit anyone into our country who supports violence of any kind against gay and lesbian Americans,” he stated, adding, “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone who doesn’t share their views.”

As Vox pointed out, Trump was using tactics adapted from European far-right parties, who have attempted to pit the LGBT community against the Muslim community in an effort to gain support and advance their racist and xenophobic policies. Trump was exploiting the deaths of 49 people to try and justify his own racism. It was a message that fell on deaf ears, both within his party and with those on the ground in Orlando.

There, Muslim communities had overwhelmingly come out in support of the victims. Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations drove from Tampa to Orlando to meet with the families of the victims and offer his condolences.

“Our concern right now is just supporting the victims and their families, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “We need to stand united and we have our work cut out for us to…not allow hate to divide us.”

It was one of several gestures from local and national Islamic organizations offering support for the victims of the shooting, including urging people to donate blood for victims. On social media, a post by Mahmoud ElAwadi, an executive at Merrill Lynch, went viral after he donated blood — despite fasting for Ramadan.

“I witnessed the greatness of this country watching thousands of people standing in 92-degree sun waiting on their turn to donate blood,” he wrote. “Our community in central Florida is heartbroken, but let’s put our colors, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views all aside so we can unite against those who are trying to hurt us.”

It was a message of unity that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed at a rally in Cleveland on Monday.

“On Sunday, Americans woke up to a nightmare that’s become mind numbingly familiar,” she said. “Another act of terrorism in a place no one expected. A madman filled with hate, with guns in his hands, and just a horrible sense of vengeance and vindictiveness in his heart, apparently consumed by rage against LGBT Americans, and by extension, the openness and diversity that defines our American way of life.

“This is a moment when all Americans need to stand together,” Clinton continued. “No matter how many times we endure attacks like this, the horror never fades. The murder of innocent people breaks our hearts, tears at our sense of security and makes us furious.”

Clinton laid out several policies for helping tackle extremism and defeat ISIS — “The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive” — but above all else, her message was one of love and support for the LGBT community.

“The terrorist in Orlando targeted LGBT Americans out of hatred and bigotry. And an attack on any American is an attack on all Americans,” she said. “And I want to say this to all the LGBT people grieving today in Florida and across our country. You have millions of allies who will always have your back. And I am one of them.”

AS POLITICIANS TRADED barbs over Islamic extremism, LGBT support, gun control and other issues, those in Orlando watched as the world opened its heart to the victims.

Orlando Police urged locals not to hold vigils in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, as resources were already stretched thin defending hospitals, resource centers, blood banks, securing Pulse nightclub and beginning the investigation into Mateen. Across America and in cities around the world, however, thousands gathered to light candles, sing songs, hold signs, and otherwise show their love and support for the city.

In New York, the Empire State Building dimmed its lights out of respect, the Tony Awards were dedicated to the shootings, and thousands gathered outside the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement. It was a somber contrast with the year before, when thousands had also gathered — that time to celebrate marriage equality. The crowd chanted “Orlando, we got your back,” as couples, friends, and family held one another, many in tears. It carried through into Monday, where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Tituss Burgess sang “Somewhere” and a raft of celebrities, faith leaders and politicians spoke.

Across America and around the world, buildings were lit up in rainbow colors, including the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Royal Palace in Holland, the Eiffel Tower, the “Toronto” sign in Toronto, and Tel-Aviv City Hall in Israel. Vigils were held in countless cities, drawing massive crowds. London’s Soho gay district saw its streets filled with people, who held a moment’s silence for the victims, released 49 balloons, and then had a street party to celebrate being open and proud. Crowds gathered at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where two mass shootings have rocked the city in the last 18 months, observing a minute’s silence. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin was inundated with candles, flowers and rainbow flags. The streets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district were filled with people carrying candles. In San Francisco, thousands gathered in the iconic Castro district, for a vigil held at Harvey Milk Plaza. It was an extra layer of poignancy, given Milk — the first openly-gay elected official in the U.S. — was shot dead while at work in 1978.

At a vigil in Los Angeles, Lady Gaga offered a powerful speech to the massive crowd that had formed.

“Let’s all today pledge an allegiance of love to [the victims] and to their families who are suffering so deeply,” she said. “They are sons and daughters. They were fathers and mothers. They are all our brothers and sisters.” Gaga added that she would “not allow my anger and outrage over this attack to overshadow our need to honor those who are grieving truly for their lost ones.”

As news of the attack filtered out, social media responded with #GaysBreakTheInternet. Refusing to bow to fear and out of respect for the victims, users started sharing photos of themselves, their partners, and their friends. It was a display of sexuality and gender identity intended to proudly and clearly show that LGBT are here, we are visible and we cannot be cowed by fear and intimidation. It spawned other tags such as #TwoMenKissing and a revival of marriage equality tag #LoveWins. It meant that anyone who logged into social media over the past few days would have been met with two things: news about the shootings in Orlando and an overwhelming show of support for the LGBT community.

Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. Many used the attack to further their own homophobia. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a vile bit of bigotry, tweeted an image shortly after news broke of the shootings that read, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” He was widely condemned and deleted the tweet shortly after, issuing a suspect statement about a scheduling error.

Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist and Donald Trump supporter, condemned President Obama for acknowledging that it was an attack on LGBT people. RightWingWatch reports that he blamed the LGBT community for the attack, saying they frequently hype the threat of anti-LGBT violence in order to “sexualize my children and indoctrinate them into your cult.”

“I charge the LGBT community in general with endangering America and with the blood of these 50-plus innocent men and women,” he said.

Anti-LGBT pastor Steven Anderson applauded the attacks, calling the victims “a bunch of perverts and pedophiles.”

“That’s who was a victim here, a bunch of disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar,” he said in a YouTube video that’s since been removed. “The good news is that at least 50 of these pedophiles are not going to be harming children anymore. The bad news is that a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit people into their filthy homosexual lifestyle.”

If anyone needed to be reminded that there are still millions out there who hate the LGBT community and all it stands for, they need only have ventured into the comments sections on news websites, Facebook pages, or scrolled through Twitter. There, countless people were applauding the attacks or celebrating the murder of LGBT people. As the nation ground to a halt and thousands gathered in Orlando, across America and around the world to honor the victims, LGBT people were faced with a constant reminder that homophobia and transphobia didn’t die along with the 49 victims. It just got briefly drowned out by love.

ON MONDAY, WE WERE DEALT another twist to an ever-unfolding story. As right-wing media and politicians cried Islamic extremism and investigators worked to uncover a motive, those who had survived the shootings or were patrons of Pulse offered a startling announcement: Omar Mateen was a regular customer and he had used gay dating apps.

Kevin West, a Pulse regular, told a CNN affiliate that Mateen had messaged him on gay dating app Jack’d for over a year. Two performers at Pulse, husbands Chris Callen and Ty Smith, told Canadian Press and the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen was a regular customer, who had been visiting Pulse for “at least three years.”

“Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent,” Smith said. Calleen added that he’d once pulled a knife after a religious joke gone wrong. “He said if he ever messed with him again, you know how it’ll turn out.”

“He was an angry person, violent in nature, and a bigot to almost every class of person,” a former co-worker, Dan Gilroy, told another CNN affiliate. “He would hit things and as he was hitting things, he would yell, and of course there was always curse words involved.”

There are also reports that Mateen was scoping out Disney complexes while Disney was hosting Gay Days 2016. If it’s true, it adds an unknown number of questions into an already uncertain story. If Mateen was scoping out Pulse for an attack, why did he visit it for three years? Why was he speaking with people on gay dating apps? To what extent did his apparent radicalization, as many are reporting, aid him in committing his horrific attack?

When asked by CNN if Mateen was gay, his first wife, Sifora Yusufiy, paused for three seconds and then said, “I don’t know.”

What’s certain is that Mateen was a wife-beating, mass-murdering, homophobic monster. If, however, his apparent ties to ISIS transpire to be a cover-up for a man too embroiled in his religion to admit his own sexuality, it raises a number of issues. If Mateen was just a confused gay guy, ashamed of his own sexuality and driven to kill those enjoying a lifestyle he felt he could never have, it alters everything. It affects the conservative talking point that this was the fault of “radical Islam” and that we should shut our borders. If true, it also changes our perception of the type of person who can commit such atrocities: if Mateen committed mass murder because he hated himself, not just the people he’s killing, how do we prevent it from happening in the future?

The burning anger I felt while initially reporting on the attacks has since diminished, replaced by a mixture of grief, optimism and exhaustion. After almost three days of reading, watching, and writing about this story, I am emotionally drained. Of course, like many others I have the luxury of being disconnected, to some extent, to the attack. Hundreds of people have lost friends and family — their grief remains undiminished, their pain is still strong, their anger likely burns with the same intensity as when they first learned someone they knew was inside Pulse.

For everyone else, there are flickers of hope amid the ashes of this disaster. The massive outpouring of grief, love and support in the aftermath was incredible to witness. Entire communities came together to recognize LGBT people, our pain, our suffering, our desire to keep on fighting. For a brief moment, we weren’t LGBT Americans, we were just Americans. We were hurting, and America was hurting, too.

Pride celebrations, albeit more serious than usual, continued. Rather than succumb to fear and suspicion, thousands marched the streets, waved their banners, danced at festivals and embraced their identity. Vigils celebrated love, unity, peace, and gave hope for the future.

As a community, we’ve collectively shed an ocean’s worth of tears these past few days. We’ve watched, in real-time, as the death toll rose, the circumstances changed from homophobia to terrorism to potentially self-hatred, and as the victims’ lives became known to all. We’ve tweeted, we’ve shared photos, we’ve written articles, we’ve hugged one another. We’ve witnessed one of America’s worst tragedies produce some of America’s most visible moments of support for our community. We’ve forged friendships in the Islamic community, and seen the possibility of real change, as people focused on the idiocy of banning LGBT people from donating blood to help their fallen brothers and sisters, and the ludicrousness of selling assault rifles.

We’ve heard those who claim moral authority on the Right be ridiculed for trying to ignore the LGBT aspect of this tragedy. We’ve attacked (with our words) those who seek to protect gun lobbies, or support homophobic preachers, or vote for anti-LGBT legislation. Gay, bi, trans and straight, in the past few days we’ve risen together as a community and told those who’ve helped foster homophobia and transphobia in our society for decades that we’ve had enough of their bullshit.

What happened on Sunday was a tragedy. There are still many questions to be answered, many tears still to be shed, and much healing to be done. But what we cannot do as a community is allow ourselves to move on from this attack and settle back into the status quo. Whatever his motives, Omar Mateen slaughtered 49 of our own — a toll that could rise despite the best efforts of Orlando’s phenomenal doctors, nurses and first responders. What we cannot do is allow Mateen’s anger to become just another mass-murder statistic.

Omar Mateen let his anger overpower him. Time and again, as a community we’ve proven that love conquers all. Throughout our history, people have tried to shoot us, stab us, bomb us, bully us, beat us up, or strip us of our rights. Time and again, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and carried on fighting.

Forty-nine people, gay and straight, can no longer fight for our community. If we want to best honor their memories, we need to unite, we need to love, we need to fight and we need to win.

The alternative is to give in to our anger — and we’ve all seen what that can do.

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These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!