On June 12, 2016, a gunman killed 49 people and injured dozens of others in what became the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. The Pulse nightclub, a popular space for the LGBT community in Orlando, Fla., was holding a Latin Night, and the club was packed with patrons both gay and straight, young and not-so-young, from the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and elsewhere. The massacre sent waves through the many intertwined communities in the city.
Over the last six months, these communities of Orlando — whether LGBT, Latino, Hispanic, religious, or more broadly — have worked in different ways to overcome the traumatic events of that day. Photographer Cassi Alexandra spoke to people across those communities that were touched by the tragedy, either through personal experience, loss of a loved one, or the impact on the city itself. These stories examine the recovery process this community continues to go through, including questioning the acceptance of violence as a country and discussing the damaging legacy of violent acts such as this.
Brandon Wolf grew up in a suburb of Portland, Ore., and has lived in Orlando since 2008. He went to Pulse that night with three friends — Eric Borrero, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero. Brandon and Eric had ended a romantic relationship four days earlier, and they were trying to hang out as friends for the first time. But Brandon was still uncomfortable with their new status.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can really go out with him.’ Right? We just broke up like four days ago,” the 28-year-old explains. “I said, ‘OK, we can go out. Come over around 11:30,’ and I text Drew and Juan right away and I said, ‘Listen, I can’t go out with this kid alone, you have to come out with me.’ ”
Initially the other two men weren’t into it, but Brandon pulled “the friend card,” telling them, ‘I need you to support me because … it’s going to be a mess if I go out with this kid by myself.’ ”
But even with the moral support, things felt awkward for Brandon, so the group stepped out onto the patio, around 1:30 a.m., to hash it all out.
“Drew pulled Eric to the side and Juan pulled me to the side and we were just letting it out,” he says.
Juan and Drew gave the former lovers the same advice: You can’t sweat the small stuff.
“They both had that message for us and I got a little quiet, and then Drew brought everybody together … when he 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.’ ”
Brandon brushed Drew off as being cheesy, but his friend was insistent.
“He said, ‘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.’ ”
The four men headed back into Pulse and danced for about 10 minutes, but it was getting late, and someone suggested it was time to go home. Brandon and Eric headed to the bathroom, while Drew and Juan stayed on the dance floor.
“We were standing there awkwardly — because, still not really a thing, but — we’re standing there awkwardly and then we heard the first round of gunshots,” Brandon explains.
“I think the first emotion I had was confusion,” he recalls. “You know, I was puzzled. I didn’t know what was going on and it wasn’t the sound like you think, like ‘Oh, I’m watching a movie and two guys are mad at each other and they’re in a gang fight,’ and somebody pulls out a handgun and shoots them. It didn’t sound anything like that.”
While Eric and Brandon tried to figure out what was going on, more people pushed into the bathroom with them.
“The bathroom is small and now there’s 12 people inside of it. Everybody is panicked and so now Eric and I are like, ‘OK, something is not right.’ Then gunshots right after that, and that’s when you figured out that’s exactly what it is. I just stood there for a minute, I guess I was processing.”
As the bathroom filled up with gun smoke and the smell of blood, Eric, Brandon and a few others knew they had to make a decision: Leave now or die here.
“We made a break for the fire exit and just ran through the smoke,” Brandon says. “We didn’t look back and kept running from the building.”
After escaping the club, Brandon and Eric headed up the street behind Pulse.
“I think the most challenging moment, for me, was when it struck me … that Drew and Juan didn’t come out of this,” he says. “I had been so strong until that moment. I was leading us out and we had to go, and I was making decisions.”
That’s when Brandon fell on the sidewalk. He couldn’t carry himself anymore. But Eric pushed him, saying, ‘No we’ve got to go. We’ve got to move. We’ve got to move.”
Still, Brandon couldn’t move. Eric tried talking to him, but Brandon 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.’ ”
And for Brandon, that was the moment when everything suddenly became easier.
“That moment was the one that I wouldn’t wish on anybody else,” he recalls. “I already knew that they were never coming out, that they were never coming back. You have this flood of, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t say goodbye. Who’s going to tell their mom? Who am I going to go on vacation with? My birthday’s in two months.’ All that. It all goes over you at one time.”
Eric picked him up by the arm and said: “We have to keep moving. We don’t know if it’s safe. We have to go.”
The two men continued to run. They ran through a field and finally saw police.
“There had to have been somewhere between 50 and a hundred cop cars,” Brandon says. “They’re all in riot gear. They all have large weapons. We kind of weaved our way up the street and we stopped in front of the hospital. My emotions are coming down. I’m trying to talk to my parents on the phone. I’m inconsolable. Eric takes the phone and he’s trying to talk to my dad. My dad’s like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ”
They sat on the steps of the hospital and Brandon kept saying over and over again, “Please be OK. Please be OK.” But then everything went crazy again. Cops ran into the hospital and told everybody to get on the ground and put their hands in the air. People were screaming and running from the hospital.
“I remember it was chaos and I lost Eric for a second,” Brandon says. “This girl yelled at me to go between the cars. We’re crouched between cars and I’m thinking in my head, ‘My God I’ve just lost Eric, too.’ ”
But then Eric came around the corner and grabbed Brandon and the two went farther down the street to a 7-Eleven.
“That’s when I could finally start to compile my thoughts,” Brandon says.
His friends Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero were among the 49 people murdered that night at Pulse.
Emily Addison and her 2-year-old son, Diyari, lost Deonka “Dee Dee” Drayton in the Pulse massacre.
Emily and Dee Dee started dating in 2009, but were separated at the time Dee Dee was killed. Still, Emily says the two had been talking reconciliation.
“Even though we was not physically in a relationship at the time that she passed, we was still family. We never not been in each other’s lives,” she says. “We had a cruise booked Sept. 9. We was supposed to determine then on what next step we was going to take with our lives.”
The night of the massacre Dee Dee texted Emily, but her phone was set to silent so she didn’t receive the texts until the next morning.
“She started texting me about 2:24 in the morning, and she said, ‘Emily, they’re shooting at Pulse. I’m scared.’ Then, she said, at 2:24, ‘In the bathroom. People are shot.’ At 2:25, ‘I’m scared.’ At 2:25, ‘Please call the police.’ At 2:34, ‘If I die, please call my mom.’ That was the last time she texted me.”
A couple of hours after Dee Dee’s name had been posted as one of the people killed in the mass shooting, Emily went to the hospital.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how hard I prayed. I wanted her to be in the hospital so bad, I didn’t care what kind of predicament she was in, because I knew I was going to take care of her,” she says. “I knew, after that point, if everything went well with her being in the hospital, we was just going to just make it work, because that was a huge wake-up call. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
Because the two weren’t married, Emily has no rights regarding Dee Dee. She had to push to get information about Dee Dee’s funeral.
“I didn’t find out the address of the funeral until the day of the funeral,” 37-year-old Emily says. “The only reason why I made it there is because I found out that it was going to be on a Saturday, what Saturday it was, and I went on ahead and took a flight to South Carolina. That’s how I was able to attend the funeral. I was maybe about a few minutes late.
“Deon and I have been in each other’s lives since ’09. I have been through so much, so much, so many ups, so many downs, so many downs, but we were still there for each other. When she passed, I have been treated like I’m just supposed to forget everything that I’ve been through, like we’re nobody, we’re irrelevant. That’s exactly how I’ve been treated ever since she passed.”
Brittany Sted is co-founder of The Dru Project, an organization created in memory of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen. The project’s mission is to create gay-straight alliances in schools and provide support for existing ones.
“That’s always been his screen name for everything, for LiveJournal, Instagram, Snapchat, yeah, he always went by The Dru Project,” Brittany says, explaining how the organization got its name. “One of his friends said that was because everything he did was a project. His whole life was a project. All these lists of things to do, places to go, things he wanted to accomplish.”
Brittany and other friends felt they didn’t want Drew’s death to just happen, they “needed something to come from it,” she says.
Drew helped make them into a little family along the way, so his close friends got together and decided to honor him by starting a nonprofit that built on work he had done in high school, where he started a gay-straight alliance.
“We decided we wanted to work on saving his legacy, preserving it, by promoting gay-straight alliances, whether that’s in public schools — like in middle schools and high schools — or even just out in the community, helping to have people understand we can’t have all this hate and this bigotry and this not understanding and accepting one another,” says Brittany, who is a licensed mental health counselor. “That’s something really big he accomplished in high school and continued throughout his life.
“We joked about our friend group even being such a multicultural group because that’s just how he was and accepting of everyone,” she continues. “I think we decided we need to take on his mission and continue to spread it since he is no longer able to.”
Ida Vishkaee Eskamani and Anna Vishkaee Eskamani
Twins Ida Vishkaee Eskamani (left) and Anna Vishkaee Eskamani grew up in the Central Florida area and attended the University of Central Florida. They hold positions at local nonprofits, which put them into action in the aftermath of the Pulse massacre — Anna as the senior director of public affairs and field operations for Planned Parenthood, and Ida as Equality Florida’s development officer. The 26-year-old sisters tag-teamed a megaphone during the Aug. 11 “Rally to End Hate #ForThe49,” leading a crowd to chant “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go!”
Ida started the GoFundMe for Pulse Victims, which had received more than $7.5 million in donations from nearly 120,000 people from 120 countries in November. Her initial goal was “a modest $100,000,” but within hours they had met that goal, she says, and so they kept increasing it.
“It’s been a very bittersweet experience, because we’re incredibly proud of the work that this GoFundMe page has represented and the love from across the world that has come to Orlando,” Ida says. “There were many moments when we were just completely exhausted and we went to that page and just read the comments. You’ve got celebrities like Jesse Tyler Ferguson donating $10,000, but then you have the little girl in Indiana who put a bake sale together to put some dollars towards this, and the theater troupe in Los Angeles, and the nightclub in this place — just literally across the world. That was just really incredible, but at the same time, we never wanted to raise a fundraising effort for victims of a shooting that happened in our own community.”
Ida and Anna lost their mother when they were 13 and that personal loss connected them to the 49 massacre victims and their families.
“It’s funny … because I feel like I’m still managing my grief from the loss of my mom, even though at this point it was 13 years ago,” Anna says.
Hearing stories of those who lost a friend or a family member is a trigger for Ida.
“That’s the pain that I feel, too,” she says. “It’s something you never want anyone to ever feel because it’s so horrific.”
The most painful part for Ida is hearing people say, “My brother should be here. My son or daughter should be here right now. My mom should be here right now.”
“That’s very much how I feel,” she says. “Even though she was taken away from us from cancer, just that loss really resonates. That’s been really heart-wrenching when you see these folks, because it’s pain you never wish upon anybody, and for it to have happened in such a brutal manner, it’s just horrific.”
These feelings are why the sisters are committed to honoring their deaths through action.
“Not just our mom’s life, but also the lives of the 49,” Anna says, with their focus including the 53 people who were injured, and the countless others traumatized.
“To make sure that we make good of this horrific scenario that no one wanted in this town, and no one could ever plan for,” Ida says.
Family of Juan Guerrero
Aryam Guerrero, Mayra Guerrero, Juan Ramon and Celia Ruiz lost their youngest son and brother, Juan Guerrero, that night.
“My kids go to Catholic school,” Celia says. “My daughter knows about her uncle and she didn’t have a problem. We haven’t talked to my son. He’s 8.”
Celia felt that following up a discussion about her brother’s death with a conversation about his sexuality was too much.
“You just lost your uncle, now let’s talk about this,” she says. “Even before that, I felt like he was too young to have that conversation. I feel the Catholic community has become more open about it, especially since the new pope.”
The pope’s influence along with schools allowing or being more positive about kids showing their identities has helped with acceptance, Celia says, but acceptance begins at home
“I think it comes from the family,” she continues. “We can talk about what the schools are doing and what the church is doing, but it comes from the family. It’s the way that you raise your kids. If you raise your kids to think that it’s wrong to be gay, then your child is going to have a tough teenager life trying to share that with you. Even afterwards, it’s going to be tough because you probably will more than likely be the parent that shuns your son out. It comes from the house, I think.”
Twenty-five-year-old Alberto Blanco was born in Spain and has been a member of the Orlando Ballet since 2012. The mass shooting at Pulse made him fearful, he says.
“I was afraid because it could have been anywhere else. It happened at Pulse, but it could have been at Southern Nights, it could have been at Tommy How’s, and those are places that I go to. It could have been anywhere. That’s the scary part,” Alberto says. “But that’s what they want you to feel. It’s awful. It’s just such a bad feeling. It’s like a thing inside. I’m afraid to go out. It could be even in the supermarket. It’s crazy.”
But Alberto says he’s dealing with the fear.
“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,” he says. “I think I’m OK. I feel like if something were to happen, it would happen. You can’t live your life afraid. I think that the fact that this attack was in the gay community — we are so used to being afraid — they messed with the wrong people. I feel like a lot of things are going to change in this country that needed to change and need to change. As I said, sometimes a bad thing could bring a lot of good.
The dancer says the gay community is used to fear because they have always been chased and bullied.
“There were people who used to call me things and it’s scary,” he explains. “You know you have your friends, but it would be amazing to know that you can just be yourself and nobody is going to judge you for that specifically. They can judge you for other things if they want. But I feel like sometimes the straight community doesn’t really understand why we have gay pride month, or day, or anything. It’s the same way women have a woman’s day because we have to fight for things that they didn’t. It’s like what I said, being chased, being put in jail just for being gay.”
Mayor Buddy Dyer
“The 12th of June was the darkest day in our history, but I couldn’t be more proud of our community at this point because of the way we have rallied and responded at this point — not being defined by the act of the gunman but being defined by how we have responded. And I would say that’s with love, that’s with compassion and unity for the victims — for the families but [also] for the community as a whole,” says Buddy Dyer, who has been the mayor of Orlando for 13 years. “Because in addition to the victims that were in the Pulse nightclub, I think there is a wound on the entire community.”
At a recent Sunday service Dyer attended, a pastor new to the community said, “God has appointed Orlando and its citizens with a light to fight hatred and to show the world how to embrace equality and fairness,” and Dyer thinks that’s a role his community now has because of the Pulse tragedy.
Alexandra Sarton and her band Chakra Khan had a debut album release party at The Venue in Orlando, Fla., on June 12. One of the songs she performed for the first time that night — the same night as the shooting massacre — was called “Pulse,” a piece that she says is about how we “cover up our feelings.”
“Us being dishonest with ourselves about how we feel in the day to day,” the 37-year-old explains. “Which then leads to us not necessarily accepting ourselves, which then leads to us not accepting others, and then leads to us not accepting whole groups of people. Then leads to us feeling anger toward an external source when it all really started on the inside. That’s exactly what Pulse is about.”
Christopher Cuevas, 24, is one of the co-founders and lead organizers of QLatinx, an organization founded by LGBTQ+ and Latinx community members after the Pulse murders. Latinx is a gender-neutral way of using the words Latino or Latina, since there are individuals who don’t conform to gender norms.
“Members in our group are survivors, or have lost loved ones, friends and family, and in the immediate, they felt like they needed somewhere to go, and they needed to heal, and many of them don’t have family here,” Chris says. “Latinx communities exist in pockets all over the place. We’ve never had a space dedicated entirely to us, for us, by us, and so in lieu of that Latin Night, or Noche Latina, was really the only place that we could ever go and see other brown and black bodies that make up the Latinx community. With that no longer available, with that gone, it’s a challenge. So we felt like we needed to convene that community together. We needed to bring the people that exist in the diaspora together.”
Jason Lindsay is executive director of the PRIDE Fund to End Gun Violence, a new political action committee he formed in the wake of the Pulse massacre and other mass shootings and gun violence.
“Orlando was the flashpoint, but it had been a passion of mine for quite some time wanting to create change,” says Jason, who was a congressional relations officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs before launching his PAC.
When he saw Christine Leinonen pleading on the news trying to find out whether her son Drew was alive or not, Jason was moved.
“She had a passionate plea of, ‘Why can’t someone do something about the assault weapons?’ ” he says. “I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because of the attack anyway. Just her words resonated so clearly of what can I do as an individual to try and help create change? There was a unique opportunity to really engage the LGBTQ community and get us involved in reducing gun violence. I determined that starting a political action committee would be one of the most effective ways to create change.”
Jason wants to organize the LBGT+ community and its allies to move on the issue of common sense gun reform.
“By mobilizing them we can do two things,” he explains. “One, we can get them more actively involved in the political process. In regards to elections and then holding elected officials accountable and making sure that they vote for common sense gun reform.”
The second effort is directly raising money for political candidates at the federal level.
“Hopefully, [at the] state level down the road as we expand, but raising money for candidates who meet our policy objectives, which includes common sense gun reform,” he says.
Shane Young and Trish Glad
Shane Young is chairperson of the Youth Council at Zebra Coalition, an advocacy group for LGBT+ youth in Central Florida. He and his mother, Trish Glad, live in Saint Cloud, Fla., where Shane attended three high schools before dropping out to study for his GED because of what he described as “terrible bullying” from students and staff members.
“I would come home crying, absolutely would not want to go to school,” Shane says. “I’d lay in bed until lunchtime, and just be like, ‘All right, I’ll go now.’ ”
Because, when Shane — who is transgender — did go to school, his day was fraught with battles.
“I’d go to go to the bathroom, and I’d get detentions and referrals because I wanted to use the correct bathroom for myself,” he says. “I’d just keep getting written up, and go to my guidance counselor that understood, and be like, ‘I’m not going to detention. I don’t care. I’m not going to go because this isn’t right.’ ”
Still, he got written up a lot and always tried to find a way out of detention “because I never did anything wrong, to me, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to go to this. I don’t deserve to have to go, for just having to pee.’ ”
Like any parent, Trish worried about Shane.
“Worrying if my kid was going to be alive when I picked him up at the end of the school day was horrible, and it was all the time,” she says. “Just kids threatening to slit his throat, and the police won’t do anything unless there’s actual bodily harm.”
Shane said he got used to his situation.
“I feel like society shoves you in the closet,” he says. “The moment you want to come out, you’re going to be shoved … back in the closet … I had open arms to come home to. I didn’t ever deal with the hate at home, but I can’t imagine how it would be to have hate wherever you went.”
Blue is a well-known figure in the LGBT community of Orlando and owner of The Venue, the performing arts facility where Chakra Khan performed the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Blue worked with the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida, and The Center, as a secondary responder.
“Our main focus was to kind of get set up for the week that we knew was ahead of us,” Blue says.
But Blue doesn’t think much could have been done to stop what happened.
“You can talk about gun control and you can talk about raising people with love and you can talk about ways that you would’ve changed upbringing … the world is a crazy place,” she says. “If I sat here and thought about all the ways that we could’ve prevented that I would probably be sitting here and speaking for hours. The fact of the matter is we have to look at what we’ve gotten from it and move forward with that.”
From her perspective, you can’t prevent these kinds of tragedies.
“Because you just can’t predict,” Blue says. “There’s so much that people have innately, that they have in their upbringing, access to guns. I mean, that’s just … those are things that are so much bigger than I am, that all I can really do is go, ‘OK, this situation was really bad. What are we going to do from this moment forward to help maybe try to change? Hopefully, make a difference and maybe move forward from here.’ ”
Christine Leinonen lost her only son on June 12.
“It was horrible; it was horrific,” she says. “It was, it’s still incomprehensible. I still can’t deal with it mentally. I have to make it a nonevent because when I do deal with it, the reality is that, ‘Yes, my son was slaughtered.’ ”
Christine suffers from insomnia and wakes up many nights at 3 a.m. That night she signed on to Facebook and saw that Brandon had posted about the shooting at Pulse.
“From that moment on I got into a denial. I thought for sure Christopher wasn’t there, so I texted Christopher. I said, ‘Chris, are you OK?’ Then I Facebook messaged Brandon. I said, ‘Was Christopher with you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I’m still thinking in my head, ‘My brain is not thinking.’ ”
But as she got more details, Christine knew that her son was one of those killed.
“I knew the reality was that Christopher was murdered, slaughtered, had to have been hit multiple times, just from everything I was hearing,” she says. “Because once Brandon told me that Christopher was with him and that he didn’t know where Christopher was, I got in my car, I said, ‘Where are you?’ ”
Christine drove down to the 7-Eleven where Brandon and Eric had ended up, and JP Cortes was there, too, He had gone to meet his friends because he was worried. Brandon explained to her what happened and where her son was in the nightclub. But still, her brain could not process the information.
“It’s like I have two brains: one that’s logical that I’ll deal with the evidence and it’s likely he’s dead, and the other one that is so hard to get to and so traumatic to put any information into that part of my brain,” she says. “Even now I just can only deal with it in very small slivers. It’s just too painful. I can deal with the evidence of it logically.”
Christine said that hearing that Juan had been taken out on a stretcher gave her hope that Drew might have made it out, too. “I was clinging onto that for that entire morning.”
She stood by the emergency room waiting for three hours.
Tanya Ballard Brown contributed to this report.