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An Ode to Queer Orlando and Its Warm Embrace

An Ode to Queer Orlando and Its Warm Embrace

Melody Maia Monet

Orlando's unbreakable community helped transgender lesbian Melody Maia Monet come into her own.

About five and a half years ago I arrived in Orlando set on beginning a new life. My marriage was in the final stages of divorce and I was in the very beginning stages of my transition into becoming the woman I am today. Up until that moment, I had been seen as a straight male, had not so much as set foot in a bar, and had no idea yet what it meant to be and to be seen as a lesbian. My life would soon revolve around LGBT nightclubs and bars and the acceptance I would find there among a unique bunch of people.

I still remember the first time I walked into the old Revolution nightclub on Bumby, near downtown Orlando. It was a Saturday in February 2011 and my roommate had decided that it was a good time to introduce me to lesbian nightlife. As beautiful go-go dancers moved seductively onstage and the ladies eyed the new girl up and down, I stared wide-eyed, taking it all in, but woefully unprepared for the realities of gay life. Having been socialized as a male and thus to believe my attraction to women was natural, I had not yet realized that it was something that would not be accepted now that society saw me as a woman. I didn't know that holding a woman's hand in public could attract stares and kissing her might draw scowls of disapproval. I soon learned from girlfriends that I needed to be discreet and pay attention to my surroundings.

However, at Rev I could be me, transgender and a lesbian, without the worry of those outside prejudices. I could flirt with other lesbians, and I learned an entirely new mating dance -- a ritual without rigid gender-based roles and expectations that the "man" would ask the girl out and pay for the date or initiate sex. I learned to be confident in the new me.

As time went on, Revolution became Southern Nights, and I put my photography skills to use as the club photographer there on the weekends. My relationship with the motley crew of bartenders, managers, and entertainers at Southern deepened until one day I called some of them my best friends. They encouraged me to pursue my dreams and I soon found myself as a singer with the Orlando Gay Chorus. Within the chorus and Southern, my circle of friends in the Orlando LGBT+ community expanded exponentially beyond the small group of lesbian and transgender friends I'd had in my early days. I was photographing hundreds of gay people a month as well as singing on stages for events across the Orlando area.

One of those stages, the Plaza Live, is the location used by the Orlando Gay Chorus for our concerts. A small venue, it was the place I learned to perform again within the greater anonymity of a large group. That stage was a place of acceptance by a largely straight audience that came to hear us sing. I sang in three concerts there over the span of a year and a half, including the chorus's 25th-anniversary concert last year. It was at that concert I finally fulfilled my challenge to myself to perform solo in front of a large crowd.

I vividly remember stepping out of my choral section to stand alone in front of a mic with nothing between me and 500 people, while I waited for my solo sections to come up in a song dedicated to the Orlando transgender community. I was petrified, but I now think of that moment in relation to The Voice's Christina Grimmie, who was the last person to sing on that same stage. I wonder about the true fear she felt as her killer raised the gun to shoot her. I think of how her brother felt as he tackled the gunman who took her life. Most of all, I am angered that someone could be so calculating as to plan the murder of a beautiful soul like Christina in my adopted city, beautiful Orlando, and try to make us all afraid to inhabit a space we call home.

As unbelievable as her murder is, none of us could imagine that more horrors lay in store the next day. As I got off my photography gig at Southern, I made it home just in time to find my social media blowing up with the news of an active shooter at a sister gay club. I was glued to my computer as I read firsthand accounts of what was happening at Pulse and watched video of people on the scene hours before traditional media relayed the bad news to the rest of the country. I recalled how I had been at Pulse just the week before to watch Neon Hitch perform on the eve of Gay Days in Orlando. In my mind's eye, I could see the interior layout of the club and tried to imagine the sight of a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle placed incongruously on the dance floor among people slowly realizing they were in mortal danger and running for their lives. People whose faces I knew intimately because I had photographed them last Friday and many other weekends previous to it. Beautiful people, inside and out, who had done nothing to harm others except be their authentic selves. People just like me. My community.

In the three days since these tragedies have descended on Orlando, I've done the only thing I can do. I've cried and hugged friends. We have volunteered and given blood. I have tried to find and post as many photos as possible of the victims in happier times and cried every time I happen across one. Most of all, I have tried to hold it together and be brave in defiance of those who would prefer I be afraid or not exist. I am, and remain, Orlando Strong.

MELODY MAIA MONET is a photographer at Southern Nights in Orlando and a singer with the band Mad Transit. She can be reached at

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