Bloody But Unbowed, LGBT Orlando Tries to Carry On

Yannick Delva

Photography by Yannick Delva. Additional reporting by Michael Lambert and Natalia Barr.

Brett Rigas and his boyfriend of three years, Frank Hernandez, woke Saturday morning, June 11, to a SWAT team encircling the gated community in Orlando, Fla., where the two shared a home. 

A gunman had led police on a chase and entered a neighbor’s home, taking hostages. He faced down police in a standoff. After the SWAT team arrived, officers arrested the man.

Shaken, Rigas and Hernandez still started the weekend. They went shopping at the local mall. By nightfall, they planned on a quiet night in. Rigas was in bed when he heard the hair dryer going in the other room.

“C’mon, we’re going to Pulse,” Hernandez told him. “Just for one drink.”

They stayed out at the gay nightclub on South Orange Avenue until 1:30 a.m. The two closed their tab and walked toward the door. But a generous friend working at Pulse corralled them back to the bar.

“Come over here and I’ll get you a drink,” the friend said. “Get Brett whatever he wants.”

Yannick Delva

The scene on Orange Ave. toward Pulse nightclub on June 13, 2016

By 2:02 a.m., the Orlando Police Department received the first report of shots fired at Pulse. 

Omar Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., had begun his rampage — the deadliest single-person mass shooting in American history.

A day that had started with gun violence would now end in more gun violence — and one of the two men who had just come for a quiet drink would not make it out alive.

 

Mayhem at Pulse

Rigas and Hernandez dropped to the floor. Many at Pulse thought the shots from Mateen’s handgun and assault rifle were part of the music. Then, the music stopped.

Rigas lost Hernandez in the confusion. He crawled behind the bar and hid under the well along with a friend and a bartender, Juan, who had been shot in the leg. Bullets flew over their heads, shattering liquor bottles. 

Mateen’s attack claimed the lives of 49 people at Pulse that night. He wounded 53 others. He holed up in the bathrooms for hours, and there he called 911 to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State. He texted with his wife while his victims said goodbye to their loved ones for what they believed would be the last time.

Orlando police killed Mateen at 5:15 a.m. Sunday, June 12, after a three-hour standoff, when he fired on authorities. A SWAT team officer posted a picture on social media of his helmet, where one of Mateen’s bullets had grazed the surface.

When officers finally escorted Rigas out of the bar, he looked for Hernandez among the bodies scattered across the dance floor. All were face down. He looked for the white and blue shirt Hernandez had been wearing. 

Hernandez’s name would later appear on the list of the 49 victims killed during the assault.

“I hope that it happened fast,” Rigas says. “I just hope that he wasn’t just hurt a little bit and then — maybe he got stepped on or trampled on by people trying to get out of there. I hope he didn’t suffer there, because I wasn’t able to get to him. I don’t know where he was. I looked for him.” 

Three days after the attack, on Wednesday, June 15, Rigas sits in the apartment he shared with Hernandez, fighting through tears. Hernandez’s body is on a plane to Texas. Rigas was shot in the arm, but he has not yet been to the hospital. Shoe boxes are stacked high in the living room. Both men loved shoes, especially Hernandez. 

“He wasn’t the cleanest person. And I think he left all this because he knew something was going to happen, so now I have to pick up everything,” Rigas says, choking out a joke. 

Rigas picked out the outfit in which his boyfriend was to be buried: “Some sparkly shoes he bought that are tacky, but I think he would want to wear,” he says. “He’s a little goofball. I mean, he was always making people laugh. Everybody loved him. You have to make sure that the people in your life know that you love them.” 

He breaks down in tears.

 

‘I’m Going to Kill You’

Inside Pulse, while Rigas lay under the bar well, Answai Bennett — his friends call him Swizzy — ducked into a nearby bathroom. He crowded into a single stall with 15 others. The people argued frantically. They called and texted friends, loved ones. The noise attracted the gunman, who flung open the bathroom door and sprayed the stall with bullets. 

Bennett was with one of his closest friends, Paul Henry. He watched him get shot, his body falling headfirst into the toilet. 

Mateen shouted, “If you guys come to the door, I’m going to kill you!”

In the stall, Bennett tried to calm the crowd, telling everyone to be quiet. 

“I was praying the whole time, bargaining with God,” he says. “I was begging him that if he gets me out of here, I’ll live a certain way or I won’t do this, I won’t be in a club again.”

The gunman would return to the bathroom a second time to fire more rounds. Six of those huddled in the stall with Bennett died. Bennett was shot three times in the hip and leg, a bullet tearing through his femur. 

At the hospital, he received 60 staples and a metal rod in his leg. He is learning how to walk again. 

 

The Making of a Madman

From the moment he fell dead in a hail of gunfire on South Orange Avenue, the world knew the name Omar Mateen. But the young man’s story stretches back across a violent, discontented life, across moments in which family, friends, and coworkers now wonder if they could have seen this attack coming. 

Born in New York to Afghan immigrants Seddique and Shahla Mateen, Omar and his parents moved to Port St. Lucie when he was 4 years old. He acted out in the younger grades but settled down in high school. He worked odd jobs as he attended community college studying criminal justice. He hoped one day to work in uniform and received a glowing recommendation from St. Lucie County police for corrections officer training.

When he washed out of training in 2007 after joking about bringing a gun to class, he landed a job as a guard with the private security firm G4S.

He beat his first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, who fled soon after in 2009. He married Noor Salman in 2010. The pair had a son, now 3 years old. Salman has cooperated with federal investigators, claiming she tried to talk her husband out of the attack.

Mateen fell in the G4S ranks after making affirmative comments about terrorist groups. He began working the front gate at the PGA Village golf resort. He expressed support for Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Taliban; it was a slow-burning anger with little discernment among the conflicting Islamist groups. He was investigated by the FBI twice but deemed not to be a threat.

In early June, he purchased the firearms that he would later unleash on the innocents at Pulse. His father, Seddique, claimed he may have been triggered by the sight of two men kissing — Omar said at the time that his own young son should not have to see that. 

After he died, Pulse regulars, classmates, and acquaintances began to whisper. He had been seen by several at the bar before — always quiet, always isolated. Gay men recalled seeing his profile on dating and hookup sites like Grindr and Jack’d. A past classmate, now a drag queen, claimed he had known Mateen and could not believe he had done it. The FBI is investigating whether the young gunman was motivated by extremist ideology or something entirely different: life in a restrictive cultural upbringing as a closeted gay man. 

 

Picking Up the Pieces

In the days following the attack, Orlando has clearly proved to Mateen and to the world that the city’s LGBT community would not cower in fear.

Less than 24 hours after the attack, members of the Orlando LGBT community gather in solidarity and to comfort one another at Parliament House, a nightclub and resort about three miles from Pulse. 

Javie White typically dances on Saturday nights at Pulse. But that weekend he had given up his dancing shift to bartend at another nearby club. The young go-go dancer wasn’t on his box next to Pulse’s entrance when Mateen came in and opened fire.

“I’ve been crying home alone for seven hours,” he says at the impromptu gathering. But he is resilient. “Orlando is the most tightly knit gay community I’ve ever been in. We are here to support each other, and we are not afraid.”

White hugs a friend, Tyler Block, who is barely holding together. Block found out only an hour ago that one of his closest friends was killed. She had a 2-year-old son with her partner. 

“For someone to come into my home and murder my family, it’s beyond anything you will ever feel,” Block says, trembling. Block fled his conservative home in Wisconsin and came to Orlando two years ago. He had yet to come out as gay to his parents, but they knew he hung out at a place called Pulse. 

“So, now they know,” he says.  

In a room behind Block, the midnight drag show continues as scheduled. The performers encourage the thin crowd to be strong. They joke about getting drunk to cope as many in the audience embrace. 

Kai’Ja Adonis performs at Pulse. The drag queen and mother of House of Adonis acknowledges that she lost a friend in the early-morning shooting. But she has pulled herself together with grace for younger people in the community.

“I cried all day. I’m done crying. I’m ready to be myself again,” Adonis says. “I’m trying to be my funny, catty self for the kids.”

Moving forward, she knows that safety will be a priority for those left behind.

“Everything’s up in the air. [The police] don’t want us to do things that put us all together,” she says. “But no one is going to break us. No one is going to break this community.” Adonis smiles. She laughs and cackles as friends and bartenders pass by. But the shock of losing her friend is still there. “I had known him for years,” she says. “I just hung out with him last weekend. All I can think is, ‘God, I just saw you.’ ”

 

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Vigil organized by Equality Florida at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, June 13, 2016

‘We Are Here to Stay’

On Monday evening, June 13, the city of Orlando hosts an official vigil for the victims of the massacre. News helicopters and armed police stationed on rooftops afix their steely gazes on the more than 7,500 mourners gathered on the lawn in front of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. 

Natasha Claudio, 21, stands toward the back with a companion. She lost Peter Gonzalez-Cruz, a friend she had known since elementary school. “He was fun-loving and had a lot of friends. He was an amazing person,” she says. “It’s going to be hard. It won’t be easy to heal.”

City and county officials follow religious leaders on the stage, thanking police and first responders to an outpouring of cheers from the crowd. Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer confirms to the thousands gathered that all 49 victims have been identified and next of kin notified. 

“There’s an Orlando not everyone sees,” he says. “It’s a growing city that feels like a small town. It’s where we call home. It’s such a painful irony that a city of joy and love now has to wear the title of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” 

The mostly somber crowd erupts in cheers as Pulse manager Neema Bahrami walks to the stage, flanked by the nightclub’s staff. “We are not leaving,” he says. “We will not be defeated. We are here to stay.”

Equality Florida’s Nadine Smith echoes that sentiment — that Orlando and the LGBT community at large will grow stronger after the tragedy. “When we say we’re in a ‘culture war,’ it’s no longer metaphorical,” she says. “Nothing good will come from this. We will make good come from this.”

At the end of the vigil, the bell from First Methodist Church tolls 49 times, once for each victim. Each toll resonates longer than the last in the sultry air. Framed between the sterile edifices of downtown Orlando, sherbet-colored thunderheads loom on the horizon.

Later, people remark that the bell tolls seemed to go on forever. When they thought, surely, this must be the last one, they weren’t halfway there. And when the final bell did ring out, the mourners silently raised their candles in unison, like a single, swift fist into the tropical night.

The following Sunday, approximately 50,000 people gather around Lake Eola for another vigil — by far the largest of the week’s vigils held in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere throughout the world. Each victim’s name is read aloud once more, with the crowd chanting “We remember them!” after each name. 

As if in response, a rainbow appears in the skies over Lake Eola. 

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Mourners at the makeshift memorial at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, June 13

Deadliest, But Not the First

Mateen’s assault may be the individual deadliest in U.S. and LGBT history, but the attack at Pulse certainly was not the first time lives were lost in a gay nightclub. 

Pride has become a month of parades, celebration, and corporate pandering — but that’s not how Pride started. LGBT people remember June every year for the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where brutal arrests erupted into the modern gay rights movement. Despite how far that movement has gone, the bloody history of LGBT liberation began with an attack on a gay bar and nightclub — and now begins again with a new attack.

Although there is no evidence of a connection, Mateen was not the only armed man targeting the LGBT community the June 12 weekend. Police in Santa Monica, Calif., arrested James Howell after locals called about a prowler. Officers discovered three assault rifles, ammunition, and explosive chemicals in the Indiana man’s car. He told the officers that he was headed for the LGBT Pride parade.

In May, seven died and 12 were injured after gunmen opened fire in the gay nightclub La Madame in Mexico. About 180 people were in the club in Xalapa, Veracruz, when the attack started.

Almost two weeks after Pulse, the LGBT community recognized the 43rd anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge arson in 1973. Flames engulfed the New Orleans gay club, killing 32 and injuring 12. That was the deadliest attack on a gay bar in American history — until Pulse. 

The word Orlando has now entered the country’s lexicon as an antigay byword. Only days after the mass shooting, a man made a threat at Happy Fun Hideaway bar in Brooklyn that he would “come back Orlando-style” after the bouncer threw him out for arguing and saying “you fucking faggots.”

The nation may eventually write off Mateen as a lone wolf, but the LGBT community knows better. As insurmountable as the loss feels, the Pulse attack is just another bloody chapter in a long history of attacks on gay nightclubs — the longtime sanctuaries from a world of fear and rejection and bigotry. 

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Clockwise from upper left: Brett Rigas (left) and Frank Hernandez,  Frank Hernandez, Answai Bennett (left), and Paul Henry.

‘It’s Just so Beautiful’

By Wednesday, the Orlando gay club Southern Nights is packed with people who have gathered to celebrate their community — even so soon after this tragedy. The club is hosting a benefit for the families of survivors and victims. By 10 p.m., the police begin turning people away. There are too many people inside already.

A crowd amasses on the street. Inside, more than 40 drag queens perform to a packed house. The queens sing to laughter, tears, and laughter through tears. In the next room, a pair of men dance the merengue. 

The patrons yell and kiki, as many there and mourners elsewhere wonder how they will ever be able to say goodbye.

As the evening ends at Southern Nights, the drag queen Sassy Devine sings John Lennon’s “Imagine” while the faces of the 49 victims fade in and out on the television screens. 

“This is the most people we’ve ever had in here,” says Jared Cardona, a bartender. “It’s just so beautiful.” 

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Vigil organized by Equality Florida at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, June 13, 2016

Saying Goodbye

Rigas had never met his boyfriend’s family. 

“I was very afraid to meet his mom. I wasn’t even sure I’d be invited to the funeral,” Rigas says. 

He was invited to the service, held on Saturday, June 18, almost a week after the attack. On the plane from Orlando to Texas, a man sitting next to Rigas recognized him from television. He emptied his wallet and said he wanted Rigas to have the money to buy Hernandez some flowers. The man’s name was also Frank.

At the service in Weslaco, a mariachi band played in the 105-degree heat. Rigas says that about 500 people attended the funeral. The family draped a rainbow flag over the casket. Hernandez’s mother held a seat in the front row for Rigas, but he could not bring himself to approach the casket. 

Hernandez loved Beyoncé, and Rigas had a lyric, “Always in formation,” stitched inside the lining of the casket. The family wore T-shirts that read love has no gender — words from Hernandez’s tattoo.

After the service, the family had a barbecue at an aunt’s house where they shared stories about Hernandez. He was always the life of the party and always wanted to go out. His mother told Rigas, “I’m glad that he died doing something that he loved doing.” 

She didn’t know they were a couple. She had chosen over the years to simply not ask any questions.

“I regret that now,” she told Rigas. 

Rigas was swept away by the love around him. 

“His grandmother doesn’t even speak English,” he says. “But she told me that she loves me, and that we are going to be in each other’s lives forever.” 

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