As gay pride month begins, LGBT community reacts to mass shooting
By Johnny Diaz, Barbara Corbellini Duarte and Skyler Swisher
A tide of grief and sympathy swept South Florida after the Sunday morning mass shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub where 50 patrons were killed and 53 were injured.
The tragedy comes at a time when the gay community embarks on several annual Pride events to celebrate decades of overcoming obstacles and discrimination. And now those events and related venues are ramping up security in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
More than 600 people gathered at a vigil at The Pride Center at Equality Park in Wilton Manors, including U.S. representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch.
Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick said there would be meetings this week with the FBI, Broward Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies in advance of Saturday's Stonewall Festival. "Now with this event, it's more important than ever that we show we are united and supportive," he said.
The gunman, Omar Mateen of Port St. Lucie, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, according to a federal law enforcement official.
At the vigil, Wilfredo A. Ruiz, communications director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "We're asking our community to be safe, to be on alert especially this month of Ramadan, when hundreds of congregants go to each mosque to pray and spend the night there."
For Wilber Cerda, 40, the fact that the shooting at Pulse nightclub on Latin night hit particularly close to home. He said he had been at the same club last week. "I am Latin. I want to stand with them. I support each and every one of the families."
The news darkened conversations throughout many popular gay hangouts in Wilton Manors. At Georgie's Alibi, the American flag stood at half mast outside the bar to honor the shooting victims.
The mood was also somber down the street at Rosie's Bar and Grill. That's where Joel Tucker wept at the tragedy, which brought back vivid memories. In 2000, he was shot in the back at a gay bar in Roanoke, Va. One person was killed and six were wounded.
"It has torn me up today to see this,'' said Tucker, 56, his eyes welling with tears.
He hopes that the survivors in Orlando can one day move forward as he did. "It made me strong as a person and I hope these poor people, I hope they understand that they have to get up and keep going. If we don't, society is going to push us back in the closet."
Michael Kareff, a Deerfield Beach native, also got emotional Sunday. "I started crying. I just started bawling hysterically,'' said the 23-year-old high school teacher as he stood outside Rosie's with a friend.
Kareff said he was dancing to salsa early Sunday morning at The Manor nightclub in Wilton Manors, like the patrons at Pulse.
"To think that a couple hours away, that we were both doing the same thing but had totally different outcomes is just awful,'' he said. "I immediately came here [to Rosie's] because I wanted to feel safe again. I felt so violated last night I wanted to be here and feel connected to my community."
For others, the news only strengthened their resolve to be out and proud especially during Pride events.
"I am not going to change the way I live because of fear. I am not going to let that change anything,'' said Diego D'Alessandro, 31, of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. "If anything, I will go out more. I am not going to change being who I am."
Tony Plakas, chief executive officer of Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Palm Beach County, said the Orlando tragedy transcends the gay community.
"A hate crime in Orlando hurts gay people everywhere," he said. "It happened in one place in Florida, but it impacts how people feel in Massachusetts, California, Texas. It's just awful. We've been connected for a long time."
Throughout South Florida, concerns quickly turned to security.
As a precaution, managers at Georgie's Alibi are planning to have more deputies this Friday and Saturday for the Stonewall Festival and for the rest of the weekends this month.
Georgie's Alibi usually has two deputies present on Thursday nights for its popular "Long Island Iced Tea Night."
"I want to make sure that our customers are safe,'' said owner Johnny Pak. "In order for me to feel safe for our customers, I want to make sure that I have [deputies] present."
Pak added that the bar will start selling rainbow ribbons to raise money for the families of the Orlando victims.
The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has also started a LaunchGood page to raise funds for the families and victims of the shooting. The page had raised more than $23,000 by Sunday evening.
"We feel that we need to outreach to the LGBT community and put ourselves at their service,'' said CAIR's Ruiz. "We also pray for the victims and their families who are mourning now, or in the hospital, the victims."