From Epcot's Candlelight Processional to the Baptist church's Christmas Eve candlelight services, candles have long played a predominant role in Orlando's annual December festivities. But on Monday night, candles served a different purpose outside Pulse nightclub. Orlando's LGBTQ community had gathered to light candles honoring the 49 people murdered by Omar Mateen when he opened gun fire during Pulse's weekly Latino night. Monday marked the six month anniversary of Mateen's rampage, the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in American history, and his violence has continued to affect the city's LGBTQ community.
"The holidays are more important this year than previous ones, I think, after the crazy year we've had with the election and obviously Pulse," said Pulse regular Noel Ruiz. "The events that took place at Pulse left a mark in everyone. In the LGBT community and the Hispanic community alike. Orlando is home to many gay Latinos, so it felt like it was by chance, someone you knew didn't end up at Pulse that night."
Read more: Gay Floridians React to Shooting
Orlando's local government has focused on improving safety for LGBTQ residents since the shooting. On the anniversary, they announced a "Safe Place" initiative, which provides businesses with signage they can post to indicate that they are a safe space for the queer community to go to if they need help. Orlando Police Chief John Mina told Orlando Weekly he had modeled the program after a similar system instituted in Seattle, and openly gay Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan pushed through the plan.
"In the wake of the Pulse tragedy, Orlando officials have heard that members of the LGBTQ community feel unsafe," Sheehan said in an email to Broadly. "The response from businesses in my district has been great. I know over 20 businesses requested them the first day, and my police liaison has been following up this week."
Gay locals report increased support from the city at large. Doug Jensen, a University of Central Florida graduate in his early 20s, said he has witnessed small positive changes. "Orlando as a whole has been more visibility supportive of the gay community," he said. "I'll be driving down the highway, when I see the Orlando skyline come into focus, I can see rainbow lights on top of the buildings. It's sad why it's there."
Ruiz has noticed similar scenarios. The Universal Studios theme park's annual Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure Halloween show ended with a sign that said, "Be excellent to one another" in a rainbow font. Ruiz feels "this simple message sums up to me what exactly we're supposed to do from here: Be as kind as possible to people you interact with." The Halloween show's tone towards gay people has changed dramatically from three years ago, when Universal Studio's California park had to shut down the show after journalists reported on its use of homophobic jokes.
Questions, though, remain about what will happened to Pulse itself. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the city had negotiated with owner Barbara Poma to buy the nightclub and transform it into a permanent memorial. City appraisers valued the land at $1.65 million, but they agreed to pay Poma $2.25 million. At the last minute, she declined the offer.
"This decision truly came just from my heart and my passion for Pulse, and everything it's meant to me and my family for the last 12 years since its inception," she told the Sentinel. "I think the struggle was you know, letting it go, and it's just something I could not come to grips with."
Poma opened the club in 2004 as more than a business. In 1991, her brother, John, had died of HIV, and she started Pulse to create a place for LGBTQ youth to gather. The club became a touchstone for many gay Floridians—often the first gay club they ever visited. When I was an 18-year-old Floridian, I visited Pulse. It was one of the first gay clubs I had ever experienced, and Pulse lacked the exclusive atmosphere I would find at most gay clubs later. "Pulse was known to welcome people," Ruiz recalled. He first visited the club his freshmen year of college to support his roommate, who was starting off his career as a drag queen.
"Pulse was one of the few clubs that offered a new talent night, allowing newcomers to perform on their stage," Ruiz explains. "The host of the show was picking on audience members as they usually do, and they targeted me because I'm tall. He cracked jokes about my swoopy haircut and told me I looked like a One Direction member. I'll always remember that night because my awkward freshmen self was welcomed to their space."
Since Mateen's devastating hate crime, the welcoming atmosphere of Pulse has ironically traveled throughout Orlando through city programs and public support. Pulse may have shut down since the shooting, but the club's founding mission has only grown larger. As Poma told Matt Lauer on The Today Show, "We're not going to let someone take this away from us… I have to go back to that club."