Since Adrian Padron moved to Orlando four years ago, he has followed the same weekly schedule. Each night of the week, he and his friends have gone to a certain gay club; on Wednesdays, they have always attended Dorm Wednesdays at Pulse, the most popular gay club in town. This weekend, Padron's weekly ritual came to a tragic end when Omar Mateen killed at least 50 people and injured another 53 at Pulse.
"Now it's all different," Padron says. "Do we just hide in our houses for the rest of our lives and never go out?"
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Padron spent Sunday at a friend's house, mourning the loss of their close friend, who worked as a dancer at Pulse and died on Saturday night. "It's really surreal," Padron says. He works at Pulse as a host (he performs under the drag name MR. MS. ADRiEN), and the club is the center of his world.
When he moved to Orlando from Fort Lauderdale in 2012, he started going to Pulse. "It was crazy. It was so diverse—you just didn't realize [it]," he says. "You were colorblind. You didn't care who was gay or straight, what color." The club offered a variety of themed nights, from Twisted Tuesdays (an amateur drag night) to Latin Night, which was the theme on the night of the shooting.
Padron made friends with a variety of people, all of whom hung out at Pulse. Although they also partied at other gay bars, Pulse felt different: To the LGBTQ community in Orlando, the club functioned as a community center. "Everyone truly cared about each other. It wasn't just a place to get drunk," Padron says. "It was a family gathering."
Living in Florida for 22 years, I truly believe it is a great place to be gay.
The club introduced Padron to drag, and he quickly fell in love with the art form. On weekends, he would walk up and down the streets of downtown Orlando dressed in women's clothes. He felt safe.
Adrian at Pulse
"I would say, 'Thank god we live in Orlando, where [hate crimes] never happen,'" he recalls.
Although Orlando is known for its theme parks, Floridians also know the city as a gay sanctuary. Kace Kush moved to Orlando from a homophobic small town in Citrus County, Florida, because she thought she could live freely as a lesbian. Since then, she's felt comfortable being open about about her sexuality while performing with her roommates at the Sausage Castle, a party house 20 minutes from Orlando where Kace lives. "I've never felt scared in Orlando to go out as a lesbian or a gay person ever," she says. "Pulse has always had an open night where anyone who wants to come, drag queens or singers, gay or straight, can perform."
Orlando has long functioned as a tourist destination for gay Floridians. Over the weekend, Justin King, a recent Florida State University graduate who lives in Boca Raton, traveled to Central Florida with his boyfriend to visit Universal Studios and the local gay clubs. "I did the whole shebang," he says.
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He wanted to visit Pulse because of its great reputation, but settled on Southern Nights, another gay club, instead. "I'm pretty grateful to that," King says. He recognizes the possibility of hate crimes, but he has always felt most safe at gay clubs.
"This is people in their element, in the one zone where they're supposed to feel safe," he says. "This is especially where you're supposed to feel safe. It's disturbing [that a shooting happened here]."
Other Floridians feel the same way. Spencer Simon, a Fort Lauderdale native who until recently had been living in Orlando for four years, always felt safe at gay bars. "When you are a gay boy going to school in Orlando and you think of gay clubs, you think of Pulse," he says. "They worked on giving diversity within the community and also making it comfortable for college gays who have never experienced a gay club."
Over the course of four years, Simon visited Pulse once or twice a month. He visited other clubs, but Pulse functioned as his gay Cheers. "A lot of people just went for the social aspect. I would say Pulse on a Wednesday was the Orlando gay version of TGIF, honestly," Simon says. "You ran into everyone there."
On Sunday, Simon woke up to a flurry of texts. He was confused, but once he figured out what had happened, he panicked. "My best friend works there as a drag performer, so I was instantly hysterical when it happened," he says. "I could not believe that a place that always considered a safe haven for young college gays would get attacked the way it did." (Thankfully, his friend was OK.) Simon never expected the biggest LGBTQ hate crime in US history in happen in his home state.
"Living in Florida for 22 years, I truly believe it is a great place to be gay," he says. "Not once did I ever feel unsafe due to my sexuality."
Padron shares Simon's sentiment. "Florida is crazy, but not here," he says. The Sunshine State has its problems, but many Central Florida and South Florida cities are diverse and filled with open-minded residents. Mateen, after all, drove two hours from Port Saint Lucie, Florida, to Pulse in Orlando. He was not part of the loving community that had welcomed so many LGBT young people. "It's kind of crazy that it happened [at Pulse]," Padron says. "Out of all the clubs in Orlando, it was home."