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Catching Up with Pulse Survivor Angel Santiago

GAYCATION host Ian Daniel checks in with Pulse survivor Angel Santiago ahead of tonight's special episode.

by Ian Daniel
25 August 2016, 12:02pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

On tonight's special episode of GAYCATION, hosts Ian Daniel and Ellen Page head down to Orlando to talk to members of the community affected by the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub and learn about how they are trying to heal after the tragic event. One of the people they spoke to is Pulse survivor Angel Santiago, and in advance of tonight's episode (airing at 10 PM on VICELAND), Daniel spoke with Santiago to catch up on how his mental and physical recovery has been going since the episode's taping. Below is an edited and condensed version of their conversation—and be on the lookout tomorrow for more of Daniel's discussion with members of the Orlando community featured in tonight's episode.

Ian Daniel: We've been texting, and I can see your recovery on Facebook and Instagram. It looks like you're doing well. Give me the full update from when you left the hospital and where you're at today.
Angel Santiago: I got out of the hospital on July 7. Initially, it was a little hard. I kind of got depressed. I live in a two-story town house, and at that point, it was very difficult for me to move around. Little by little, though, my right leg became stronger, I started to drive around, and I upgraded from a wheelchair to crutches. Progress is a great motivating factor. When I feel like I've stalled out, that's when the depression might sit it, and I'm not in a good mood. But overall things have been going well.

I just got back from Philadelphia last night—it was my first time traveling outside of the city since everything happened. It was great to see friends and family, but it was also an eye opener that I should continue to give myself time to recover. Sometimes I think I might be Superman, and I'm not. [Laughs]

How are you feeling mentally in terms of your psychological state? Do you feel like you're getting healthier when it comes to processing what happened to you and others on that night?
Initially it was difficult, but I feel like I've been handling it pretty well. Everyone copes differently. If I feel certain emotions coming at me, I try to rationalize it and push it away. I don't know if that's the healthiest thing to do or not, but that's how I cope. Initially it was hard for me to sleep, especially when I was by myself in my room in bed—my mind would go back to that night. I started to go and hang out with friends, and the first few times I noticed that I was very anxious leaving on the drive over there. Now, the anxiety isn't quite there as much. It may sound crazy for me to say this, but I'm doing well.

That's really good to hear. How do you feel the rest of the community is coping?
People who weren't even there that night took it very hard, and believe it or not, they use me as a crutch. I'm trying to talk to these friends who are still going through a lot of the emotional stress of what happened, because they can only imagine what we went through. I know several people who lost someone they were close to that night, too. The sense of togetherness and support that came from the community in Orlando is still there. I've been to places where people recognize me and give me words of encouragement. That sense of community is still there, and I'm hoping that it will be for the long term.

I know you were there that night with friends. How are they doing?
My friend, Jeff, was critically injured. The good news is that he's recovering, and I plan on seeing him later tonight. He was shot in the torso, the stomach, and twice in the leg, and he told me it's probably going to be a year before he's back to 100 percent, but his spirits are high. Our other friend who was there that night has been laying low. I only met her that night, but we met again a couple of weeks ago, and the three of us took a picture, which I posted on Facebook. We were so grateful that we had that opportunity to be together after that crazy night. We're OK, we're alive, and we're going to get better.

Do you feel like there are lessons we can learn from the tragedy?
We don't need semiautomatic rifles. I don't believe that anyone is trying to take away our right to bear arms, but I do believe it's our government's responsibility to protect its citizens. I don't believe that a regular civilian has any reason to own an automatic rifle. You and I are not at war. The fact that someone is able to legally purchase that type of weapon, ammunition, and protective gear is crazy. They were on an FBI list, and even though the store owner contacted the FBI, there was nothing stopping the guy from doing what he did. That's wrong. It doesn't make any sense.

This is happening more and more, and every time it happens, it's routine now. Everyone criticizes, comes together, is supportive, and then everyone forgets—that's just how it is. It's definitely something that needs to change.

The tendency to forget is an interesting thing to acknowledge. Do you worry that the tragedy that you witnessed is just going to be forgotten?
I don't know. These things are so common, and there's been so much going on in the United States and in the world over the past two months. We're a drop in that bucket of negativity. I would hope that people wouldn't forget, but a part of me does feel like it's inevitable. People move on with their lives. What I'm grateful for is that people here in our community still say, "Orlando United." Our community here in Orlando will forever be changed as a result of what happened. Hopefully, people will always remember, and that they'll remember this when it comes time to vote.

Can you talk more about what you've had to go through as far as healthcare and financial struggles?
I'm fortunate in the sense that the hospital in Orlando isn't going to bill me for my stay there—that's a huge help. They were phenomenal when it came to the level of care I received, in addition to helping me out with the financial aspects. Every week I get a new medical bill from various professionals—psychiatrists, anesthesiologists, surgeons—but I haven't made any payments because I'm waiting to see is if the United Orlando fund is going to work out. The state has a victims-compensation fund where we can submit our medical bills, too.

Since I'm out of work and was employed for less than a year, I'm not receiving any type of income at all from my employer—but I still have to pay for my health-insurance premiums, which is more than $220 per month. Thankfully, a friend set up a GoFundMe account right after everything happened, so I've been able to live off of that while everything else is getting worked out. I know a lot of other survivors out there who have current medical expenses are going through a rough time, and by the end of next month or early October, the proceeds from the United Orlando fund are going to be disbursed between the victims of the shooting. Hopefully those funds are going to be enough to take care of their financial responsibilities and help them move on with their lives.

In tonight's episode, we talk about your own personal struggles with coming to terms with your sexuality and identity. What advice would you give to younger people or anyone who might be going through similar struggles who watch you and find you inspiring?
For a very long time, I lived my life hiding who I was because I was ashamed, which came from growing up in a religious setting and being told that it was wrong. As an adult, I've learned to stop caring what those people think about me, because people that don't care don't matter to my life. They're not here to build me up or support me.

Once you become independent, you have more leeway in accepting who you are or doing what you want because you're self-reliant. But for those going through it at an early age, I know it's difficult—but when the time comes and you're ready, you'll be surprised at the amount of support you receive. We're not living in the world that we used to live in 20 or even ten years ago. Be true to yourself, because at the end of the day, you are the most important person in your life.

What positives do you think personally came out of this tragedy for you?
Believe it or not, I'm more confident. I've been pushed into a spotlight [laughs], so now I'm like, "OK, now everyone knows I'm gay for sure." I feel confident and proud of who I am. I just got one of the gayest tattoos I could probably get [laughs]— a rainbow-colored heart with the equal sign that says, "Love is love." Everyone who walks by me can see that. That's exposure! I used to say when I was younger, "I wish I wasn't gay. If I could change it, I would." Now, I wouldn't change who I am today.

I don't know if this is clichéd, but it truly does get better. Once you start to accept and love yourself for who you are, it's a lot easier. That's the lesson that I learned: Before anyone else can love me, I need to love myself.

Do you feel like you're taking on more of an activist role now that you are sharing your story, where you are speaking about the issues that affect the LGBTQ and Latinx communities?
I'm one of those people who likes to stay out of the spotlight, so when I see my face in articles here and there, I cringe inside. At the same time, there's some responsibility that comes with what happened, because there are issues that need exposure. A friend of mine who lives in DC and is originally from Philadelphia has a site called the Gran Varones—kind of like Humans of New York, but for the gay Latino community. He came down to Orlando and interviewed me for it, and a local Philadelphia website took that article and posted it on its site too. As I'm approached to do interviews or to participate in community activities, I find myself saying "yes" more often. I just need to get over my camera shyness—and I'm working on that, trust me. [Laughs]

Just speaking to us makes a difference, and I can tell you're getting better and better at it. We can't thank you enough for all you've given us. Let's just keep texting each other. Talk soon!
Take care!

Follow Ian Daniel on Twitter.

Watch GAYCATION Wednesday at 10 PM on VICELAND.