Music by VICE

Pulse's Regulars Talk About What the Nightclub Means to Them

"It's very accepting. You can have a beard and wear a dress. You can be straight. You can be a beautiful drag queen. You can be an ugly drag queen."

by Peter Holslin
Jun 14 2016, 7:30pm

People hold candles during a memorial service in Orlando, Florida, for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shootings. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the wake of Sunday's mass shooting at Pulse, an iconic nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the country has rallied around the city's LGBTQ community. The attack, which left 49 dead and 53 wounded, served as a horrific reminder that for all of the progress that's been made since the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ people and their allies still face hatred and violence. Yet if the tragedy cast a pall over the pride celebrations happening across the country, it has also motivated people to come together in support and love: In Orlando on Monday night, thousands turned out for a candlelight vigil where Pulse employees declared—to massive cheers—that the club would reopen.

Pulse is a cornerstone of Orlando's thriving LGBTQ community. Since it opened 13 years ago, a diverse clientele has embraced this multi-room space, known for its drag shows, Latin dance nights, and all-around positive vibes. As President Barack Obama put it in a speech on Sunday, Pulse is "more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment, where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights."

VICE spoke with the club's current and former regulars to hear firsthand why Pulse is such a special place, and how the community has been affected by the tragedy that unfolded there this weekend.

John Martz, former patron

I started going to Pulse from pretty much the grand opening up until I left town in 2007. And then after that, most every time I was back in Orlando, I'd swing by. The club as it opened is pretty unrecognizable from what it is today. But back then, the main bar was this kind of Kubrick-ian all-white bar. It was called the "white room." Everything—floor, bar, seating, decoration—was all this stark white. Those first couple months, they would just have bussers and bar-backs waiting to see if there were any scuff marks on the floor, and they would just dive to wipe them up. They were so careful about things looking super pristine.

Those first couple years, it was the place. Every weekend, it was not even a matter of asking if anybody was going to be there, it was just, what time would you see people? The bartenders, they would see you walk in, sometimes they'd have your drink ready and on the bar once you walked up to it. It's the first bar that I think people in my demographic—early 20s through maybe early 30s at the time—sort of felt ownership of. Southern Nights [another popular Orlando gay bar] had been around for a long time. Parliament House [a gay hotel and club] has been around forever. So Pulse was really the first bar that kind of came and stayed during my years. People felt like we sort of birthed and nurtured it, because it was ours.

Joe "Joe Joe" Rodriguez, local DJ

I was one of the first Latin DJs working at Pulse. I used to work at Club Revolution, at another gay club there. I worked there for two and a half years. They closed that down, and they went for a new name, new business. They kinda got rid of everybody there, so one of the guys there, he started doing a night at Pulse, then he called me over and said, "Go ahead and start doing a Latin night on Saturdays." It became a real popular night, and it just exploded.

We played all the hits: Latin music, salsa, merengue, reggaeton. A little bit of house music. I kind of blended it in a little bit. I'd read the crowd—if there was more salseros, if there were more merengue dancers. Every weekend I played different music. Good music gives good vibes. When you're a DJ, when you know you're doing a good job playing great music, you can feel that power, you know? You just feel that soul. It's just unbelievable. You see so many happy people—that's what gets a DJ very hyped up. It was just great memories at Pulse.

Marchers at the Orlando Pride Parade in 2009 carrying a sign for Pulse. Photo via Flickr user Jeff Kern

Alex Goodman, local DJ

It's always packed at Pulse, and it's always so much fun. It's very celebratory, and it's very accepting. You can have a beard and wear a dress. You can be straight. You can be a beautiful drag queen. You can be an ugly drag queen. You can be whatever you want to be and not be judged there. As a DJ, I'm a little snobby with the music. The music the DJs are playing on the nights I go—it's not my style. But it doesn't matter. You're there with your friends. You're having drinks or watching a show, and you can't help but dance.

Danielle Hankins, patron

Our LGBTQ community is pretty tight-knit. It's hard to go somewhere without somebody knowing one another. We support one another very strongly.

My wife and I went to Pulse to celebrate her best man's birthday the day after we got married. [He] is kind of a socialite—he knows everybody—and when we went, he knew all the bartenders and the bouncers and everybody who works there. He'd go around, and we would say hi to everybody, and everybody would wish us a happy birthday. He would turn around and introduce myself, and my wife, be like, "These are my lesbians, and they just got married!" A lot of the bartenders were congratulating us and offering to buy us drinks. My wife and I don't drink, at all. We would've felt awkward at a bar drinking sodas. But we never felt that way at Pulse. Never.

I am a paramedic. On the night of the attack, I got a call at about three in the morning telling me to be ready if the need was for us to be called in. I didn't really know what was going on. I just knew there was a possible mass-casualty incident and to be on alert. It wasn't until later on in the day, when the smoke started to clear a little bit, that I found out what really had transpired.

Dan Schwab, assistant beverage manager at Parliament House

It's very fluid. It's all unfolding minute by minute. People are still basically in shock. You see people, you look at 'em, you haven't seen them since it happened and everybody just bursts into tears. You don't know what to say. You're happy that the person you're seeing is safe, and it's just overwhelming with emotion.

We had a vigil last night, and this coming weekend we're doing what we're calling the "Pulse Bar." We're a large complex here. We have several bars on property, and we're setting up one of those bars in particular. It's going to be called the Pulse Bar, and it's going to be staffed by Pulse employees. And that'll be this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There's a lot of people [for whom] Pulse was their bar. This way, it's a place that they know they can come to, to catch up, make sure everybody's safe, meet up with friends and hang out and still have their same people they're used to being with—such as a bartender and whatnot—right there with them as well.

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