Barbara Poma was 14 when she started hanging around the gay bar and club scene in Florida. Her big brother, John, would do her hair and makeup for her. Their family, who lived in Fort Lauderdale, were strict Italians, but when John came out to them, they supported him.
When John passed away from a long battle with HIV in 1991, the Poma family was devastated. Barbara Poma—who credits John with inducting her into a world she came to adore, but that at the time seemed shrouded in secrecy and mystery—wanted to do something to let John's spirit live on.
At the heart of the deadliest mass shooting in US history, one that left 50 people dead and 53 injured this weekend, is a nightclub that was built on love, respect and, acceptance. In 2004, Poma teamed up with friend Ron Legler and founded Pulse in John's memory.
"[It's] a club that is John's inspiration, where he is kept alive in the eyes of his friends and family," Poma wrote on the Orlando nightspot's website. According to the club's site, where Poma shared her story in a post about the club's history, the name of the club is an evocation of John's heartbeat, his pulse. (That post has temporarily been removed, as the entire site is currently directing to a statement from Poma about the shooting. Poma did not respond to requests for interview for this piece.)
Since the club's opening 12 years ago, she and Legler have designed on all aspects of the club—from the decor to the events program—to create an atmosphere representative of John's fun-loving personality.
Orlando's LGBTQ community is reeling from the massacre that happened in their beloved venue over the weekend—of the half dozen patrons THUMP spoke to, many are now afraid to go out again, but all remember the club with a deep fondness.
Soon after opening in the South Orange area of the city in 2004, Pulse became a pillar of Orlando's gay community, a place anyone who identified as LGBTQ could go and be welcomed. In a city with the 20th largest population of LGBTQ residents in the country (4.1% of the total metro population), it was an oasis.
"The club is special because it is only one of three main gay bars in Orlando," Kristen Arnett, a 35-year-old Orlando native who works as a librarian, told THUMP. "For such a huge city with such a large gay population, there is legitimately no place to go if you are queer. It was a safe space. We thought it was a safe space."
Gina Duncan, Transgender Inclusion Director at advocacy group Equality Florida, also spoke of how Pulse was one of few night spots in the city available to the LGBTQ community. "It's always been an upscale place for people for go and have fun," she said.
Duncan, herself a patron of the club, went on to say that though Pulse started as a club for gay men, it was also very welcoming of members of the trans community from early on. "Pulse is one of the places that I frequented when I was first expressing my new gender expression," she said.
"I would go there and feel comfortable and meet friends who were also transgender and in the early stages of discovering who they were," she continued. "I have fond memories of going there as Gina instead of my old male self."
According to Duncan and others I spoke to, Tuesday night at Pulse was the night to be at, home to the club's legendary talent contest. Twisted Tuesdays was a night of vibrant performances, raucous karaoke, and superb performers across the reaches of the club's local community and beyond.
One Twisted Tuesdays regular was 21-year-old Jaymz Couch. He told THUMP: "It was my favorite night, because I could come and show the people that I love support while they got on stage and did what they loved. The talent show there was a huge part of the Orlando LGBT community."
Couch had also been to the club in the past on a few occasions when it was Latin Night, the weekly event that was going down at the time of the shooting. "It was always a great night," he said. "They played traditional Latin music all night, and the performers used Latin music mostly to perform to. It was always a great atmosphere."
In addition to the club nights that were held there on a weekly basis, the club also ran educational events and often teamed up with LGBTQ nonprofits. Equality Florida, the state's largest LGBTQ network, was one of the organizations closely connected with the club. Duncan said that Equality Florida, which is involved with human rights ordinances such as the same-sex marriage bill in Florida, would frequently use Pulse as a venue for its events and mixers and that Barbara Poma was actively involved in supporting the community. She described Poma and the rest of the club's management as active supporters of advocacy organizations that have been making important steps forward over the years.
Arnett, the librarian native to Orlando, hadn't been to Pulse in two years, but was well aware of its importance to the LGBTQ community. She remembered fondly heading to Pulse after a Pride weekend a few years back to dance after the city's annual parade had wrapped up for the day. "It felt so freeing," she said. "It felt like we were supported and cared for." Arnett's resounding feeling towards the club is that is was a place for people to go who "just wanted to feel loved and supported."
Another patron, who wished to remain anonymous, told THUMP that although she no longer lives in Florida and has become estranged from the LGBTQ community there, the shooting at Pulse has brought a sense of connection for her. "It's not that the club in particular is special to me, just that it's...y'know, my community," she said. "My people. Slaughtered for no reason. The people I know who still live there, or who used to go, are devastated."
For some patrons of the club, that devastation has manifested as fear. 18-year-old Aracelee Ortiz was not at Pulse this weekend, although she would frequently attend the Latin Night parties. She told THUMP she's now scared to go out, and said many of her friends feel the same way. "I know some friends who had tickets to a show downtown the night after and decided not to go because they were afraid. I'm afraid," she said.
She added: "I can remember my first time being there. They played music that I actually listened to, that I could actually dance to, and that bewildered me. I was never really a club person until I started going to Pulse and Southern Nights [another LGBTQ bar in town]. It opened my life to a whole new world. It saddens me that this event will probably kill that all for me."
Couch, the Twisted Tuesday enthusiast, was also concerned about the impact the shooting will have on the city's LGBTQ nightlife community. "It'll take a very long time for us to heal," he said. "We lost 50 members of our family from this tragedy, and because of that we will never be able to feel as safe as we once thought we were."
Although Pulse has yet to issue any public statements as to when—if ever—it will re-open its doors to the public, Duncan was adamant that the club will find a way to get through this tragedy. She said that Poma has been a staunch supporter of the community for so long that the community will now come together for her and her nightclub. "It will be rallying; it will be similar to Stonewall," she said. "It will be a place where people want to come and recreate what was, and move past the hatred and violence, while also remembering the victims and horrendous mourning that happened."
She went on to say that Orlando's LGBTQ community will not allow this event to define who they are, nor will it define what Pulse is. "It will be hard," she explained, "but people will still come out and celebrate being themselves."