ORLANDO -- Still reeling from a shooting massacre that claimed the lives of 49 people at a popular gay nightclub here over the weekend, the city’s LGBT community is nevertheless determined to choose solidarity over fear.
“I refuse to be afraid,” said 67-year-old Thalia Ainsley, a transgender woman volunteering at the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, an education and advocacy organization. “We just have to keep going. We have to keep living our lives.”
Dozens of volunteers were crammed into the Center on Monday, fielding media inquiries, donations and crisis counseling requests just over 24 hours after a lone gunman walked into the nightclub Pulse with an AR-15-style rifle and began shooting indiscriminately.
“All you can do is push forward ... to stand strong and be able to help anybody else who needs help.”
The attack, described by President Obama as both “an act of terror and an act of hate,” was especially devastating given that it happened right in the middle of Pride month, a time normally marked with parades and celebrations commemorating the riots at Stonewall that effectively launched the modern gay rights movement.
But while several of the volunteers had lost friends and loved ones in the rampage, they preferred to be working alongside each other rather than mourning alone.
“You can’t change it, you can’t bring them back,” said Galen Hentzelo, a gay volunteer who has lived in Orlando for 37 years. Four of his friends were killed at Pulse.
“All you can do is push forward,” he said, “to stand strong and be able to help anybody else who needs help.”
For many in the LGBT community, the Center was one of the first places they thought to turn to when they heard about the shooting. Others found out about the massacre only after they showed up for their regular volunteer shifts Sunday morning, thankful to be among friends at such a tragic time.
“I just broke down,” said 59-year-old Leslie Jampolsky, who was scheduled to open up the the Center Sunday morning. “The more we found out about what really happened, it was just very chaotic. I was walking around numb.”
Soon, even more volunteers came flooding in — approximately 45 more than usual, according to coordinators. Some simply passed out cold water to ease the oppressive heat, while others offered professional counseling services.
“One thing I thought I could do is if people needed to just talk, I would be an ear, a hug, a shoulder,” said 43-year-old Carl Clay, a licensed and ordained minister.
An overwhelming sense of resolve permeated the small space. Yet the reality of what had happened in their community was lost on no one.
"I knew two people who were killed,” said Russell Walker, community development director of the AIDS organization Hope & Help, who also deals poker at Pulse once a week.
“Yesterday, it was very much shock… Now that we’re seeing the names of people we know, it’s bringing more of a human element,” Walker said.
He paused to console someone who had walked through the door in tears, later explaining that it was one of the managers at Pulse. “He didn’t want to be at home today,” Walker said.