On June 12th, 2016, the LGBTQ community suffered a tragedy unlike any we’ve seen before in modern American history. Forty-nine innocent souls were murdered, and 53 survivors were wounded at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The massacre shook the nation to its core, but it was especially felt in the LGBTQ and Latinx communities. While a nation grieved and searched for answers, Gaycation hosts Ellen Page and Ian Daniel quietly made their way to Orlando to support and chronicle the aftermath.
In a special episode ahead of their Season 2 premiere, Ian and Ellen spoke with survivors, friends and families of the victims and lawmakers in Orlando to bring the personal face of the Pulse shootings to all of us. I want to point out that Ian and Ellen never insert themselves into the narrative. They act as witnesses, listening to stories and asking thoughtful questions. They stand back in crowds, knowing how important it is that the queer and Latinx communities are the focus of the episode, and not themselves.
When we first see Ellen and Ian, they are making their way to the scene of the shooting, standing behind the yellow caution tape and paying their respects. Both hosts appear to be on the verge of tears for a majority of the episode, but they maintain focus in order to bring others’ stories to the surface.
Ellen and Ian head off to the hospital to meet with a survivor named Angel Santiago, who was shot twice in the attack and managed to crawl his way to safety while the shooter was distracted. Angel is obviously suffering from PTSD, which he tells Ellen and Ian hits him in waves. Angel watched his friend get shot in the chest and lost track of him when he went searching for help. Thankfully, his friend survived and is receiving excellent medical attention. Angel shares how it took him a long time to come out, and he realized after the attack and speaking out that he is no longer ashamed. Angel is a beautiful soul who had been through an unspeakable horror, but the fact that he is able to feel even more proud of being a gay man is such a revelation.
Next, Ellen and Ian meet up with a man named Eddie Meltzer, who had left the club just minutes before the shooting, and lost his friends Juan Guerrer and Drew Leinonen. Juan and Drew were a couple, and the day Ellen and Ian meet with Eddie, he’s on the way to their joint funeral. Eddie speaks about dealing with the aftermath and trying to do what he can to assist the families of the fallen with funeral arrangements and logistical details that no grieving family can even bear to think about. Ellen and Ian escort Eddie to the church, as Eddie expresses a hope that his friends’ deaths will not be in vain.
Ellen and Ian have a private meeting with two women who lost a majority of their friends in the shooting. Demi Cachee was supposed to be at the club that evening, but due to a friend’s lateness in getting ready, they missed the shooting. You can see in Demi’s eyes that she’s haunted by both the loss of so many loved ones, people she considers family since her own biological one disowned her. The survivor’s guilt these two women are experiencing is intense, and it comes through in their grief. Sexia Lopez brings up the fact that for so many, Pulse was their safe place, and that was taken away. Demi breaks down when she mentions that Latin Night was usually a time full of so many familiar faces because the LGBTQ Latinx community is especially tight-knit.
In Ellen’s voiceover, she tells us that 90% of the victims were Latinx and a majority from the Puerto Rican community. To delve deeper into the the effects the shooting has had on the community, Ellen and Ian meet with Nancy Rosado, an activist and founder of Misión Boricua, which works directly with the LGBTQ Latinx community in Orlando.
In a twist of fate, Nancy had changed her plans last minute to go to Pulse the night of the shootings and try to get people to register to vote. Nancy went to the hospital to support the victims and their families, and was horrified when a non-Spanish speaker was put in charge of reading off names of the dead and injured. The names were mispronounced and frustration and sadness grew, as families struggled to get a straight story. In response, Nancy started Somos Orlando to help provide mental health workers, who are culturally competent, to assist survivors and the families of victims. “When you have to stand in a puddle of someone’s blood to fight for your people, you realize how marginalized you really are,” she tells the hosts. Nancy’s words affect Ellen deeply, and the three of them share a hug as Ellen allows a sob to escape.
Ellen and Ian travel to Davenport, FL, a suburb of Orlando, where a vigil is being held for two of the victims that night—Amanda Alvear, who was attending nursing school, and aspiring event planner, Mercedez Flores. Amanda’s mother and Meredez’s father speak at the vigil, and their words are full of unimaginable pain and grief. Yet, Amanda’s mother speaks also of the love and support that her family has received from perfect strangers and their community. Mercedez’s father offers words of forgiveness to a man who perpetrated an unforgivable crime. Candles are raised high in the sky, and thoughts soar upwards to two young women who were taken too soon.
(It’s important to point out that Gaycation never utters the name of the shooter, and neither will this recap. It’s about saying the names of those we lost, not the man who took them from us.)
Ellen and Ian join a man named Mario at the home he shares with his roommate Fahd. Mario’s boyfriend was shot and critically injured in the shooting, but survived. Ellen asks Mario if there’s anything he wants to share, and he tells her that you can’t quite understand the magnitude of pain involved, unless you are part of it. Fahd for his part, is feeling the frustration as a man from a Muslim background, knowing that all eyes are on that part of the story. He’s worried that it will only makes things much harder for him and others like him, who simply want to live their lives. Fahd left his native Pakistan for Florida two year prior when he was not accepted by his family for being gay.
In the car ride home, Ian talks about how this tragedy has seemingly changed Orlando overnight. There’s a sense of togetherness and pride everywhere you go. Perhaps if anything good can come out of this, it’s that we all learn to love and accept each other a little bit more.
Just as in reality in the days following the shooting, the hate crime nature of the shooting gets muddled up in talk of a supposed attack based on the shooter’s association with groups like ISIS. Two months later and we still aren’t any closer to the shooter’s real motivation. By pulling away from the fact that the shooting took place at a gay nightclub, many anti-gay politicians were able to comment on the tragedy without having to answer for their own hate-driven words and actions of the past. One politician who refused to back away from the fact that this was a crime directed at the LGBT community is openly gay City Commissioner Patty Sheehan.
Patty has spoken about the tragedy on national news and has been involved in the after effects of the shooting since day one. The hosts meet Commissioner Sheehan outside of a huge memorial for the victims and emotions still run raw for the politician. She chokes up more than once during their interview. Commissioner Sheehan wants this tragedy to shine a light on the LGBT community so that the whole nation can see what we go through on a daily basis involving discrimination and hate. In regards to those politicians who championed anti-gay causes yet shared their sympathy for the victims, Commissioner Sheehan doesn’t mince words. “You can’t just say that murder is wrong, you have to say all the discrimination, all the hatred, everything that happens is wrong. You can’t just pick and choose how you want to hurt someone or harm someone, or hate someone.”
Ellen and Ian stop by a gay-friendly church, and then what many gays consider church (or at least I do): brunch. Sunday Funday is a weekly roving event for the LGBTQ community in Orlando at places and business that aren’t officially queer spots. Ellen and Ian meet up with some Sunday Funday revelers who are breaking bread together and brunching as a community. While the community is still in mourning, there is a feeling of hope in addition to the immense sadness. The duo heads to the P House, Orlando’s oldest gay club and with the music thumping like a thousand heartbeats, it’s time to dance for those who will never dance again.
After last seeing Eddie before he attended the funeral of two of his best friends, Eddie is once again slipping on a suit and tie, but this time for something joyous. He’s about to attend the wedding of two gay men, and it’s a day full of mixed emotions for him. The grooms were considering canceling, but it was clear to all that this community needed a little bit of happiness. “We live in a world where the army of kind and good people is bigger than hate,” he tells us as he sweetly kisses his cat goodbye and heads out to celebrate the love of two people.
What Eddie says is true. The outpouring of love has been staggering in the wake of the Orlando shooting. People you may have never expected to see stand up and support our community, we there standing next to us at vigils, and giving much-needed hugs. The shooter may have meant to tear a community apart, but all he did was make us stronger.
You can watch the entire episode of Gaycation: Orlando for free on Youtube. Season 2 of Gaycation premieres September 7 on Viceland.
To all those who lost their lives at Pulse Nightclub, you will forever live on in our hearts and minds.