Inside an Orlando gay bar, the night after the shooting

World honors Orlando victims
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    World honors Orlando victims


World honors Orlando victims 01:11

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Orlando, Florida (CNN)The drag queen stood before the crowd at a gay bar in Orlando on Sunday night -- less than 24 hours after 50 people were shot and killed at a similar bar only a few miles away -- without her dress, heels or wig.

"I don't really know what to say," Darcel Stevens, the 55-year-old performer in a T-shirt, told the crowd of mostly gay men. Many of them held candles in their hands and memories of murdered friends in their hearts. Disco lights drifted across the somber scene. "I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm lost. I'm confused. I just want to lay in the bed and just put the covers over my head. ..."
"It could have been any of us. Any of us," Stevens said. "Why not us? Why are we here?"
Questions like those were on the lips of many who gathered on Sunday night at Parliament House, a gay hotel, bar and club near downtown Orlando.
    Add to the list: How do we best support each other? What do we do for the families? Is it safe to be here -- in a bar like the one attacked? And what happens to the progress we've made?
    This is a community reeling from tragedy, grasping to understand how someone with an assault rifle could kill 49 people and wound 53 more at Pulse, a club that many of these same folks frequent, when it had seemed like so much was going right for LGBT people. American attitudes about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have done an about-face in recent years. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide just one year ago this month.
    It seemed like there was so much progress.
    And now this.
    Senseless violence.
    "We've got some difficult days ahead, y'all. I'm not gonna lie to ya," Stevens told those who had gathered in front of the stage at 7 p.m., and had done so in defiance of some local leaders who urged them to stay home for safety reasons.
    "And if we don't stand together as a community we won't see our way out of this."
    The tragedy, of course, is that 49 lives were stolen -- and their families shattered.
    "Each one of those persons has a mother and a father, they have a brother and a sister," Stevens said of the victims, the vast majority of whom were still unnamed. "And they touched our lives in so many different ways."
    But the massacre is sending deep shock waves all across LGBT Orlando. This was the deadliest shooting in American history. And regardless of what the exact motive may be, a gay club — a place to get away, to dance and have fun, free from discrimination or judgment -- was the target. The LGBT community here feels newly vulnerable. They look skeptically at strangers — wonder when or where or if another attack like this will occur.
    This community's armor has been peeled back.

    'When will the healing begin?'

    After the speech, I turned to a couple to my left to ask how they were coping.
    Michael Scott, 28, pulled out his phone and showed me a photo of a co-worker who was still missing. The co-worker had posted a video to Snapchat as the gunfire broke out at Pulse the night before, he told me.
    You hear shooting, he said. And the video just ends. He doesn't know what to make of it.
    "It's Orlando. It's not New York City. It's not Chicago," Scott said, referencing the shooting and how it has blindsided the community. "Our world is being rocked right now. When the healing will begin? We don't even know."
    I later found Scott Garstka in front of Parliament House near a marquee that read, "Pulse Unbreakable."
    We'd never met, but he immediately gave me a big hug and broke into tears.
    "We've gotta come out here and be here so people can see us," he told me. At first he hadn't planned on coming because of security risks. But being seen -- really seen -- mattered. "No one person can take down our community."
    The out community in Orlando is small but strong. "Think small town," Garstka told me. "You just woke up in Mayberry, USA."
    But that closeness is also what makes Saturday's mass shooting cut so wide and deep. When Garstka and I spoke late Sunday evening, only a handful of victims' names had been released. "I've known two of them" so far, he said. "I'm probably going to know half of them" once more victims' names are known.
    Meanwhile, the tragedy is forcing all LGBT people -- especially here -- to face hard questions about whether we've come as far as we'd thought.
    On one hand, it's nice to think of Saturday's shooting as isolated. This is one shooter. He reportedly claimed allegiance to ISIS. What does this massacre by this person say, really, about the state of LGBT rights and acceptance in the modern United States? Perhaps nothing.
    On the other, though, there are the memories this tragedy stirs. It's hard for people here not to think in longer timelines. Like the time Garstka, the local activist, was attacked and feared and would be beaten to death 20 years ago, as he described it to me, while leaving a gay club. The time people threw stones at him -- or called him homophobic slurs.
    Scott, the man who told me about his missing co-worker, got married to Thomas Lawson, 30, the first day that was legal in Florida: January 6, 2015. It was a "huge, beautiful wedding" they told me.
    But their families didn't come. They didn't accept the relationship.

    'You're stronger than you think'

    Few complain of these indignities. Garstka and Scott only brought them up because I asked. (And, of course, I'm not trying to equate any of this with Saturday's shooting in Orlando.) But it's impossible to understand how the LGBT community here is reacting to this tragedy without knowing the sorts of stories -- national and personal -- this unearths.
    It's this struggle, however, that's also a well of strength.
    Garstka's beating, for instance, pushed him out of the closet.
    "I thought to myself, 'I don't want to run anymore. I don't want to hide.'"
    Scott and Lawson's wedding was attended by 150 of their friends -- who they now consider family.
    And the Stonewall riots, 47 years ago, led to the modern gay rights movement.
    "When the space shuttle blew up, we came to this house of refuge," said Stevens, referring to Parliament House.
    "When 9/11 happened, we came to this house of refuge. When our favorite celebrity passed on, and we didn't know what to do, we came right here to the Parliament House. And when the hurricanes blew the sign down and everything was going bad, we came to this house of refuge."
    And on Sunday, no matter how fearful, these folks showed up.
    A terror attack didn't stop them from being there for each other -- from grieving publicly and as one. Perhaps that's why they and others have adopted the hashtag #OnePulse on social media.
    They stand with Pulse, the nightclub that was attacked. And their hearts beat in unison.
    "Lord, we may not know what to say to one another," said Stevens, the drag queen, praying in front of the group, "but just by being in the presence (of each other and God) you've given us the strength to move forward and face whatever may come."
    Later that night, at 10 p.m., Stevens emerged on stage and in spotlight as the person this town's more familiar with -- the one dressed in a gown, tall hair, heels and earrings so big it seemed impossible they didn't pull her to the ground.

    #onepulse #orlando

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    Her hand shook slightly, but she walked the runway with poise.
    "You're brave," she told Orlando. "You're stronger than you think you are."
    This was a person knocked down, but clearly not broken.
    She was there. And she was seen.