Orlando Strong: Survivors And Community One Year After Pulse Massacre

A year after a gunman stormed into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, on Latin night, and killed 49 mostly queer people of color, a community gathers to memorialize the dead and offer strength to the survivors.

With another Pride month underway, queer communities around the world are preparing for the festivities and celebrations. But this year’s Pride is tinged with somber undertones, just as many future celebrations will likely be.

June 12 marks one year since the tragic shooting at Pulse, a popular gay club in Orlando. When a gunman opened fire on the club’s patrons during Latin Night, he took 49 lives and injured more than 50. It was a loss that weighed heavily among queer people around the world, the most casualties of any mass shooting in American history.

Norman Casiano still vividly remembers that summer night at Pulse. It was his last night clubbing for a while; he had plans to start cosmetology school the next week. Just as he was getting ready to pay his tab, the first gunshot rang out. He and a friend crawled through the Adonis Lounge, into the men’s room where they hid out in the handicap stall with around 30 other people.

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ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 18: Messages, candles and pictures are left at a growing memorial down the road from the Pulse nightclub on June 18, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. In what is being called the worst mass shooting in American history, Omar Mir Seddique Mateen killed 49 people at the popular gay nightclub early last Sunday. Fifty-three people were wounded in the attack which authorities and community leaders are still trying to come to terms with. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“It was inevitable what was going to happen,” Casiano says. “So, I was basically sitting there waiting.” As he tried to help an injured person into the stall, he was hit in the foot with a casing. Red bled through his white shoe. After stopping to reload, the gunman pointed his gun over the stall. He shot Casiano twice in the lower back.

Angel Colon had gotten off work early that night. He’d gone for a haircut before going to a house party, and then Pulse. At the club, he and friends were mostly talking that evening, not dancing much. He had just gone to the bar for last call when the gunman fired the first shot. Everyone seemed to have frozen until the second shot.

He was standing close to the gunman at the moment, and only made it a few steps before being shot in his right leg and then his left. He fell to the ground and was trampled, breaking his left femur. A few minutes later, the gunman returned, shooting at others on the ground. That’s when Colon took another shot in his left hip.

When the police came through the patio door, they remained silent, listening for survivors. When Officer Omar Delgado called out, he found Colon. Delgado dragged Colon (below) out of the club, through the pieces of glass on the floor. [image src="wp-attachment://514963" title="Angel Colon, Pulse Nightclub shooting survivor" alt="Angel Colon, Pulse Nightclub shooting survivor"]

The following months saw Colon and Casiano slowly recovering, a process they’re both still going through, physically and mentally. “It was a bit overwhelming,” Colon says, of the media attention after the shooting. “It’s something I wasn’t used to, being on TV and people knowing who I am, even in another state. But the love and support helped a lot.” Colon recently underwent his fourth surgery. “I don’t go out anymore,” Colon says. “I haven’t been to a club since then. It’s pretty tough being in crowds.”

“There’s no escaping it,” Casiano says. He suffers from nerve damage while dealing with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. “I’m well aware of what happened at all times, and I’m well aware that I’m still healing. But I have a good healing group. I have my family, I have my partner, I have my best friend. I have a lot of really good people around me that keep me motivated and keep my mind off of being in pain or depression.”

Although he never ended up going to cosmetology school, he’s remained busy with makeup gigs, appearances, and speaking engagements around the country, and finding an outlet in drag, performing as “Oxy-gen.” He also appeared in John Legend’s music video for “Love Me Now.”

Colon has made appearances at several events and has been speaking at colleges while working with the Brady Campaign, whose mission is to prevent gun violence. He appeared on the cover of The Advocate’s “People of the Year” issue.

Meanwhile, they’ve both remained in touch with the other survivors.

“It’s like a big family now,” Casiano says. “We try to maintain a group chat and a closed group on Facebook. If anyone needs anything, there’s a way for us to communicate with each other. After Pulse, it’s definitely been tight knit.”

“It’s always been about love,” Colon says. “But after this, it’s made the bonds stronger. It’s made the love stronger. The community is much stronger than it was before, and you can see it in all the cities. You can see it in Orlando with the Pride flags everywhere. They’re in places you wouldn’t think they’d be.”

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 15: Brazilians linked to LGBT movements are protesting in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attack that killed 49 people in gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida last Sunday on June 15, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In Brazil, a homosexual is killed every 26 hours. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

As June 12 approaches, both Colon and Casiano plan to attend some of the events sponsored by the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida. The nonprofit organization was the first at the scene, providing grief counselors, transportation into Orlando for family members, and other resources. They continue to remain a safe space for the local community, and are participating in about a dozen events to commemorate the shooting.

“The Orlando LGBTQ community was always a great force, and this tragedy hurt them deeply,” says Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the Center. “They rallied hard, the whole community, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ. We are stronger now than ever and are now traveling the globe speaking to others about what happened here and how they can do the same if something like this was to happen in their city. The community has also come together to make sure our survivors and families have everything they need and to never, ever let anyone forget what happened here due to just a madman who had hate in his heart.”

Click here for a guide to Orlando's Pulse memorial events.

John Legend’s “Love Me Now” video:

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 13: The Michael Fowler Centre is lit up in the colours of the rainbow flag after a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at Frank Kitts Park on June 13, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Omar Mateen allegedly killed more than 50 people and injured 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shootings in the country's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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