I’m not someone who reads poetry, but I immediately thought of a 1955 Frank O’Hara poem, “At the Old Place.” The work recounts an escapist night out at a NYC gay bar where a group of friends come together to dance and revel in boyish fun. In just a few lines, O’Hara perfectly captures the gay bar as a respite from a judgmental world. It never fails to elicit a smile of recognition.
In the Greater New York region of the Red Cross, we respond to between 5 and 20 disasters each day, and I have been on the scene of many heart-wrenching tragedies: building explosions, fatal fires, hurricanes, and train crashes. Helping families cope with shock and loss in the wake of these disasters demands every fiber of a responders’ humanity, and time and again I’ve been inspired by both disaster survivors and by those who rush to the scene to help them. But even with these experiences in hand, seeing scores of young people savagely cut down by machine-gun fire in the sanctuary of an Orlando gay night club was a uniquely affecting moment.
For those of us who are now old enough to be gay parents, growing up gay in America in the 1980s brought with it a pervasive fear of being discovered. In the middle and high schools we attended, gay slurs were thrown around endless times per day by students and adults alike, and gay bashing was considered a sort of weekend recreation. Still, nothing could have prepared us for what occurred in Orlando.
On the Sunday of the Pulse massacre, I sat down with my husband and six-year-old son, and explained why I was deploying that day to help support the Red Cross response in Orlando. We obviously spared my son the details - he was more concerned that I’d miss his Chuck E Cheese birthday party. I then stopped by our ever-supportive West End Collegiate Church to catch the sermon and say a prayer for the victims, and headed to the airport.
In Orlando, the primary function of our Red Cross workforce was to provide mental health support to survivors and family members of those who were killed and injured. Sadly, many of our counselors brought vital, first-hand experience from Newtown, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Charleston church shooting. Mental health workers within and outside the Red Cross stood by devastated relatives in a Family Assistance Center as they received death notices, and grappled with a future forever altered. We also made sure to provide assistance at evening vigils and to help staff the Orlando Mayor’s 24-hour-hotline to support the community. Day after day, we met so many people whose friends, lovers, sons and daughters had been stolen from them. And we met young survivors of the carnage inside of Pulse who could barely process what they had experienced.
One survivor in particular will always remain with me. Adrian Lopez is a 25-year-old Latino Wawa gas station attendant. He retains the optimistic, easygoing demeanor of a California surfer. Before a small group at the Orlando Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Adrian described racing away from the club after the shooting began, believing he too had been pierced by bullets (he hadn’t). He then realized he was all alone. He looked back, “I didn’t see any of my friends. I didn’t see my husband. When I didn’t see my husband I realized I had to go back in….I want back looking for him…for someone…but nobody was moving.”
In view of a gunman methodically shooting bodies alive and dead, and unable to find his husband, Javier, Adrian again raced back outside and into a police barricade. There he waited, “screaming and praying.” Growing more desperate as many minutes passed, Adrian described finally seeing a solitary wounded figure lurching out of the back of Pulse. Incredibly, it was Javier. “I have never been more peace with myself…when I saw him it was the best moment of my life.”
They embraced, defying well-meaning police officers who sought to separate them as Adrian cried, “He’s my husband, he’s my husband. I love him. I went back for him!” None of their friends emerged. They never would. All had been murdered. In relating his experience at Pulse, Adrian somehow refused to succumb to the rage that so many of us felt. He closed by refusing to succumb to thoughts of hatred and vengeance. He encouraged us to think of ourselves not as Hispanics, not as gays, but as human beings with great capacity to love and understand one another.
Re-reading Frank O’Hara’s At the Old Place this Pride month takes on a different resonance. The carefree tone stands in stark contrast to the experiences of heroic young men like Adrian. Again and again in the week following the massacre, we heard from young Pulse survivors who related, “We were just laughing,” or “We were just dancing.”
As a parent, I have difficulty processing that my son’s class practices drills where students quietly hide under a tarp to escape the notice of a Newtown-style active shooter. As a gay parent, I now have difficulty processing that the gay bar, long a safe harbor for the LGBT community, could now be a target for rage-fueled monsters armed with military-grade artillery.
Coming off Orlando, this soon-to-conclude Pride month brings a torrent of competing emotions: outrage, grief, determination. But I hope that pride trumps all. I am proud to live in a nation where LGBT parents can raise our children openly. I am proud that the LGBT community has rallied around one another so strongly in the wake of Orlando. And I am proud that in the past two weeks the LGBT community has flocked to support our gathering spaces: bars and dance clubs like O'Hara's The Old Place and Orlando's Pulse.
Yet this Pride Month I'm most proud that our flawed, beautiful country could produce a soul as forgiving and empathetic as a gay gas station attendant named Adrian, who hours after seeing his husband shot and friends killed, implored us all to resist our worst natures and instead try to love one another just a little bit more. If Adrian can overcome, surely we can too.