As a rainbow colored crowd marched over the Flagler bridge Saturday evening in memory of the 49 people massacred at a gay nightclub in Orlando five years ago that evening, a literal rainbow arced overhead. Flags representing an array of sexualities and signs saying “Remember the 49” incited every other car that drove by to honk in support.
The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub on South Orange Avenue in Orlando in 2016 still leaves the LGBTQ+ community melancholic and traumatized. The massacre has been a catalyst for advocacy on LGBTQ+ and gun control issues. Five years later, members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community are still healing and advocating as they remember the fallen, in Flagler as elsewhere.
The year of the Pulse shooting aside, there were no other LGBTQ+ pride events in Flagler until last year. But the Pulse massacre was no less of a marker in Florida and its smaller communities than the Stonewall rebellion was in New York two generations ago. Then too, anti-gay violence became a catalyst for what was then merely gay and lesbian pride: BTQ+ are the decades’ additions to awareness and richer identities.
“The first Flagler Pride event was actually a march for Pulse,” said Abbey Cooke, a Flagler school district teacher and one of the Flagler Pride committee members. Cooke credits the beginnings of pride events in Flagler to 18-year-old Eryn Harris, who is referred to as the mastermind of the group and is now creating an official nonprofit Flagler Pride brand.
The evening began in Wadsworth Park, where participants gathered in prideful attire. Coordinators offered water, rainbow stickers and temporary tattoos before marching on. Once the group made it over the bridge along its narrow walkway, participants walked to Veterans Park in Flagler Beach, where a DJ booth covered in vibrant pride flags played music for the crowds.
“We have multiple family members and friends that are a part of the LGBT community,” said Ashley Canizales who attended the event with her family. “We’re also against gun violence. So we were really devastated by the Pulse shooting that happened. We wanted to be here to also honor those victims and those family members as well and just really come out and show support for the LGBTQ community.”
Cooke welcomed the crowd and, referring to the June 5 Pride Festival in Palm Coast, which drew between 600 and 800 people, said, “We wanted to make sure that every year regardless of the amazing fantastic, fantabulous celebrations that we have, like last Saturday, that every single year on June 12 we come together as a community in order to honor the fallen and injured from five years ago at Pulse, because people like them have paved the way for everyone else to live their best life.”
Pastor Bob from St. Thomas Episcopal gave an opening prayer: “We want safe places, we want to be in safe places. Churches are supposed to be safe places, synagogues are supposed to be safe places, mosques are supposed to be safe places, gay bars are supposed to be safe places. Schools are supposed to be safe places. When these safe places are intruded and horrible violence happens, especially at the hand of a mad gunman, thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, are they?”–a bold statement from a member of the clergy.
“We need action,” he said, triggering a roar of applause, “but tonight we remember. Remember, just as Abbey said, remember what happened five years ago so we never forget.”
Shortly after Pastor Bob’s prayers ended, Vange Durst performed “In the Arms of the Angel” by Sarah Mclachlan for the victims of the Pulse shooting. (“Oh this glorious sadness/That brings me to my knees/In the arms of the angel/Fly away from here”).
“Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin were the only two school board members here, which was expected because they are the only two that actually support the LGBT community,” said Cooke. Democratic mayoral candidate Doug Courtney also attended Saturday night’s event and gave his perspective on the shooting. “Pulse for a lot of people, particularly for older white men,” being one himself, “was something you kept in the background and you thought about. But you went on and worried about what the country was going to do for the next four years. And unfortunately we finally lived through that. So I didn’t really think that hard about it at all until I was invited to a party last week,” referring to the Pride Festival. (Flagler Beach Commissioner Eric Cooley, currently chairman of the commission, was also at the vigil.)
After describing what a joyous event it was, filled with laughter and dancing, it led him to think of the Pulse victims. “Five years ago, they were laughing, they were joyous, and they were having a great time, and their lives were destroyed. The lives of [those] who loved them, will be forever changed. And I was sitting there, realizing that for the first time in my life, I thought I was at the right place.”
Cooke then read the personal stories of community members who shared their connections to the Pulse shooting. “Though Orlando is a little more than a hop skip and a jump away from Flagler, a large number of your fellow Flagler citizens cited being directly affected by the Pulse shooting. Some of us were in the area when it happened, some of us almost went ourselves, and some of us even lost friends or family that day. Today, we honor the 49 murdered, 53 wounded and thousands traumatized by hate. These are our stories.”
Jeffrey Mashlan, a.k.a. Drag queen Kyla G’Diva Rouge wrote, “I was 22 years old and I just got my driver’s license so I’m excited. I was happy that I got to drive now. My friend Amanda Alvear just snap chatted me asking me to come out to celebrate. I got my license on her 25th birthday. I replied to her, ‘As much as I would love to, I can’t. I’m the new manager at McDonald’s and I have to open the store in the morning, I’m sorry.’ Hours went by and around 3:30-4 a.m. as I’m getting up and getting ready for work I saw I received another snap chat from Amanda. In the video, all I can hear is gunfire going off, and I hear Amanda and other girls screaming from the bathroom.
“Then 30 mins after that I received another Snapchat from her ‘Jeff I think it’s safe for us to leave now. I’m going to try to go out and see.’ I yelled at my phone for her not to go then as she snapchatted me of her walking out all I hear is a gun firing and the screen goes black and the video chat on snap chat ends immediately.” As Cooke read the stories she couldn’t hold back her tears. Neither could a few of the audience members. She continued Mashlan’s story: “Then I head to work and I turn on the TV in the lobby of McDonald’s and start watching CNN and there’s a list of names going down the screen, and I’m praying and praying Amanda’s name wasn’t on the list. As it gets close to the end of the list Amanda’s name appears and I break down, bawling my eyes out in front of a lobby full of people at work. My supervisor told me to go home. For the next three days I isolated myself from the world. Rest in Peace Amanda Alvear.”
A story that left everyone bowing their heads in silence.
The evening came to an end as Chris Gollon sang “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole to provide comfort. Candles were passed around. Audience members held their lit candles sorrowfully as Cooke called out the names and ages of the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting. A candle was laid on the stage for each name, a glowing patch representing the 49 lives that burned bright and flickered away.
–Terra White for FlaglerLive