It’s an event that lead to international mourning, moments of respect that could pierce the world their silence was so strong, and even a visit from Barack Obama. The former US President commented at the time: “This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends, our fellow Americans, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. A place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub, it’s a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their mind and to advocate for their civil rights.”
Speaking to GAY TIMES in 2018, on the second anniversary of the mass killing, owner Barbara Poma and manager Brian Regan recall the night that forced them to work through the unimaginable, and turned an LGBTQ venue into a permanent reminder of how far we’ve still got to go.
Tell us about the real Pulse, the nightclub you came to know and love…
Barbara: Pulse was a collaborative idea between my best friend and I. He was my gay best friend and wanted to own a gay bar his whole life. For me, having lost my brother to HIV/AIDS in the early 90s, it was a way for me to reconnect to a community I loved and lost. It also gave me a platform to educate people about HIV and prevention.
Brian: I first started working at Pulse in 2014. I moved to Florida when I was 18 in 2004 and it actually ended up being the first gay nightclub I ever went to. It’s the place where I met most of my friends when I first moved and it’s a place that stayed in my heart became it became like a family.
I never thought I’d be able to bring my parents to a gay nightclub but this was the first time since I came out of the closest I was able to take my mum and dad to Pulse, and a lot of families actually went there. I even saw parents in the front row cheering on their sons in drag and giving them dollar bills and hollering for them.
Pulse was a place that welcomed and catered for everybody, then?
Barbara: We had a different format for every day of the week so it had a little bit for everyone. On Tuesday night, it was our amateur contest that gave a young crowd who were exploring their craft – drag, singing – the opportunity to perfect it and try it out on the stage. Wednesday was a college crowd, Fridays were hip-hop, and on Saturday we had our Latin night. Although we played Latin music in the main room, we also played hip-hop and Top 40 in others. We attracted almost every demographic you could imagine and that was our goal, and everyone had a place where they fit in. A place that was comfortable for them.
The day that changed everything: 12 June, 2016. When was the moment you realised something had changed?
Barbara: My first call came from another manager who’s name was Neema Bahrami who called me at 2:06 am. “There’s someone shooting. There’s a shooter in the building.” That’s what Neema kept screaming at me on the phone. I was like, “What are you talking about?” It took a little while for it to settle in, and it took a while for it to hit the television as I was relying on CNN to start broadcasting about it. It was completely surreal to turn the TV on and see Pulse nightclub and see my sign and my building, and know that the whole world was watching. You don’t think this type of thing would happen in a nightclub and there was nothing about it that made sense. Nothing that your brain could wrap around about what was happening or even the magnitude of it.
Brian: I remember looking at my employee and we both were baffled and confused. At first, we weren’t sure if a speaker had blown inside. Unfortunately more shots were fired very rapidly and continued to be fired and that’s when we realised it was much more than a speaker. We saw people running out of the club from one of the exit doors on the patio, people hiding anywhere and everywhere they possibly could to try and get away. It was a very scary situation and I think a lot of those people tried to react as best that they could in that sort of a situation.
What was your initial human instinct when you realised what was happening? Was it to try to run away, or was it to support those inside?
Brian: It was definitely more about trying to support people inside. I remember we’d ducked behind the outdoor patio bar temporarily for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds. I remember us yelling for everyone to get out. At that point, even though it probably wasn’t the smartest move at the time, I tried to go back inside and that’s when one of our off-duty police officers I’ve known grabbed me by the shirt and said, “You’re not going back inside that building. Get outside, get as far away as you can.”
Once I got far enough away from the building, I remembered that we had a Facebook hotspot so we could send targeted messages to our customers. When they came into the club each night, when they logged onto our Wi-Fi it would pop-up on their screen. I was outside and that’s when I decided to get on our Facebook account and post the message that everyone has seen now, for everyone to ‘Get out of Pulse and keep running’. My intention for that wasn’t for people outside of Pulse to see that message, it was for people that were stuck or hiding in bathrooms that were confused about what was going on.
You mentioned your friends that went back inside to dance, and you remained outside – were you able to make any form of contact with those individuals?
Brian: I wasn’t. I was with my friend Drew and we’d met up on the patio and started talking. I bought them a drink, said I was glad to see them that night, and all three of them went back inside and unfortunately two of them didn’t make it – definitely a difficult realisation. When you start seeing peoples’ names come out in the media and people that were in surgery and you saw more and more names, it was one of the hardest things. That’s when it all became even more real. Starting to see my friends’ names on a list is when it felt like it couldn’t be real and that this couldn’t be happening to me. That was probably the first moment it felt truly real.
Following the attack, there were global moments of remembrance and even President Obama paid tribute to those lost. What did having that support do for your process of healing?
Barbara: It was surprising to me because Pulse was a tiny little gay bar in the corner, so to know people – not just from our own country, but around the world – were with us and grieving and mourning with us was surprising. We felt comforted, we felt strength and it made you feel less lonely. I didn’t get to see much of the response of that as I didn’t have the TV on so even when Paris lit the Eiffel Tower or Australia lit the bridge, I didn’t see that until people showed me pictures after. I couldn’t compute it at the time, and we still talk about it now.
Brian: We received letters from Prince William and Kate Middleton and we received a visit from President Obama and Vice President Biden who had flown to Orlando and actually met with the survivors and the victims’ families privately. You didn’t feel like you were speaking to the president with a team or that he was only there because of press. You felt like you were talking to a president who cared and was concerned about you. There was no one telling you your time was up. Only when you finished speaking would he move onto the next person, and he probably would have stayed another few hours if he had needed to. It was a surreal, amazing and humbling experience to be able to sit down with the leader of the US and have him express his concerns for us and the community.
Can you talk us through what it was like the first time you went back into the venue?
Brian: It was very difficult. I remember the first time we walked back in, literally walking through the door, I think we all broke down crying. Some of our staff members had to leave. I remember having to go outside for a few minutes. It’s not the place that we knew and loved. It was a shell of its former self. Walls were missing. It was such a beautiful club and venue, and things were just thrown around everywhere. We had the realisation that the place we called home and loved was most likely never going to open in that type of capacity or that type of venue again.
Do you ever have any thoughts today about gunman Omar Mateen and why he did this?
Barbara: No. I sat through every day of the trial of his wife, and I went because I wasn’t given any facts, and because of the case pending if I wanted to know anything I needed to go to the trial. I went and sat so I could learn about how this happened.
How does it happen to us, and what kind of monster would do this? But now I don’t care to give him one ounce of power in my life.
Do you get the opportunity to go back to the club now, or is that something you try and distance yourself from?
Brian: I haven’t been back inside the building in about eight months, but I do visit the building probably at least twice a week. I try to go more often and there’s still places where people are leaving mementos. I tend to go late at night. It’s amazing though, no matter what time of day you go there’s always people stopping by. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts opposite the club and one day I just went there and sat and had a coffee and watched. People slow down in the road and some get out of their cars even for just a minute to look at the messages written on the wall. Others even stay for up to an hour. It’s also people you wouldn’t expect. The surprising thing to me is when we see families, full families that stop and pay their respects – their children too. I think it’s an event that really opened a lot of people’s hearts and minds.
How much do you think this incident teaches us about the conversations we should all be having about the joining of religion and sexuality?
Barbara: The response after didn’t just come from people around the world but from churches. We had one down the street from us that, when I was building Pulse, had my project shut down because they didn’t want a gay bar near them. This is the
same church supplying water and Gatorade every single day at the memorial site. They housed the FBI when they did the investigation. I met pastors who left their churches because they’ve had a change of heart and the church wouldn’t support that. I’ve had local leaders who were homophobic before who now have wept, cried and helped family members come to terms and have a change of mind.
What are you hoping the ONEPulse Foundation can bring to the community of Orlando?
Barbara: The most important thing I wanted to make sure was that what happened here should never be forgotten. To do that, in our country, we create memorials for 9/11 and other large terror attacks that took the many lives of our citizens. The memorial is a place you’ll come and pay your respects and have your moment of peace, but the museum is about education. It’s not just about LGBTQ rights and equality but about the loss of that day, the families and lives that were taken. The time when you leave, you’ll have a message of great change.
We will create scholarships that will keep our victims’ names alive. We’re creating programmes that can be taught in schools as well as at conventions for businesses about how to modify your behaviour to change the climate in your office towards acceptance and unity. People talk about creating change all the time and it’s one baby step at the time. I want to make sure that generations over 100 years from now know exactly what happened at Pulse, and that the story gets told the way it’s meant to be told.
Hopefully in 100 years, you’ll walk into the museum saying that you ‘Can’t believe that anyone would ever do this or live through this time’. You think about history that we look back on, civil wars, World Wars, and we ask ‘Did that actually happened to families?’ I’m hoping in 100 years they’ll be saying that about Pulse, because they won’t be able to imagine that ever happening again.
Image courtesy of ONEPulseFoundationTwo years on, how does this anniversary and the events of that time feel to you today?
Barbara: It’s a complete mixture. I have hope, I have goals and I do see a light at the end of my tunnel – a light at at the end of my darkness. I have to. Unlike anybody else that’s a survivor or staff member of Pulse, they don’t have to live it every day. They live with it every day but don’t do it every day. I do it every day and tell the story daily, and I have to walk into an office full of the aftermath of what happened. I won’t ever escape it, but my own personal hope is that in five years time, once the memorial and museum is built and we’re solid and I know the foundation is going in the right direction, hopefully I can step down from the day-to-day operations and see it from afar. Maybe that’s my time to move on and deal and cope. Everyone else goes to work somewhere else and has other jobs. They go back to other lives, but I have not, so that’s a little different for me.
How will you keep the memory of Pulse alive as you try to move forward?
Barbara: I’ve said since the day of the tragedy that I’ll open another Pulse, and I will call it Pulse. Not that I want to at my age, and I didn’t think I’d be opening another nightclub as it’s a lot of work, but I do feel like it is the true way to not let hate win. That’s what I’ve said since day one and if we don’t reopen Pulse, we’ve let hate win. We have to give back to the community what it lost.