Pride in Places: The celebratory spirit of Pulse lives on even after the mass shooting

Photo via OnePULSE Foundation.

Barbara Poma opened Pulse with her husband in 2004 to honor her late brother John who passed from AIDS in 1991. It was a business proposal pitched to them by their best friend at the time, whose dream was to open a nightclub in Orlando.

Poma saw it as an opportunity to pay tribute to a community she grew up in, choosing the name “Pulse” to remember her brother’s heart that kept beating through her acts of love and service.

Orlando’s queer community found their own beat within the nightclub, which quickly became one of the few unencumbered, safe spaces in the area where all felt seen and accepted. Poma tells GayCities that the influence of her brother’s queerness and passing changed the trajectory of her life, so she felt determined to create a space that just wasn’t another gay bar but somewhere queer folks would feel encouraged to bring their families.

“I was dancing at TDance on Fort Lauderdale Beach and spending the day on the gay beaches way before I should have been. Growing up with him in his world formed who I became.”

It would be impossible to summarize the crowd on any given night with a mere adjective. Poma’s vision manifested into a dance floor of diversity and inclusivity. But she didn’t just want her patrons to see themselves in each other, but in the employees who worked there.

“We staffed girls every night,” Poma says. “We staffed boys of all shapes, colors, and ages to ensure everyone saw someone that looked like them. A place where twinks, bears, otters, and all would coexist. It worked. Everyone felt welcome.”

A man plants a Pride flag at a makeshift memorial prior to an evening vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shootings, at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, June 13, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The shooting at Pulse Nightclub, which killed 49 people and injured 53, is the worst mass-shooting event in American history. Photo via Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Pulse’s prominence inevitably took Orlando by a beautiful storm; it became a venue that locals and tourists recognized. Their motto of “Peace, Love, Pulse” represented the future of nightlife. The space also gave back to the community that embraced it, hosting several fundraising events and raising awareness without a specific agenda but with the mission to help humanity.

A former bartender (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that he found there what he didn’t get at home. “Pulse was my home. Pulse was my family. It was an organism of its own. It was its own body. It was its own life.”

On the evening of June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old armed man walked into the venue, and after a three-hour violent stand-off, 49 individuals did not walk out, and 53 were left wounded. Police eventually shot and killed the assailant, who was later declared a terrorist.

A place created to celebrate life became the scene of the largest mass shooting in modern American history. (That is, until the following year when a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 61 dead.) The heartbeat of Pulse was tragically embodied in all its victims, encapsulating all genders, sexualities, ages, and backgrounds. Though because the club was hosting “Latin Night,” a majority of the deceased were Latino. America hadn’t experienced such trauma since 9/11.

Countless families, romantic partners, and friends were left grieving without answers – their suffering unfathomable. America mourned collectively, and the number 49 became immortalized in culture. The names of the lives lost were publicly read again and again. However, Poma admits she felt alone.

“I did not fit into any category,” she says, “I was not a family member of a victim, I was not a survivor or a first responder, but yet I was looked to for answers even though no one communicated anything to me. No government agency, local or federal, could give me any answers, insight, or information. My feeling of responsibility was always to do what was right to honor the victims, survivors, and first responders.”

The weight of these decisions fell solely on Poma, even though she felt like Pulse didn’t belong to her anymore. The club now belonged to the world. “It became this generation’s, ‘Where were you when’ moment.” She hears stories from every place she visits, including internationally. Even if you never came to Pulse on the corner of Kaley and Orange in Orlando, she says you went to the Pulse in your neighborhood. “You know, your place; the first gay bar you were brave enough to walk into, dance with a boy or girl, wear lashes and heels for the first time, had your first kiss, and maybe met your spouse.”

But as society globally questioned what would become of Pulse – whether it would reopen – Poma immediately decided against it upon entering the venue with the FBI. The club’s spirit as she knew it was gone, and the darkness of what took place lingered. At that moment, she understood the sacredness of the space and that Pulse should eternally belong to its victims: the 49.

Johnpaul Vazquez, right, and his boyfriend Yazan Sale, sit by Lake Eola, in downtown Orlando thinking of those killed and injured. “We were supposed to go to the club last night, but I didn’t feel right,” said Vazquez. Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Poma credits her guidance with moving forward to those that unfortunately had done it before her, including the mentorship of Oklahoma City and the National September 11 Memorial Museum. They initially advised to let the community decide through polling, and the overwhelming majority voted to commemorate the lives lost.

In 2021, President Biden signed a law designating the Pulse nightclub site as a national memorial. The Pulse Memorial and Museum was born, recently opening in 2022 as “a sanctuary of quiet reflection and love dedicated to honoring the senseless loss of innocent life.”

Using her experience of finding light in the darkness, Poma founded onePULSE Foundation to ensure her brother and the 49 victims’ legacies live on. They’ve taken on hundreds of volunteers willing to give back to the LGBTQ+ community and have disbursed almost $900k in scholarships through their Legacy Scholarship program. “This program consists of 49 individual scholarships, one in each of our Angels’ names, designated by their families for their loved one’s aspiration or career choice. They are inclusive. You don’t need to be LGBTQ+ since some victims were not.”

In a nation unable to recover without tomorrow’s headlines screaming about the next tragedy, Poma commits herself to ensure Pulse is not forgotten. After all, it had a strength and power that you can still hear beating within the hearts of its resilient community – and the survivors – pushing forward.

Flowers and candles were place on Homomonument following the Pulse shootings in 2016
Orlando’s community will never let the 49 victims be forgotten. Photo via onePulse Foundation.

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