Questions & Possibilities: One Year After Pulse

by Rev . J. Manny Santiago

Lee en español ~ Read In Spanish

A year ago, our communities were shaken. The news of the massacre of 49 individuals at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, took most of us by surprise. This horrendous act desecrated one of the most important sanctuaries of the LGBTQ+ community.

It is at the club where many of us come to feel safe, secured, loved, cared for. 

When many of our own families and faith communities reject us, the club and its people often become the place and the companions on our journeys toward healing. This is why it was such devastating news when the club Pulse was attacked by a lone shooter.

The Pulse massacre created many wounds. Some of those wounds have shown up as questions in my mind. These are the kind of questions that are difficult to answer but still important to wrestle with.

When I learned about the shooting, my first question was obvious, and it still haunts me to this day. Were my family members safe? There is a large Puerto Rican community in Orlando, and a few of my cousins live there. One of them is gay.

My family spent the day after the shooting waiting to hear if my cousin was safe. 

When he finally reached out, he explained that, although he had not gone to the club that night, he did have friends there. His shock was such that he could not reach out earlier. He was paralyzed with fear, rage, and grief.

I read elsewhere the story of one of the victims whose family refused to identify and pick-up his body. According to the news, the father did not know his child was gay. He learned of his son’s sexual orientation through the news.

I do not know the religious background of this parent. What I do know is that religion plays an important part of the Latino experience. Whether is Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, or one of the many syncretic faith traditions that exist throughout our countries of origin, religion is central in our lives.

As a minister, a Latino man, and a gay person, I wonder if this father’s faith prevented him from showing compassion for his son. How can there be so much hatred in one person’s life that they are incapable of holding their own child’s lifeless body in their arms?

This is a question for which I have no answer. 

Another question that comes up frequently when I think of the Pulse massacre is: how many victims were there? We all hear about the 49 individuals who were murdered. We have said their names and remember their lives. We have cried and mourned their deaths. Yet, there were 50 lifeless bodies at Pulse that night.

Compassion is a difficult spiritual exercise, no matter our faith tradition. When the call is to show compassion to those who hurt us, it is even more difficult. I often wonder how we can show compassion to the shooter, to his family, to his community, without justifying his violent acts. To show compassion doesn’t mean to justify actions; it means to recognize that his was a tormented soul that needs liberation, too.

As I continue to wrestle with these questions and these wounds, I continue to wonder how our communities can support and protect each other. I currently work at an LGBTQ+ community center, and I know from my work and my own experience how intersectional our communities are.

The struggle for liberation of one community is the struggle for liberation of all communities. 

The victims of the Pulse massacre, although overwhelmingly Puerto Ricans, also showed the diversity of our communities. There were women and men, trans and cisgender, young and old, many ethnicities and races, many sexual orientations, even different religions. I see this diversity in my work every day and wonder: are we standing up for each other?

A year after Pulse, I see the possibility of building sanctuaries wherever we build community. I imagine a work that is intersectional and radically inclusive. I dream of partnerships that dismantle the myths the LGBTQ+ community has created around our different identities.

I imagine a community that, while wounded, will not stop marching together towards freedom and wholeness.

Photo by Maia Weinstock