Pulse Anniversary Brings Both Reflection and Frustration

Almost 3,000 people participated in the seventh annual CommUNITY Rainbow Run in honor of the lives lost at Pulse. Courtesy Facebook/onePULSE Foundation.

Seven years.

That's how long it's been since the night 49 people were shot and killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

It feels like yesterday and a century ago all at the same time, and for the LGBTQ community, a time to reflect on both the progress and regression that has happened since then.

For one, the memory of the 49 has been memorialized through a scholarship program launched by the onePULSE Foundation. Each scholarship is specifically tailored to benefit a student following in the footsteps of each survivor, whether it be to go to cosmetology school or studying to become a nurse. So far, $1.2 million has been distributed.

“Out of something so dark and terrible as what happened on June 12, I think the scholarships give people so much hope, because it's sort of the forward facing part of how to remember these folks who are gone,” said Deborah Bowie, the executive director of the onePULSE Foundation.

Leading up to the anniversary, there are traditions such as the annual CommUNITY Rainbow Run at Wadeview Park in Orlando — almost 3,000 participated this year — a blood drive, bake sale, charity bingo, drag story time, the erection of memorial crosses, and of course the official memorial the evening of June 12. This year, the memorial service will be moved from the Pulse site to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. After years of being held at the nightclub site, many survivors said the location was a difficult place to return to, so the foundation decided on the center, as people gathered at the lawn in the hours after the shooting.

“Pulse is a difficult space for people to be in, especially on that day, so I think their response to the feedback by putting it in a spot that’s maybe more neutral and doesn't carry the weight and grief that Pulse does is probably good for the community,” said Brandon Wolf, a survivor.

For Wolf, the last seven years have been filled with growth. Once a Starbuck employee, he is now the press secretary for Equality Florida and has spoken on behalf of survivors all the way up to the White House. He’s a part of the Dru Project, a foundation that has given more than $150,000 in scholarships in honor of his friend Drew Leinonen who was killed at Pulse, and he’s anticipating the release of his memoir, “A Place for Us,” on July 1.

A self-described introvert, he said he’s never quite sure how he’ll feel on the anniversary. Some years he has kept to himself, reflecting on the friends he lost and working on alleviating survivor’s guilt. Other years he takes solace in being with the community and attends the memorial service.

“I allow myself to do what feels right on the day of,” he explained. “We’ll see this year.”

The last seven years have also included disappointing setbacks. Most notably, in May the onePULSE Foundation announced that it had not been able to come to an agreement with the owners of the nightclub — Barbara and Rosario Poma, who are also the founders of the onePULSE foundation — for the site to be donated. Now, the foundation is having to start from scratch, but has a few leads on other properties for the project. The community was also wary of a conflict of interest, but Barbara stepped down from the foundation and Bowie, who has decades of nonprofit experience, has been at the helm.

Thankfully, a capital project that has not been hindered is the Orlando Health Survivors Walk, a three-block stretch between the nightclub and Orlando Regional Medical Center to pay tribute to the first responders and law enforcement who sprang into action the night of the shooting.

There’s also the undeniable attacks on LGBTQ rights since the day of the shooting, with Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration banning books, threatening doctors who treat children with gender dysphoria, going after drag queens, and more. But for Wolf, survivors and other members of the community, it’s more reason to step up and speak out.

“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but in the fight 100%. It would pain me to be on the sidelines wondering how best to be involved,” he said. “From a very personal place, Equality Florida and the fight for freedom in Florida has helped me find purpose in what is a very challenging time.”


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