Pulse was much more than a gay bar, says Jess Carlton, who lived in Orlando during her 20s and now lives in Portland. It was a safe space, a sanctuary, a place where people could come together and laugh together, a place full of love.
"Pulse was much more than a gay bar," says Jess Carlton, who lived in Orlando during her 20s and now lives in Portland. "It was a safe space, a sanctuary, a place where people could come together and laugh together, a place full of love." Kelly O

On Sunday, the Orlando nightclub Pulse became the scene of the largest mass shooting in modern American history. As police continue to investigate and families mourn, people who knew the club well—including some who now live in Seattle—have been reflecting on what it meant to them.

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The stories below were told to The Stranger in interviews, emails, and text messages. They’ve been edited for length and clarity.

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Kristen Brunet, 40, Seattle

I lived in [and] worked in the gay community in Orlando for seven years. My best friend of 16 years [Kate] worked at Pulse since the day it opened for 12 years. I have spent so many nights at this club, with her and visiting her as well. I met many of my dearest friends there. I think I even met my wife there.

Working in the gay community in Orlando is so special. We are all one big happy family. We all patronize the other clubs, and most bartenders work or have worked at the other club. We are a family. These are my people.

I woke up at 1:30 [a.m. on the day of the shooting] from multiple calls from our friend Rick, who owns the other big gay club in Orlando, Southern Nights. He just said, ‘There's been a shooting at Pulse. Kate made it out.’ I popped out of bed and called her and threw on the news. At first it was just a scroll at the bottom. But within 10 minutes it was non-stop aerial coverage. It's surreal. This is our home. My wife is born and raised Orlando. We watched for three hours.

I finally talked to Kate. She hid under her bar once she saw the bodies start dropping. She hid and the man just kept shooting. Broken glass all over her. She was certain she was going to get shot. She just lay there waiting for it. It is horrifying to know that happened to her, my sister. I'm broken…

We just got to Orlando. It’s heartbreaking. I just needed to be with our people. People just keep saying, “This really must hit home.” But no, this is home.

Before we moved to Seattle, we had about 75 friends and family there for our going away party. It wasn’t just a place for gays. It was for gays and anyone who loves gays. It’s all family.

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Tracey Cataldo, 33, Seattle

Florida is already a really hard space to be out and to be gay and to be yourself. Those places, including Pulse and other bars like Southern Nights, were actually really the only safe places when you were 21, 22, 23. They were the only places to go to hang out and dance and drink with your buds and be gay and watch The L Word. I wasn't necessarily even comfortable watching those shows in my own house because of how I was brought up with my own parents. I never didn't feel safe [at Pulse] at that time.

My first time at Pulse was at an L Word viewing. I thought maybe there’d be 20 or so people, but it was packed. All types of people are into that show. It was the first moment I had being out in Orlando where I was like, oh, I’m OK here—not just safe, but these people get me. Everywhere else I felt like I had to walk around defensive…

We have lot of friends here [in Seattle] from Florida and a good patch from Orlando. It's so much more of a close-to-home feeling than I've ever felt with one of these events. You are all of a sudden having conversations with your friends who knew someone who was bartending who got all cut up from the glass being shot up. I can't even imagine.

Coming out to Seattle first time, I had the same feeling I had when I walked into one of those gay clubs like Pulse for the first time, like ‘Oh this makes sense. I am welcomed here.’ It's one thing to have your spaces here in a liberal city, which we still do need and are very important, but 10 years ago in central Florida—and today, now—it is all you have

I'm proud of who I am today and I owe it to those clubs and those communities. I can't imagine how I would have turned out today or, for any of my friends, what path any of us would be on if we didn't have those places to give us a break or a sanctuary or a room—a fucking simple room—just to look at other people who were like us or just to talk to other people who were like us. It all comes down to a room where you could learn about yourself through friendships and bartenders and DJs and The L Word.

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Brit Zerbo, 30, Seattle

My wife Nina and I fell in love in Orlando... Orlando is a big city, but in the sense of the gay community it's still very much a small town. There are three main club bars: Pulse, Parliament House, and Southern Nights. They were just the places of safety where you went when you just wanted to be surrounded by like-minded individuals.

I was a budding lesbian trying to understand what that means and what that community meant. I'd never been to an environment like a club before. When you struggle with coming out to begin with and then you finally find a place where people appreciate and love the person you've accepted in yourself, I think there's something really special about that feeling.

That community made me who I am right now. It made me way more confident and comfortable in my own skin. Most of my life, I felt like I really struggled. I never understood what that struggle meant until I came out…

[On Sunday] I was in Hood River for a friend’s birthday. I was up pretty late, like 1 a.m., and I got a notification on my phone saying there was a shooting in Orlando. I quickly did some research and realized it was at Pulse. I didn't really think anything of it until I woke up in the morning to tons of text messages and phone calls and started realizing the magnitude of what just happened. My heart sunk. I was totally crushed. I left pretty quickly to come back to Seattle to be with my family. I have a bunch of friends here who are from Orlando. It's completely heartbreaking. It's been a mix of trying to find a way to distract myself and then wanting to completely break down.

[Zerbo is now selling t-shirts she designed to raise money for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Central Florida. You can buy one here.]

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Erin Resso, 31, Seattle

I was going to Pulse when I was just coming out and just sort of exploring what that even meant and who I was. Just being around people who are like you is so fucking important. You don't have to hide. You can actually be yourself.

One of my favorite college war stories [is from when] I was in Pulse. It was the after party for this drag review my friends threw. I was kind of on a date, more like a meet-cute, and some guy ran by and knocked into me. I fell backwards into a table that had a pint glass on it that I broke with my ass. I was super pissed about it. I had these new red pants from Express. It was 2005. [laughs] My date basically watched me get my ass stitched with 10 stitches.

Now it just feels like my blood is in there too. I know we say it a lot: "the queer family." Or there's a nod in the street when you see another queer person. But it's real. Even if this wasn't a situation that happened in our hometown, it’s still like losing family...

It's unfortunate to live in this fucking culture where we're so desensitized that it takes something like this to feel it, to really mourn. I’ve been so angry… And now it's just going to get used for Islamaphobia. If you can't see the correlation between Islamaphobia and homophobia, that's so fucked up. It's the same force. It's the same hatred. It's the same othering. It's the same fear. [And] all the fucking Republican Congresspeople who are fighting to pass these bathroom bills [now] tweeting thoughts and prayers. It's like, fuck you. Your bathroom bills are what does this. You are constantly trying to dehumanize us. That blood is on your hands.

This situation just doubles down how important it is to listen to women when they talk about rape culture and listen to people of color when they talk about Black Lives Matter and listen to the fact that trans women are getting beaten to death. We need to raise those voices. We need to believe people when they say they're being oppressed… We're the ones fucking dying. We're the ones getting shot at in our clubs, where we go to get away from that.

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Paul Sandler with friends at Pulse in 2009.
Paul Sandler with friends at Pulse in 2009. Courtesy Paul Sandler

Paul Sandler, 26, Sarasota, Florida

Pulse was special to me. It was my first gay club. It was the place where I could be myself and just have fun with my friends. In fact, while most people liked going out and drinking, I was usually designated driver and still always had an amazing time. I would go there with so many different types of people: my gay friends, my straight girl friends, and often straight guys as well. Everyone always had a great time there. It was just a great atmosphere of acceptance. To have someone so evil come in and destroy that is just heartbreaking.

Afterwards, we'd often go to I-Hop (which everyone called Gay-Hop, due to the migration of people from Pulse there after it closed). It was just what you did after going to Pulse. You would recognize almost everyone there from just a few minutes before at the club (aside from a few bewildered tourists), including often times the drag queens. It was just a way of unwinding with the same diverse group of people and was always a blast…

Even three days later, it's odd to turn on the TV and see images taken from a helicopter of a place that you have such good memories of. To hear the name of your favorite club from college spoken of in the same sentence as words like terrorism and massacre. It could have just as easily happened while I was there or any of my friends who would go with me, many of whom were straight. Pulse was a place where anybody could go to have a good time.

This madman tried to take that away, but in reality, all he has done is bring our community closer together. He has also caused horrific pain for so many friends and families of the victims. I just hope this tragic event can be used to enact meaningful changes with regards to gun control (or lack thereof) and gay rights.

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Jess Carlton, 35, Portland

Pulse was much more than a gay bar. It was a safe space, a sanctuary, a place where people could come together and laugh together, a place full of love. I've lived in eight cities in last six years since moving away from Orlando and I’ve never encountered a community like theirs—like mine. It still feels like my community. It’s probably the most special community I’ve ever lived in. The bonds I have with people there are more than just friendships. They've become a second family. My heart is breaking for each and every one of them right now.

I was 18 when I moved to Orlando. I moved there for college and moved away when I was 29, so I pretty much spent my entire early adulthood in that city. It was a time in my life when I was discovering who I was. It was the first space I felt safe to be myself. It was a tremendous time of growth.

Pulse was just that—it was a heartbeat. It was a space for love. The thing I like so much about bars in Orlando is there's always a wide mix of people. It was a space for everyone of all walks of life, all forms of sexuality, young, old, gay, straight—it really didn't matter. Everyone was welcome to have a good time.

I can still remember walking through the spaces [inside Pulse]. It’s hard right now to be in that space of memory. As much as you want to reflect on many happy memories you had there, it's difficult to fight the visualizations of what occurred...

It's been this constant fluctuation of emotions since [learning about the shooting]. Every time I would see a friend marked as safe, I would feel so much relief. Then that was immediately trumped by guilt because someone else was getting the opposite news.

The world we live in right now is really very scary, but you fight with yourself too. You don't want to be afraid to live because that's what they want. They want you to be afraid to live

I think, without a shadow of a doubt, love will win. They've already banded together [in Orlando]. They will come out stronger than ever before. I think if for nothing else, they'll do it to honor the people that were lost and to honor the people that have survived.

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Loren Othon, 35, Seattle

Often, when I tell people that my family lives in Orlando, or that I lived there throughout most of my twenties, I'm met with an apologetic smile like, "Oh, gosh. What a terrible place to live. Aren't you so glad you got out?" And the thing is, there were moments during my time in Orlando when I felt trapped, culturally restrained, burdened by racism or conservative politics, and generally tired of living in a place where cars were given priority over human beings and I'd get called a hippie dyke for riding my bicycle past cars stuck in traffic.

Those moments definitely existed and they led to my migration to Seattle when the time was right.

In reality, Orlando is generally awesome. Yes, it tends to look and feel like one giant 'non-place' with rivers of traffic, fast food restaurants and parking lots. But it is also a place with tremendous diversity, beautiful parks and neighborhoods, resilient communities, inspiring artists and culture-makers, and so many unique and well-loved spaces, that feel more like home as each year passes. Orlando is defiant. It is bold. It is tender and strange and full of light. Sometimes the night smells like sand and a fish pond, other times like pine and oak and straw.

My queer spirit grew in Orlando. I found it there among the friends and community who today still feel like home. In Orlando I never felt particularly oppressed, but I did feel unsafe and uncomfortable as an emerging queer in the world. Clubs like Pulse were more than just places to dance, drink and let go. They were tiny worlds in which queer love felt expansive, where I could hold hands queerly, dress queerly, love and dance with whomever I pleased and feel empowered, seen and held. I fell in love in those spaces, laughed in those spaces, watched The L Word in those spaces, and saw my first drag shows in those spaces. Those were the sites of my coming out.

Growing up in Panama, I felt a lot of trepidation about coming out. It was the early aughts, I felt culturally bound to silence, and Ricky Martin had yet to announce he was gay. It is funny to think of Orlando as a bastion of progressive values, but for many of us in those days, it was the place where we could find ourselves most free. The queer bars and clubs that welcomed us, and the beautiful community of freaks that made up our social landscape gave us that freedom.

It might seem odd to people outside the LGBTQ community that bars and clubs hold such importance to us. But these spaces are often our only ‘safe spaces’. They are the rooms and chambers of our queer hearts and our queer bodies, pulsing, growing, beating, expanding. This brown, Latin American queer owes a debt of gratitude to those spaces and the people who ran them. They gave me my life. I love them.

Pulse had this incredible room near the front that was decorated all in white. Think fancy Miami club. The lights in the room would shift through a spectrum, painting the chairs, tables, bar, walls and all the queer bodies—red, orange, yellow, green, and on and on. I remember seeing it for the first time and wondering how they would ever keep the room clean. All those glistening white surfaces. All those beautiful bodies.

And yesterday, when I awoke to a phone full of tragedy, and my brain tried to bend itself around and through the news, I kept seeing that white room, imagining the horror our sisters and brothers experienced in there for hours. And how their friends, family and loved ones must be aching.

It was too much. It is still too much.