Feeling fear in my safest space: Experiencing pride after Pulse

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: onePulse Foundation

Feeling fear in my safest space: Experiencing pride after Pulse

June 12, 2019

Waking up that morning, I knew from the light coming through my windows that it was too early. I reached for my phone, and I was met with one notification from The New York Times. The words were displayed in black and white on my screen: shooting, multiple fatalities, Orlando nightclub.

I ran downstairs to the living room without brushing my teeth, sat on the floor, and turned on the television. I watched the death toll on the bottom of the screen rise like a body count on a video game.

I sat on the floor for hours that day, switching between my phone and television screens to learn as much as I could about a tragedy that felt like fiction. I watched as details emerged, as my own identities came up on the screen. The shooting occurred at a queer nightclub on Latinx night. I saw myself, my family, and my community in the names and faces that started to emerge as the death toll reached 49.

That summer, I was fortunate enough to bring my advocacy and identity into my work as an intern with GLAAD in New York City. The next day, I was able to come into work and feel the comfort and community of my LGBTQ+ coworkers. I was given space to mourn and process–a privilege many LGBTQ+ folks did not get to have after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. At the time, GLAAD worked tirelessly to share the names of the victims of the shooting, to support their families and loved ones, and to fight against xenophobic rhetoric following the shooting. To help in their numerous responses to the tragedy, my fellow interns and I were tasked with compiling the names, photos, and biographies of those who were killed.

I’ll never forget the hours I spent in the office that had quickly become a safe space, swivelling around in my chair and pacing around each time the images on my screen became too much. We spent our days researching the names of every single one of the 49 people who were killed so we could help to amplify their stories and legacies.

I remember almost everything about it–every name, every face, every fact, every comment from their loved ones. I remember the accounts of the survivors, saying that the bullets rang like a bass drum in the club. I remember the accounts of the police who said that they heard cell phones ringing for hours on the scene. I, and so many other LGBTQ+ people and allies, remember every single detail, and the memories have stuck with me for years. I doubt they will ever go away.

I was 19 at the time and was still coming to terms with my own sexuality. It took me several years to truly feel comfortable in my queer identity, and now, as a 22-year-old living in New York City, I have found that the places where I feel the most love, joy, and freedom are at queer bars and clubs. It has been within the walls of these spaces where I have been able to dance how I want and kiss who I want. It has been within the walls of these spaces where I have felt seen. And, because of the trauma that I and so many other LGBTQ+ people carry with them every day, it has been within the walls of these spaces where I have felt the most fear.

I started going to queer clubs when I first moved to New York City, frequenting classic spots in the West Village and Brooklyn where rainbow flags and equality signs were everywhere I looked. A few months ago, I went on a date to get dinner and go dancing at a bar in the West Village with a beautiful woman whom I had begun seeing. We texted excitedly about our date the whole day, and I felt so in awe of her when I saw her that night, wearing a long pink dress, her eyelids glimmering in the same shade, the faux fur coat around her shoulders making her look glamorous in a way I had never seen in person. We got dinner and went to a queer bar and I felt such joy and freedom as I watched her dance, but I couldn’t help glancing around the room, trying to see who else there.

At one point in my search, I saw a man reach into a backpack. He pulled out his wallet and set his backpack back down before going to the bar to get another drink. Even as I watched him get a drink and knew it was nothing more, my breath and heart rate continued to quicken, as the images and stories of the Pulse Nightclub shooting replayed in my mind, and I began to have a panic attack in the middle of the dance floor. I grabbed my jacket and my date and rushed out of the club, onto the sidewalk down the block from the Stonewall Inn, where I stood crying. All the joy I felt had been replaced by fear, loss and immense sadness. I apologized to my date for ruining our night, and kissed her with my eyes open outside the subway station, searching for danger because I still felt so afraid of kissing another woman in public. I cried on the whole subway ride home.

I feel this same sense of fear, loss, and sadness each time I enter the bars and clubs that feel like home to me. Violence against LGBTQ+ people–no matter the form–serves to take our joy, and then take our power. Instances of violence against the LGBTQ+ community, from the Stonewall Uprising to the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, do not exist merely as pieces of history they have lasting effects on both survivors and the community as a whole.

The trauma I feel does not compare to that of survivors of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to be there, or witness any other form of mass violence, and I hope that it is not something our community experiences again. However, trauma is complex and heavy, and it ripples through communities in ways that hurt and inhibit us all.

Along with the excitement I feel about attending queer parties and events in New York during Pride Month, I feel an enormous amount of pain and fear that I cannot shake. I cannot measure progress in equal rights amendments and marriage equality, but rather in the fear I and so many other people feel to be ourselves  within our community each and every day. I feel that fear constantly, and I imagine a day when I can simply feel proud and joyful.

Until then, Pride to me is about far more than rainbow t-shirts and marriage equality. It is about liberation. It is about freedom from violence in all of its forms, from gun violence to hate speech to over policing. This Pride Month, I march, write, advocate, and shout in honor of the 49 people who lost their lives in the Pulse Nightclub shooting three years ago. I fight for their legacy, for their voices, and for their lives, to someday see a world where LGBTQ+ people can live without fear. I fight to make that day come.

Olivia Zayas Ryan is GLAAD Campus Ambassador alumna and former GLAAD Programs Intern. She graduated from Elon University in 2018 and completed the Fellows Program in Public Affairs with Coro New York Leadership Center. She now works in communications in New York City.

the voice and vision of a new generation