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After Pulse Attack, Gay Latinos Seek Strength

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Ricardo Negon never kissed his boyfriend in front of conservative relatives. Carlos Guillermo Smith was once attacked by anti-gay students at a college party. After coming out in high school, Marco Quiroga left his mother's home and became temporarily homeless.

Many gay Latinos in Orlando have endured indignities, rejection or violence because of their sexual orientation. But in the year since a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub, these men and others have sought to strengthen their wounded community, forming support groups and community organizations, seeking seats at the tables of power, and creating a foundation to champion gays and Latinos.

"There's no question that the tragedy at Pulse has created an entire new generation of grassroots leaders who are young, who are queer, people of color, who want to make a difference and affect change," said Smith, who was elected to Florida's Legislature last fall.

Most of the dead at Pulse were gay Latinos, and the attack on June 12, 2016, highlighted the gulf between gay people of color and other gays.

Though Orlando's gay institutions are open to anyone, some gay Latinos did not use them, either because of language barriers or because Orlando's Latino communities are scattered throughout the metro area and much of Orlando's gay life is concentrated downtown. There were other obstacles too, including cultural issues of "machismo," deep Latino connections to the Roman Catholic Church and, for some, concerns about immigration status.

Before Pulse, many gay Latinos felt they could only meet each other in gay bars on Latin or hip-hop nights.

"In our community, there was an absence of spaces for people who were queer and people of color," said Christopher Cuevas, who founded the support group QLatinx after the Pulse shooting.

Still, many regarded Orlando as a haven, both for its visible gay community and for its thriving Latino population. Of metro Orlando's 2.3 million people, more than a quarter are Hispanic, with Puerto Ricans making up about half of the Latino population. Smith describes Orlando "as one of the gayest cities in America."

"Which makes what happened here so shocking because this is already such an inclusive community," said Smith, who grew up in South Florida and moved to Orlando for college. "This is a city that is very supportive of the LGBTQ community."

To Javier Nava, Orlando seemed like a gay Magic Kingdom when he visited during a pride weekend three years ago from small-town North Carolina, where he worked in the restaurant business without legal permission to be in the United States.

"When I came here, and I see the gay pride, I just fell in love with Orlando, so full of Latinos," said Nava, who is originally from Mexico City and moved to Orlando shortly after his visit. He recently became eligible to stay in the U.S. legally. "It just seemed free and open here," he said.

When the gunshots began at Pulse, Negron at first thought they were coming from the beats of the thumping reggaeton music. Then the music stopped and everyone dropped to the floor.

He managed to run out of an exit as gunman Omar Mateen kept firing. Mateen, a New York-born son of Afghan immigrants who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, was killed hours later in a shootout with police.

Nava was on the dance floor when he heard what sounded like a fight. That's when everybody got on the floor. A moment later, he felt something hit his abdomen and realized he had been shot.

Debating in his head whether to play dead or try to escape, he stood up, ran through a door behind the bar and found stairs leading up to a second-story office. Five other people followed him and hid under the desks. They called 911, and dispatchers gave them instructions on how to stanch Nava's bleeding.

They tried to be quiet until police found them about half an hour later. As the officers escorted them out, Nava saw the lifeless body of a friend on the floor.

Smith was in bed at home when his smartphone started beeping furiously before dawn with news about Pulse. Before long, he was standing shoulder to shoulder at a news conference with leaders of Orlando's Muslim community to show that Orlando "respects inclusivity and diversity."

In the aftermath of the attack, a joint venture between local governments and nonprofits offered mental health services and other assistance to Pulse victims and their families. But because of language barriers, immigration fears or previous feelings of disconnection, some of the victims and their families did not feel like they could use the services, Cuevas said.

The community had to "create our own because these spaces never catered to us before. They didn't understand us, and they still don't," he said.

Thus was born QLatinx, a community group for Latino gay and lesbians. The Q stands for "queer," and "Latinx" is a gender-neutral form of "Latino." The organization holds support-group meetings every week and is starting a storytelling project in which they hope to dismantle stereotypes of what it means to be gay and Latino through the personal stories of its members. They're also helping more mainstream gay organizations, like the local LGBTQ center, cater to the needs of gay Latinos.

Quiroga has undertaken a similar effort with the Contigo Fund, which was formed after the Pulse tragedy with $1.5 million in funding from several national foundations. The goal was to financially support LGBTQ and social-justice causes in central Florida, with a particular focus on Latino communities. The fund has given grants to QLatinx, as well as Proyecto Somos Orlando, a nonprofit community center run by Negron that offers bilingual mental health counseling, conversational English classes and immigration assistance for free.

Through the center, case managers check in with Pulse survivors at least once a month. Proyecto Somos Orlando soon will start a program helping newly arrived LGBTQ Puerto Ricans adjust to life in central Florida and hold regular seminars on topics like how to use the health care system.

The ultimate goal is to create a safe haven for LGBTQ people of color that can be a model for other cities, said Quiroga, who moved to Orlando as a 2-year-old from Peru. He is part of a program that allows immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children to stay.

Many of the Pulse survivors are in demand to talk to politicians, celebrities and activists about gun violence and gay rights. Nava met Hillary Clinton and talked in Spanish about immigration policy with vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

For Nava, the Pulse tragedy forced him to engage with the wider world in ways he never expected. He and his husband, Adrian Lopez, who escaped the nightclub unhurt, have shared their stories about the Pulse massacre with Clinton, Kaine and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot six years ago during a public appearance, among others.

"At that level, it's a big step for our community," Nava said, explaining that his discussion with Kaine about immigration reform represented more than just one person talking with "one of the people who might run this country."

"It's me, as a gay Latino, talking to one of those people. In Spanish."