The San Joaquin Valley’s LGBT community still is reeling two weeks after 49 people were killed and more than 50 injured in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub.
In what was the deadliest mass shooting by one person in U.S. history, 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire inside Pulse at 2 a.m. June 12. He was killed by police after a three-hour standoff.
Vigils were held in cities including Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield. Several groups held fundraisers. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Community Center offered free grief counseling. The Gay and Lesbian Center of Bakersfield started a tribute, collecting postcards from people all over the Valley with messages written to the LGBT community in Orlando.
For many LGBT people here, the shooting hit uncomfortably close to home. Police, club owners and community leaders upped vigilance of places frequented by LGBT people. Many Latinos recognized that they could have been victims, while LGBT Muslims said the shooting made them feel isolated from both communities.
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But even as information continues to trickle in about the shooter, one thing is clear among Valley residents: Healing requires unity.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said he directed every district commander the day after the Orlando attack to identify locations frequented by LGBT Fresno residents, including clubs and bars, and increase police presence around those establishments.
Fresno police have increased patrols of areas frequented by LGBT people in response to the shooting.
Owners of Fab Fresno, an LGBT club in the Tower District, instructed security guards to extend their line of vision in response to the shooting. Co-owner Terry Story said the club already has good security – including cameras and guards blocking the front and back entrances.
But Story said the shooting made him realize that security measures have to go beyond the club’s walls. Guards now watch people walking or driving by.
“As a nightclub owner it makes you very aware that you’re vulnerable,” he said.
Like the Orlando club where the shooting took place, Story said, Fab is a safe space for all people to be who they are without fear.
At Club Legends just north of Tower, owner Jeff Hough agreed.
Hough said his club’s security always has been high, including guards, bag checks and an ID card machine. Some people don’t like the holdup, Hough said, but the Orlando shooting reminded him of why he takes those measures.
“We do our best to keep everybody safe,” he said. “But all it takes is one nut with a gun, and that’s the reality of it.”
Leon Velasco, chair of the Fresno chapter of the LGBT Pink Panthers Movement – a civil rights group – helped organize a town hall meeting Wednesday that included Fresno police, the FBI hate crimes unit and Centro la Familia. LGBT leaders were trained on what to do if they find themselves in a situation similar to the Orlando shooting, how to prevent hate crimes and what resources are available to victims.
Velasco saw the shooting as a wake-up call. His group received radios from the Police Department for monthly foot patrols around locations most populated by LGBT residents. He hopes to help people regain a sense of normalcy and move past their fear after the shooting.
Grisanti Valencia, a Fresno resident who identifies as queer, said the shooting wasn’t just an attack on the LGBT community – it was an attack on Latinos.
The night of the shooting was themed Latin night at Pulse, and most of those killed were Latino.
A man who said he was Mateen’s lover told Univision that Mateen targeted Latinos in revenge after being with a Puerto Rican man whom he later found out was HIV positive. Reports emerged that Mateen frequented the club he later shot up, used gay dating apps and had gay lovers. But the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI has found no evidence to support those claims.
“This could have been at Legends on Latin night,” Valencia said. “This could have been at Fab. That night was tailored for Latino people. Some parents may have found out that their children are gay and dead at the same time.”
Valencia said the shooting made her feel like, even in the age of marriage equality, her life is still not valued. “This could have been me or any of my friends.”
This could have been me or any of my friends.
Grisanti Valencia, queer Latina
Paul Hernandez, a Gay Central Valley board member and local drag queen, said he won’t let one tragedy dictate his life.
“We need to start living our lives more proudly, more openly,” he said. “I refuse to live in fear.”
For others, the shooting was crippling. Danny Rodriguez, a gay Clovis resident, said he has become more acutely aware of his surroundings. While recently walking to his car from the grocery store late at night, Rodriguez said he became paranoid that someone could be out to get him.
That fear put celebrating Pride month or going out with friends out of the question.
“I don’t want to go out anytime soon,” he said. “I’d feel a bit guilty that I’m out there having a good time. It has limited me, and I am scared that the day I decide to go out is the day something bad happens.”
Valencia said it’s important to note that some of the victims were undocumented. She can relate. Though she now has a U-visa, Valencia lived without documentation for years.
She said the shooting brought a fresh wave of anxiety to a community already plagued with suffering. She is used to feeling vulnerable; growing up, she constantly feared for her mother’s deportation, and her father was deported several times.
“The intention of this attack was really to keep us in the shadows and put fear into our lives,” she said.
Mateen, the shooter, was born in New York to Afghan immigrants.
He pledged his allegiance to the militant group Islamic State the night of the shooting, but investigators have not found any direct links between him and the group. Investigators said he sought out radical Islamist propaganda in the months leading up to the massacre.
Mateen was investigated by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 after expressing sympathies with rival Islamic groups al-Qaida and Hezbollah. He was removed from the terror watch list after investigators concluded he was not a credible threat.
For LGBT Muslims, the shooting was a grim reminder of what it means to exist at the intersection of two marginalized communities.
Ramsey Kaid, 22, is a gay Fresno resident whose Muslim parents immigrated from Yemen. Kaid said voices like his need to be heard.
“For the first couple days after the shooting, I kind of went into a shock,” he said. “I didn’t want to look up anything. It was intentional ignorance on my part because I felt like I wasn’t going to find solace in either community.”
I felt like I wasn’t going to find solace in either community.
Ramsey Kaid, gay Muslim
Kaid later wrote a Facebook post urging his friends not to judge all Muslims for the acts of one. He fears that people could lash out against innocent Muslims because of the shooting.
“Gay Muslims exist, it’s just so immensely taboo within most circles,” he wrote on Facebook. “Please show your support not only to gay people’s lives who were affected, but also be respectful to Muslims who are also affected by these events.”
Many LGBT Fresnans said the shooting showed education is needed – to change gun laws, address homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and bridge divisions among the LGBT community.
Zoyer Zyndel, chairman of the local transgender support group Trans-e-Motion, said the questions about Mateen’s sexuality show that the danger of internalized homophobia should not be ignored.
Zyndel said there is also a need for acceptance of diversity within the LGBT community. It’s sad, he said, that the experiences of LGBT people of color are being highlighted only because of a tragedy.
“This is a time when unity between the letters really needs to be, not only a focus, but it needs to materialize,” he said.
More immediately, people said, what’s needed is healing.
Valencia said she is hopeful for the future of Fresno’s LGBT community. The shooting spurred her and other community members to restart a healing circle for LGBT people of color.
“We’re all mourning,” she said. “But it has also opened up that window of getting together and really seeing what is possible. Let’s celebrate the fact that we’re here today without forgetting that one of us may not be here tomorrow.”