Five Years After Pulse, Queer Nightclubs Still Bring Both Freedom and Fear

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed during a queer Latinx dance night at the Orlando gay club. An additional 53 were injured. Today, and always, we give remembrance to those lives lost, and those others whose lives were irreparably changed

The first time I had a panic attack in a gay club I tried to deny what was happening. I was on my second date with the first woman I ever really dated and we had finally arrived at Duplex in the West Village after a long day of texting each other about how excited we were to dance all night together. We ordered vodka sodas at the bar and walked to the small, crowded dance floor where my date was soon surrounded by tourists who wanted to dance and take selfies with her.

In the quiet moment when I stood on the dance floor alone, I noticed someone grab a backpack from the booth along the wall. As this person reached into their bag, my heart began to race and my eyes darted franticly across the room, looking from queer person to queer person to the backpack and back to my date again. As my breath quickened I braced myself for what I thought was inevitable — in the five seconds it took for this person to reach into their backpack and pull out their wallet, I prepared myself for what I would do if they pulled out a gun, like I had so many times before in malls, and movie theaters, and schools, and more. I looked around the room for where I would hide, I imagined what I would say, I thought about who I would call.

When I finally saw that person was just searching for their wallet, I was already crying and hyperventilating. I left the bar apologizing through shortened breath as I cut my date short and walked quickly to the subway at 10:30 PM, before most of the club kids had even finished getting ready. I cried on the A train as I processed the residual trauma I didn’t even know I had.

There are so many details that I can’t seem to forget. Brenda Lee Marquez McCool was a single mother and a cancer survivor. Luis S. Vielma worked at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Edward Sotomayor Jr. loved to travel. Luis Daniel Conde and his partner Juan Pablo Rivera Velazquez owned a salon together. Akyra Monet Murray had just graduated and was on vacation with her family. I remember their names and their smiles in the photos that have now been memorialized. Five years later and on my worst days I can still see the collages of their faces when I close my eyes — their 49 faces fit perfectly into a square.

On the morning of June 12th, 2016, I woke up to a New York Times push notification. I read the words “nightclub” and “shooting” and ran downstairs to my living room and turned on the news as details emerged and the death count rose. As a young, Puerto Rican, queer person, I wasn’t used to seeing myself or people in my community on television screens. But, as the day progressed and the names and faces of the victims became known, it was clear to me: this was my community. The shooter came to Pulse Nightclub on Latinx night and killed 49 people — that has never felt like a coincidence.

That summer, back when I was just a really good ally at 19, I worked as an intern at an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. My first two weeks at this internship started the way most do — I got acclimated to the office, met with my colleagues, made friends with fellow interns, and tried to keep myself busy. I was beginning to come into my own queerness and saw this internship as an opportunity to move past allyship and into self-advocacy and community building.

On the Monday morning after the shooting, the 45 minute train ride from New Jersey to Manhattan felt different. I sat on the train exhausted by my own hypervigilance. I tried to look away from the increased police presence in Penn Station that I had grown used to seeing after mass shootings. I tried not to scrutinize every backpack or large bag I passed by.

When I arrived in the office, I was grateful to be in a space where I didn’t have to process my grief alone. Over the next few days, my fellow interns and I contributed to the organization’s response by compiling obituaries for all the victims. We spent hours in our small office looking at Facebook pages and news articles, staring at photographs of them with their families and loved ones, trying to find the small details that made these beautiful lives more than just a name in a list of many.

I got too drunk at Stonewall that summer because I couldn’t stop staring at the entrance. I spent many evenings crying on the NJ Transit rides home. From thousands of miles away, I felt the loss of my community in every way, even before I allowed myself to live into my identity enough to feel a part of it.

The first time I felt fully safe and seen when I was at a gay bar was on Latinx night. A few weeks after I first moved to Brooklyn, my friend brought me to Yas Mama at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn. It was one of the first times I had been to a gay bar — especially since being out and more actively living into my queerness. In the back of the crowded bar, I looked around and saw a fairytale: my skin glowed rainbow colors under the light of the disco ball, people kissed while they’re dancing, and the music wasn’t only by white people.

A number of Latinx drag queens performed that night, lipsyncing to Selena and Shakira and J-Lo, and I felt, for the first time, like I could be at home. But for queer Latinx people, that feeling can be hard to find.

In my own home, where my identity has been met with love and support, I still am not out to much of my Puerto Rican family members, and I don’t know if I ever will be. White queer spaces are often not safe for people of color. Too often, white queer people forget the power their whiteness holds, and act violently against people of color — with the worst violence being against Black trans people. Spaces where we feel fully able to be ourselves and not shroud any parts of our identity literally save lives — and yet, that same space is the place where so many lives were taken.

For many queer people of color, spaces like queer nightclubs on people of color-centered nights are the only times where we can be fully ourselves. In these community spaces, I don’t need to make myself whiter to be celebrated by queer people. I don’t need to make myself straighter to be celebrated by Latinx people. I can be safe in the comfort of knowing that all of me is welcome and all of me is loved — not just the identity most shared by those around me.

But, since Pulse, the places that have become where we feel the most safe also remind us of this collective tragedy.

When I walk into clubs now, I can’t help but brace myself. I can’t help but be reminded of the tragedies that have happened in spaces just like this. It won’t ever matter how long it’s been — I don’t think I’ll ever forget their faces, their names, and the way they were taken from us.

Five years later, I’m working to redefine what safety means to me. Maybe I can’t find safety in the places where I feel most seen or even the places where I feel most hidden. Maybe feeling unsafe is inevitable: instead of feeling safe, we all need to make difficult choices about what is worth risking our safety for.

Before I go out to queer clubs or other queer spaces, almost every time, I ask myself: do I risk my physical safety to feel free, or do I risk my mental health to keep myself safe at home?. The decision isn’t easy, but it’s one that we all must make.

It’s taken me five years, but the feeling of joy, freedom, excitement, and fulfillment that I feel when I can dance to bachata with my queer kin, when I don’t have to choose between being Latinx or being queer, when I can honor all of my identities at once, is worth risking my safety. My fearless and unwavering presence in these spaces is both a prayer and a promise: to honor my freedom, honor my community, and to never forget the lives that should’ve never been lost.

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Olivia Zayas Ryan

Olivia is a writer and communicator living in Brooklyn. Her writing explores how feminity, queerness, and trauma intersect in her own life and in pop culture. Follow her on all platforms at @oliviazayry to hear her rant about Glee and share photos of her makeup.

Olivia has written 2 articles for us.


  1. This is so beautiful, thank you. I’m from Orlando and had many ecstatic nights at Pulse before I moved to the west coast. I woke up that morning to so many messages from friends saying they were safe that I knew something unthinkable had happened before I saw the news. This piece captured so well the feeling of grieving at a distance from your community, of feeling the loss of family from far away, of the deep pain at not feeling safe anymore in the one place that once felt safe. Much love to you for this, and thank you 💗

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