I grew up just ten minutes away from Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando where a gunman shot and killed more than 50 people early Sunday morning. Before coming out, I actually drove past it often, but I never really understood the role it would eventually play in my life.
Growing up in a black and brown community where hyper-masculinity was acted out as a form of survival, I actually grew up hating on Pulse. In my community, like in so many others around the world, my identity as a gay man was viewed as a form of weakness. So much so that even when I came out, I refused to go to gay clubs because it meant that I would be one of “those gay men.”
It wasn’t until one of my last days in high school that my friends and I all decided to go together.
I’m never going to forget that night.
The first time I ever entered Pulse, everything changed. For the first time in my life, I saw people that looked like me living freely. I saw people in their joy. I saw people in their celebration of life. Here's a photo of me on my first night at Pulse, 8 years ago:
Over the next several years, Pulse became the place where my best friends learned to be themselves. I’ve seen Pulse go through renovation after renovation, growing to accommodate the crowds of people who came there every weekend to celebrate. A small bar area with a stage (which was mostly used for drag shows) expanded to another stage in the main room. An all-white room got repainted. No matter what though, Pulse was always packed.
While a lot of people turn to churches, LGBT communities are often forced to use nightclubs as our safe haven, and Pulse was mine. Although I had built armor to defend myself from the hatred that was spewed to me when I came out (including some from my own mother), the reality was that I still hated myself because of my identity as a gay man. It didn’t help that I had grown up in a church that had conditioned me to hate myself for loving other men.
Pulse was where I learned to love myself as a gay man.
Pulse was where I learned to love my community.
I met one of my exes at Pulse, and even had a friend come out to me at Pulse.
Pulse was where I learned the power of femininity. It was where I saw my first drag show, and where I learned how to vogue.
Pulse was not just my safe haven, but a safe haven for hundreds of LGBTQ individuals in Orlando.
Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community is large and proud. It’s also powered by some amazing young people of color who have ensured that their community represents them. Pulse wasn’t just about drinks and dancing—it was a place that invested in its community. Although the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando is large, the reality is that Orlando is still in the South, and the hate these individuals have to face every day requires a place like Pulse to exist.
Like so many gay nightclubs, Pulse played a major role in the community. This often gets dismissed because it’s just a “nightclub.” In reality, it was a community center. It was where you went to be yourself. To get away from hate. To be free.
Today, with a heavy heart and tears streaming down my face, I think of all the people that have been impacted by Pulse every single day.
I send my prayers to the families of those impacted by the despicable actions of this hate crime.
Together we will rebuild, but today, we lay here in pain.
Daniel Leon-Davis is the Senior Creative Director at SOZE, and social media director for Russell Simmons.