I Am Orlando

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Shavonte Zellous, Guard / New York Liberty - The Players' Tribune

It was 6:30 a.m. on Sunday in San Antonio. Our team was loading the bus, on the way to the airport to return home after an eight-day road trip. I was sitting in the lobby of our hotel when the TV screen caught my eye.

I saw the words mass, shooting and Orlando.

I looked closer.

Pulse.

Maybe I wasn’t reading it right. It was early and I was tired. I focused my eyes and pulled up Twitter.

I couldn’t believe the reports, and I couldn’t look away.

Orlando is where I was born and raised. Pulse, the gay nightclub, is just ten minutes from my mom’s house. Five minutes from where I graduated high school.

When we landed in New York, my mom called.

“Everything is on lockdown, Z,” she said. “Police are everywhere. All the streets around here are crime scenes.”

And then she asked, “Have you heard from your sister?”

I hadn’t. No one had.

My younger sister is gay. She’d been at Pulse the weekend before.

I called her immediately.

One ring. Two. Three.

There’s a lifetime that passes between rings when you’re terrified of what might be coming on the other end of the line.

“Z.”

She answered.

By the grace of God, I thought.

“Are you O.K.?” That’s the only thing I could get out.

And then she told me her story.

My sister had been on her way to Pulse on Saturday night to meet three of her friends, just as she’d also done last Saturday. It was Latin night. It was also Pride month.

Her phone rang while she was driving. It was the shift manager from her job, asking her to cover the 6 a.m. shift.

She said yes, turned around and went home to bed.

Her friends — the three she was going to meet — never made it back home. Two were among the 49 killed. One is in critical condition.

“Are you O.K.? Are you O.K.?” I kept asking. Shock had stolen all my words.

In some ways, it’s an impossible question to answer. She was in shock.

People march in memory of the victims of the Orlando, Fla., mass shooting, Monday, June 13, 2016, at City Hall in Philadelphia. A gunman opened fire inside a crowded gay nightclub early Sunday, before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, police said. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

When we hung up, I imagined all the phones, tucked into the victims’ pockets, ringing and buzzing with unanswered calls and texts. I thought about the families, friends and loved ones on the other end of the line, hanging on to the desperate hope that someone would answer.

I was devastated for what could have been. I was devastated for what had been.

My sister was just a young person on her way to express herself freely in a space where she thought she was safe to do so. Just like the victims at Pulse.

It had been the same for me years ago, as a gay person just coming into myself. Only, the Parliament House was my Pulse.

Gay clubs are more than places where people dance and drink. They are sanctuaries. They are communities. Gay clubs are where many go to find themselves or be themselves or commune with others like themselves, away from the judgment of the world outside.

If you’ve never understood a bar as a refuge, then maybe you’ve never felt the fear of showing affection to someone in public.

In a club’s darkness, there’s freedom. With freedom of self comes something like light. Out of light comes love.

But on Sunday morning, people hid away in the dark corners of Pulse, fearing for their life. The gunman used the darkness to his advantage — another weapon to perpetuate fear.

It was also Sunday morning that the LGBTQ community awoke with the very real and very present feeling that this could happen to any one of us. We all closed our eyes and put ourselves in that club. We all imagined what we would do — who we would call, where we would run and if we couldn’t, where we would hide.

The gunman didn’t take just the lives of 49 people; he stole something from the entire LGBTQ community. Where can we go that’s still free — that allows us to be ourselves without fear?

This is the kind of thought I’m left with in the wake of Pulse:

What am I doing that’s so bad that makes you want to kill me? That makes you hate me?

Prince Williams/WireImage

When you’re gay or trans or queer, you carry the hate of others with you every day. It comes in many forms: insults, discrimination, ignorance, violence. I would imagine this wasn’t the first time the victims of Pulse had felt terrorized just for being themselves.

It’s cliché to say, I never thought this would happen where I’m from. But … I didn’t. Maybe I’ve been blissfully ignorant all along.

When I see Orlando on the news now — the downtown skyline, the streets I ran — I don’t recognize it. Instead, it’s a funhouse version where everything has been turned upside down. It’s distorted and foreign.

I’m going to look at it differently for the rest of my life.

I’m going to think about my safety and the safety of my LGBTQ family differently for the rest of my life.

For both of those reasons, I carry sadness the size of a mother’s grief.

Which is to say: Immeasurable.

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