In the almost five years since a gunman killed 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, similar tragedies have snuffed out precious lives in a synagogue, church, supermarket, two high schools, including one right here in Florida, and other places we once innocently presumed were safe.
As everyday people clamor for a stop to this uniquely American carnage, political leaders mostly offer an empty panacea of “thoughts and prayers.”
Survivors of gun violence, meanwhile, coping with physical and mental trauma, struggle to carry on.
A new film, Forgotten Survivors: Pulse Documentary, gives a glimpse into the suffering of some of those left behind, including a former partner, a distraught friend, a caring aunt and a victim of the June 12, 2016, shooting rampage whose countless surgeries continue to this day.
Susana Darwin, a filmmaker who lives in St. Petersburg and is friends with the editor of the production, called my attention to the new Pulse documentary that will be shown at the Sunscreen Film Festival on May 1 and May 2. It’s an important story that needed to be told, she said.
Darwin said the people who gathered at the Orlando nightclub that night during Pride month almost five years ago were mostly young, queer people of color having fun in a place where they could feel safe. “I could only imagine how the reverberation of the trauma continues to affect the survivors and also the families of the folks who died or were victimized,” she said.
Aleesha Yates, an Afro-Latina who identifies as pansexual and was a Pulse regular, arranged for the story to be told. An actress and model with contacts in the entertainment business, she asked Nancy McBride of Reel Kasting Productions in Central Florida to consider the project.
For McBride, a casting director by trade, the compelling documentary was her first as a producer. “When you get into something this deep and tragic, you really don’t understand the emotions. After hearing the stories, I’d go home and cry … You feel their pain,” she told me. “The biggest part, in any mass tragedy, especially with the media, we move on. They still suffer. They’re still struggling emotionally. They are still struggling financially.”
Yates was supposed to be at Pulse that fateful night, a club she said was popular with patrons she described as LGBTQ, straight, Latinx, Blacks, whites and people of all races and ethnicities. “It was a haven for all kinds of meet-ups,” she said. “It was a family environment.”
June 12 was Latin Night, her favorite, but Yates had to work. She’s still traumatized at the thought that people were murdered in the same large, unisex bathroom stall she always used. Even more terrifying, she recalls an encounter with the gunman at the club a previous weekend. “I saw him standing at the bar and he was buying shots. He offered to buy myself and others a round of shots,” she said. “I remember his face as clear as day.”
An acquaintance, Charlotte “Cha-Cha” Davis, brought the matter of Pulse’s forgotten survivors to her attention.
“It was important, because people in the documentary didn’t get a chance to tell their story. Many of them, people didn’t know that they existed. These were people that were forgotten,” Yates said, adding that they also did not receive any financial help as they struggled to recover from the trauma they’d experienced.
Like Emily Addison, who still agonizes about calls and texts she missed that night from Deonka Drayton, the woman who had been her partner on-and-off for about seven years and with whom she shared four children.
“She called me twice. She sent a text. She was in the bathroom. People were shot and she was scared,” Addison shared, adding that she didn’t see Drayton’s futile attempts to reach her until the next morning. Her phone had been on silent.
Addison, who was laid off from Disney World because of the pandemic, said she and the children have struggled financially since Drayton’s death.
“Nobody ever reached out to me, because nobody knew who we were,” she said. “Nobody really knows about the ones that really suffered, the families and friends who really accepted the deceased.”
Keinon Carter, one of more than 50 people wounded that June night, wanted to give his own account of what happened to him and tell of the challenge to survive since then. “Sometimes the story gets twisted and manipulated for media purposes and I think some people would like to know it with the rawness, without cutting any corners,” he said. “It’s a never-ending process of healing, surgeries I can’t even count at this moment. It’s still an everyday process.”
Carter, who uses a leg brace, added: “Every day I have to deal with the issues I have, the balancing of my legs, walking a long duration of time without pain, the muscle spasms.”
But one can’t talk about the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, older students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, gun violence close to home in some Black St. Petersburg neighborhoods, and other gun-related tragedies without confronting the issue of guns and the need for regulation.
Days after the Pulse shooting, about 300 people gathered at the LGBTQ Center in New York City to launch Gays against Guns (GAG), with a mission “to ensure safety for all individuals, particularly vulnerable communities such as people of color, women, people who struggle with mental health issues, LGBTQ people and religious minorities.”
Ken Kidd, one of the organization’s leaders, appears in the Pulse documentary. “This was a tragedy. This affected our community, folks who were in their sanctuary, and we wanted to do something. We are unfortunately a targeted group, particularly people of color, especially trans women of color,” he said this week.
“Just as back with AIDS, we realized who our enemies were. We followed the money – the chain of death – from lobbyists to politicians to the NRA to the folks who make the guns,” Kidd said, adding that the organization pressured companies such as FedEx to end their business relationship with the NRA.
But comprehensive, nationwide gun violence prevention laws remain elusive. Thursday, President Biden took initial steps to address what he called the “epidemic” of gun violence in America.
Inaction by lawmakers has come at an enormous cost. At the Pulse nightclub, the gunman was armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. Kidd spoke of remembering the victims, “their lives and friends and their love, their favorite color, if they had a dog or cat, what they looked forward to, who made them glad, who made them sad.”
He added: “It’s not right that these people went out just on a random Saturday night and now they’re gone, so of course, this documentary had to be made. We have to remember them.”
Yates wants people to understand that though five years have passed, the suffering continues. “Those who were there, family and friends, are still affected. It has impacted many of us and none of us will ever be the same again,” she said. “Although the rest of the world has moved on, we will never forget.”
Neither should we. The Pulse documentary should nudge us to remember the massacre at the Orlando nightclub and others at spas in Georgia, a Black church in Charleston, S.C., a Pittsburgh synagogue, an elementary school in Connecticut, and – a list so sadly inexhaustible.