ORLANDO, Fla. - Their lives are so intertwined.
Living in the same neighborhoods. Working at the same places. Hanging out at the same bars.
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The worst mass shooting in American history has devastated Orlando's tight-knit LGBT community. But the days following the June 12 massacre have revealed another impact: It brought this circle of "brothers and sisters" even closer.
After hugs, tears, vigils and memorials, they are now trying to heal under a national spotlight.
For Bronx native Marie Aponte, the grief is reminiscent of how she felt after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which two of her friends were killed.
“You will always remember this, [but] Orlando is a strong community,” said Aponte, 44, who is a gay Latina. “The LGBT community, we can overcome together.”
She and her fiancee went to Pulse nightclub on their first date and would often go there for Latin Nights. But on the night of the shooting they decided to stay home. Aponte lost her friend, Oscar Aracena-Montero, 26, and knew others who were inside the club when gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 people.
“You wake up to find out the place you go to has been terrorized,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get over this.”
But love and support continue to mount for Orlando as fundraising efforts bring in millions to help the victims. Freshly inked memorial tattoos honoring the lives lost are everywhere, and the city’s buildings light up each night in LGBT colors.
“That to me is the epitome of what Orlando is,” said gay rights activist and Orlando business owner Jason Lambert. “There are haters out there in the peripheral … but in the true sense of downtown Orlando, there isn’t a gay-straight thing. All of my straight friends will go to the gay bars with me. And all of my gay friends will go to the straight bars.”
Lambert, an Ohio native who has become a driving force in Orlando’s LGBT community, immediately joined with other business owners to help his Pulse family. At his bar, The Hammered Lamb, more than 2,000 people turned out last week and helped raise $40,000 that went directly to Pulse employees.
“There are so many organizations and charities and people willing to give. It’s all gay and straight people that have a common cause,” Lambert said as he fought back tears. “There are people in this town that don’t see any kind of barriers between religion, races or sexual orientations.”
Long Island native Kristine Bullis-Lawless, 42, was among those who packed into The Hammered Lamb’s event. For her, the way the community begins to heal is by “always being with each other and going to events like this.”
“It’s been a time of camaraderie to get together with friends and show our support,” said Bullis-Lawless, who is straight and grew up in Smithtown. “Every time we hug each other, we start crying all over again … but the fact that I can hug these people here and now that’s why I am here.”
In a week described by many as “surreal,” Orlando was visited by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Westboro Baptist Church members and media from all over the world.
Army veteran Jared Cruze stood in the breezeway of the popular gay bar and resort Parliament House over the weekend selling purple T-shirts that read “Orlando Strong.”
“The LGBT community doesn’t want to be in the spotlight for this reason,” said Cruz, 49, who is straight. “It’s sad this is what Orlando is going to be known for.”
Cruze works with several alcohol vendors, so he knows many of the bar owners in the Orlando area and wanted to help them. The proceeds from the T-shirts will benefit The Center, an LGBT outreach facility in Orlando that’s been providing assistance to victims and the grieving community.
Last week, more than $400,000 in victim relief donations poured into The Center, along with cases of water, food and $40,000 in gift cards.
New York native Leslie Jampolsky has been volunteering at The Center in Orlando since January. A straight ally to the LGBT community, Jampolsky remembers living in Manhattan in the 1980s when one of her dearest friends, Michael Costello, died of AIDS.
“He opened the world to me,” said Jampolsky, 59. “[His death] was beyond devastating to me.”
So it was only natural that she gravitated back to the LGBT community, where she’s felt comfortable for decades.
“They are confident, loving and generous in all living compasses,” she said. “When people think LGBT, they think sex, but it’s a connection of souls.”
For Joel Morales, an HIV counselor at The Center, the nightclub shooting was extremely personal. It’s a spot he and his friends would go to almost every Saturday night to have a “good time and dance.”
“To know something like this happened in our own backyard, especially targeted to the LGBT community, it’s very difficult … not seeing the familiar faces of my brothers and sisters,” Morales said. “It’s a really hard time for us here in Orlando.”
On Sunday night, a crowd of 50,000 gathered at Lake Eola in the heart of the city’s downtown to remember the victims. Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma was among them, and she offered a message of unity and a call for the city to prevail over evil.
“As a straight ally, I have watched the LGBTQ community work quite hard to earn the rights they deserve, to live freely, to be who they are without judgment,” Poma said. “Now while our whole world is watching, it is our time to show ... that we are one pulse, one nation.”