by Chuck Colbert
The shooting at Orlando’s Pulse, an LGBT nightclub, was the largest mass murder in modern U.S. history. A lone gunman, for whatever reason, went on a rampage, killing 49 people and leaving 53 wounded, mostly Latinos.
As Watermark, an LGBT publication based in Orlando, put it, “Orlando is in mourning.”
“On June 12, we woke up to a world that is different. A world that looks darker and feels more dangerous than it did just one day before,” wrote Jamie Hyman, Watermark’s director of digital media. “We stretched, rolled over and checked our phones. Our eyes widened and we raised our hands to our mouths, shocked and appalled to learn the news: the previous night, a man named Omar Mateen had armed himself and entered Pulse, a gay nightclub located downtown. He opened fire.”
Press Pass Q spoke with and emailed several LGBT journalists on the ground in Orlando and across the state of Florida to get their reaction to the mass shooting.
Steve Rothaus, a gay beat reporter for the Miami Herald, offered his perspective over the telephone.
“I happened to be awake at 5 a.m., got up, and checked my computer,” he said. “I saw that people on Facebook were exchanging messages about this shooting. I looked, and it was an Orlando gay bar. I knew nothing about casualties, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Once I was online, I started to hear from people who had contacts in law enforcement, and they began to tell me this was really going to be bad. The police in Orlando knew it was going to be really bad.
“We were hearing casualties like 20 to 25 people. No one dreamed it would be as many casualties as it was. I just went into action. I put a message on my Facebook wall. Once I got the name of the place, I asked anyone [who] had been to Pulse to contact me directly. I began to hear from people and friends who had worked there.
“Then I heard of a person who had been in the club who posted a first-hand account on Facebook. I contacted him and spoke with him directly. By 10 a.m., I had my story online.”
Press Pass Q also spoke with a local resident, Paul Peterzell, who has lived in Orlando since 1977.
“I am astonished that something this horrific could happen to my beloved city,” he said over the telephone. “People come to this city for many joyous reasons and not to be faced with unthinkable tragedy. The tragedy is sad and upsetting.”
Michael K. Lavers and Kevin Naff of the Washington Blade were both on the ground in Orlando.
For Lavers, the Blade’s international editor, “The most important thing for me here in Orlando is to share the stories of those who lost their lives in this senseless tragedy and to humanize them as best as I possibly can in my coverage. It is also important to show how the Pulse Nightclub massacre has impacted the local community — and show how it has come together to support each other and to stand in defiance of the gunman who shattered their city. I have seen a lot of bad things as a journalist throughout my career, but there is nothing that can possibly prepare you for covering the worst mass shooting in U.S. history from the city in which it happened. The fact that this gunman targeted members of the LGBT community makes it even that much worse.”
Lavers has found it difficult not to become emotionally affected by the tragedy. “There are times when I think that I’m okay, and then something unexpectedly triggers my emotions and all I can do is take a moment and allow them to come out. I have a 5-year-old nephew in New Hampshire who I absolutely adore, and seeing parents bring their young children who are around his age to memorials here in Orlando is usually the thing that brings me to tears. You take a few moments to cry — and even sob as I have done on a couple of occasions — and then you go back and try to do the best you can to cover the story.”
Lavers said he has been particularly affected by the story of Alejandro Barrios Martínez, a 21-year-old Cuban national who was killed inside Pulse. “He left Cuba in 2014, and his mother had not seen him since,” said Lavers. “The news that the U.S. granted her a visa to travel to Orlando to attend his funeral nearly brought me to tears. It was also a bright spot in what has been a very dark week here in what was once known as the Happiest Place on Earth.”
Lavers was part of President Obama’s press pool. He reported on Obama’s remarks at a makeshift memorial: “Obama called the massacre at Pulse as ‘an attack on the LGBT community.’”
Blade Editor Naff noted that it was important for his newspaper to have reporters in Orlando. “As mainstream media so often ignore or underreport the LGBT angles to our stories, I thought it was important for us to be here on the ground, talking to our own community and telling our own stories. The LGBT community in Orlando has displayed an uncommon dignity and strength this week, suppressing their tears while working hard to raise money for victims, collect donations and deliver supplies to overburdened crisis centers and blood donation facilities, to fly grief-stricken family members to town for funerals and more. It’s humbling to be here and the attack on one of our physical spaces, the Pulse, reminds us of the importance of helping our own, and writing about our own.”
Jason Parsley, associate publisher at Ft. Lauderdale-based South Florida Gay News, offered his perspective.
“I’m attempting to cover it locally as best we can. Nationally, there are many news outlets that are going to turn over every stone. There is so much happening at once that it’s difficult to capture everything but we’re going to do our best,” said Parsley. “There are really no words to fully describe a tragedy like this. Heartbroken is really the best I can do. We have lots of vigils going on down here so that’s the bulk of our local coverage right now. It’s devastated the LGBT community down here. Everyone is heartbroken. Orlando is just around the corner from us and this atrocity could have very well taken place down here.”
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), and the National Gay Media Association (NGMA) all issued statements.
GLAAD president and chief executive officer Sarah Kate Ellis said, in a statement, “This atrocity was an attack on the LGBT community, it was an attack on our country, and it was an attack on the core American values of equality and freedom for everyone. Whether the gunman’s homophobia spurred from hatred of others or hatred of himself, this is homophobia all the same. And it’s sadly just the latest example of homophobia turning to horrific violence, just as it has for decades.”
For its part, NLGJA offered tips for journalists covering the Pulse massacre:
“Don’t assume someone’s sexual orientation. If it’s germane to the story (likely, in covering the Orlando shooting), ask how the person identifies.
“Don’t assume someone’s gender identity. If it’s germane to the story (possibly, in covering the Orlando shooting), ask how the person identifies.
“Don’t use ‘gay’ to include lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It’s OK to use ‘gay’ in headlines for space, but make sure to explain it further in the story.
“Don’t use ‘homosexual’ unless it’s in a medical context. Use gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or whatever term the person uses to self-identify.”
And the National Gay Media Association (NGMA) said its members were “stunned at the mass shooting.”
“Our hearts go out to the entire Orlando community,” said Leo Cusimano, publisher of the Dallas Voice and president of NGMA. “We lend our support to the community of Orlando, and the LGBTQ community nationally, as we all cope with the incredible sadness and anger this tragedy has caused.”
“Individuals in the LGBTQ community have been targeted for violence frequently over the years, but nothing on this scale,” said Tracy Baim, spokesperson for NGMA and publisher of Chicago’s Windy City Times. “We want to encourage the community to show their support by donating to the victims at https://www.gofundme.com/2942a444.
We also send our support to our member paper Watermark during this difficult time for their community.”
NGMA, a membership organization of 12 of the country’s top regional LGBT media, works to help member newspapers. Orlando’s Watermark newspaper joined NGMA in 2015 (http://www.nationalgaymediaassociation.com).
Finally, Cathy Renna, managing partner at Target Cue, a public relations and strategic communications firm, said over the telephone, “It’s interesting as we see mainstream media become more sophisticated, LGBT media is challenged. In this case there are several issues that LGBT media were quicker to include and were part of the conversation, particularly that this was an LGBT Latino venue.”
Renna added, “This was about our community. It was so devastating, so overwhelming for all of us. We all felt it. I don’t think that came across as much in mainstream media.”