I arrived in Orlando on Tuesday morning, two days after the shooting. All of the mental health counselors and social workers started at the Unitarian church just outside of downtown. We had counseling rooms set up throughout the building, and a small sign that said “crisis counseling” perched on the front lawn. We waited for people to come to us, but they weren’t coming, and we quickly realized that we needed to go to them.
Very rapidly, and almost without second thought, the concept of crisis counseling radically changed. It was no longer confined to a private room with a couch, it was everywhere. We dispatched throughout the city, heading to the places where we knew we would find people in pain ― the vigils, funerals, restaurants, and night clubs. We even talked to survivors on Grindr, Scruff, and Facebook.
I set up a makeshift office in a motel room attached to Parliament, the other large gay club in Orlando. The patrons were hesitant at first, but slowly, they started coming in.
I heard an LGBTQ community and a Latino community calling out in anger and grief, but refusing to be torn apart or silenced. I listened as a religious community wondered how and why God could let this happen. They all talked about Pulse with a love that I can hardly communicate. It was a place where people could be completely themselves, they said. Where they came into their gay identities, and where they made the decision to come out. It was an establishment that welcomed everybody without question, where you could walk in by yourself and make a hundred friends by the end of the night. A safe space where you could close your eyes and dance.
In all of my conversations with the survivors, I couldn’t help but notice one consistent theme: Almost everyone I talked to identified as LGBTQ, and if there was time, I asked them about their experience of coming out. Unfortunately, most of them had stories of intolerant, religious families, and rejection. A small minority had stories of being accepted and loved from the moment they came out.
The few people that I talked to who were accepted from a young age were coping with this tragedy beautifully. Though devastated, they were reaching out to others, letting the negative emotions in, sharing them, and working through them. They had inspiring perspectives about accepting grief and using it to bring their community closer together, and living more fully for the loved ones they had lost. They hardly needed me.
The ones who were rejected by their loved ones, on the other hand, were collapsing. They didn’t know how to reach out to others or be vulnerable. They had much more trouble sharing their feelings and accepting support, their shock lasted longer, and they thought that they were going crazy. Early rejection had made them believe that no one could be trusted, and that they had to take care of themselves, but the emotions were too intense and they no longer could. Fortunately, it was with those people that I feel like I was able to really help, simply by being there for them, by listening, and by telling them that they were okay. The things that people should have been doing their whole lives, but hadn’t.
My experience in Orlando made one thing very clear to me: With all the progress that the gay rights movement has made in recent years, the focus needs to go back to the source. The moment when LGBT individuals decide to come out, or not come out, and the acceptance or rejection that they receive around their gay identity in their adolescent years, is pivotal to their emotional development and their ability to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
Yes, the right to marry was a huge step for our community, but how can we form healthy relationships if we can’t cope with negative emotions or share our pain? And yes, it’s about time we’re able to serve openly in the military, but how can we be effective soldiers if we can’t endure trauma and loss? This horrible shooting and its aftermath demonstrate that nothing is more important than the acceptance and safety of the younger members of our community during their most vulnerable period.