ORLANDO — Managers of gay bars in Orlando face a dilemma in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting: the question of whether to close their doors out of respect or stay open to provide comfort. The LGBT community has called the city’s clubs its safe havens and centers for solidarity — something it sorely needs right now.
Leigh Stern, 36, the operations manager at Woodstock, who is grieving the loss of many friends, said his bar has been closed out of respect for the victims of the Sunday morning massacre, which left 49 dead and dozens more injured.
“It has hit us pretty hard. I myself have lost eight friends in the melee,” he said. “Every time I check my phone or turn on my TV or do something, I just want to shut it off. It’s everywhere right now. It’s everywhere you go.”
A native of Orlando, Stern graduated from Boone High School, a short drive from Woodstock, and would regularly hang out at Pulse when he wasn’t working. He said many Pulse employees would visit Woodstock on their nights off.
The staff at Woodstock has felt the death of dancer Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35, acutely. He used to perform at their bar.
“He was amazing, one of the sweetest persons you would ever meet in your life. Would always help anybody,” Stern said.
Stern said the show of support for LGBT people in Orlando on the national and local levels has been unlike anything he’s seen before in the aftermath of an act of violence against the community.
Straight allies like President Obama and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer have spoken passionately and publicly in support of the gay community. Orlando’s sports teams — the NBA’s Magic, the men’s and women’s pro soccer teams and local hockey team and arena football — are selling #OrlandoUnited T-shirts emblazoned with rainbow hearts.
That said, Stern said he also hopes the Pulse tragedy will be remembered as more than something that happened to the LGBT community, or something that happened to the city of Orlando. He hopes it will help push the campaign for stricter laws limiting access to guns.
“I never lived through the Stonewall riots but I grew up with that story. For the kids nowadays, this is going to be their Stonewall,” Stern said. “And I don’t want to take that from Stonewall because Stonewall was for gay rights and was a completely different story. But, in retrospect, this will be the new Stonewall for the younger generation.”
Just next door to Woodstock, another popular gay bar and hotel in Orlando, the Parliament House, was open for business. Patrons were enjoying drinks and catching up as they usually would, but many of the conversations have been a bit more serious, a bit more somber.
Tim Evanicki, the entertainment manager at Parliament House, said the bar has been in Orlando for 41 years and has always been open at times of crisis for their community — this time is no different.
“It’s sort of a cornerstone and a meeting place in the community for people to come be with their friends, other members of the LGBT community, to celebrate, to be a shoulder to cry on,” Evanicki said.
A few old-timers have said that the bar filled up after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 because people just wanted to be somewhere they knew was comfortable and safe.
On Sunday, after hearing of the tragedy, the management at Parliament House was not sure what to do, but the staff knew they wouldn’t close. They hosted a small vigil on Sunday night but stopped advertising after the City of Orlando asked that people not organize vigils for fear that they might run police resources too thin.
“We literally had a post on Facebook for less than five minutes. We took it down after the city said, ‘No,’ but it was shared so many times within that five minutes that 1,400 people showed up,” Evanicki said.
Parliament House, he said, typically has drag shows from 10 p.m. until midnight on Sundays but they were not sure if that would be appropriate so soon after the tragedy. They were going to call it off, but their customers insisted that the show go on.
“The queens got ready, and it was a very powerful, emotional show that people just wanted that sense of normalcy. So that’s what we’re here to do,” he said.
Parliament House waved its admission fee on Tuesday and asked for donations at the door for victims of the tragedy. The club plans to have another fundraiser on Thursday for a “Unidos” (United) Latin night, which holds special significance because Pulse was throwing a Latin night during the attack. They are also planning a big benefit concert called “Unbreakable” for June 25.
Starting this weekend, he said, they will open a “Pulse bar” in their courtyard where 100 percent of the proceeds will go to Pulse employees.
“We’re offering to the Pulse bartenders — if they would like to and they are ready to — they can come out and work that bar as well, because those employees are certainly going to suffer,” Evanicki said. “They are going to be out of work for some time.”
Parliament House also blocked off two hotel rooms where they are offering counseling services.
Evanicki said Parliament House is doing everything it can to make sure people feel safe. They already work closely with the Orlando Police Department and have security guards and strict safety guidelines, he said.
Safety is a major concern all around. A bartender at the Stonewall Orlando, which is staying open, just a three-minute drive from Parliament House, said he keeps eyeing the parking lot. He said his heart skipped a beat when someone walked in with a long black bag that looked like it could fit a rifle — it was a guitar case.
Another gay bar in Orlando, Southern Nights, was not open for business on Tuesday. There was a note on the bar’s door saying it’s “still too soon to open the doors after the horrific attack to our LGBT community” but that Southern Nights will hold a benefit for Pulse on Wednesday night.
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