Jarvis Duran with Victor Guanchez, a friend and survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

photo: Jarvis Duran

Jarvis Duran didn’t know it at the time, but about three months ago he had a brush with death. Duran, 32 and a Cuban-American gay man, was with his best friend at Pulse when he felt someone staring from behind. He approached the watcher and addressed him flirtatiously, a normal ritual at any nightspot with flowing alcohol. Duran touched the man’s chest and said, “You look Middle Eastern.” The watcher got upset and said, “That’s what’s wrong with you Americans” before telling Duran that he had a gun. “I’ll shoot you,” Duran recalls hearing. Duran told the man he would lick the gun. He admits that he was intoxicated during the interaction. “I was being obnoxious.” Duran’s friend, who saw the stranger take out a knife, pulled Duran away. “It was a five minute encounter. I didn’t realize my life was in danger,” Duran says, now fully aware that his interlocutor was Omar Mateen, the man who, on Sunday, June 12, killed 49 most Latino LGBTQ revelers at Pulse and sent another several dozen to the hospital.

Duran, an event coordinator, got lucky again. He was supposed to be at Pulse on the night of the massacre, but instead traveled to Atlanta by himself — “I've never done that, I never travel by myself” — to a party six hours from his home in Orlando. His night came to a crashing halt when he finally answered the incessant calls from a 407 area code. He learned about the shooting at Pulse, and immediately began the long drive back to Orlando, trying to contact friends via phone calls, text, and Facebook to make sure that they were alive. 

Today, Duran, like so many members of Orlando’s LGBTQ community, spends his days trying to help the victims and their families of the worst mass shooting in the United States to date. Duran lost two friends and he visits the hospital regularly to check on his seven surviving friends who were at the club that night. He made care packages for them, set up two accounts to raise funds for them (here and here), and is currently trying to get LGBTQ performers to visit the hospital to lift spirits. Duran says that when he goes to the hospital, he ends up in many rooms on different floors. “I tell them, ‘I love you. You have to fight. You have to get through this,’” he says. “Each room is a different story.”

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“It’s been so positive, almost overwhelming to see all of the support,” says Heather Wilkie, director of Zebra Coalition, which serves LGBT youth in Orlando. “It’s a beautiful thing. That’s what gives us hope. That’s what helps us get through this.” Zebra Coalition is an organization that with 26 official partners serves youth — even those who don’t identify as LGBT — ages 13 to 24, in multiple capacities, sometimes just offering them a safe space. Wilkie’s team of five was strengthened by an outpouring of support, including hundreds of mental health counselors after the Pulse massacre. Compared to the week before, Zebra Coalition has seen a 40 percent increase in requests for counseling. Even Duran, who was in a completely different city and state at the time of the shooting, says he has anxiety attacks when he hears police sirens.

Wilkie says that the LGBTQ community is moving into a stage in which the trauma is setting in, when the sense of fight or flight is replaced by feelings of vulnerability. She anticipates an ongoing, perhaps increasing, need for services like counseling. The LGBT community is a fragile community, Wilkie says.

“When something like this happens, it just heightens everything,” including “shame and fear that was already in existence.”
Some youth, she says, are scared to go to Zebra Coalition. So Wilkie hired security guards and a team to teach self-defense. Requests for help keep coming, “safety and security being the main themes.” Zebra Coalition added a new phone number, Wilkie says, as the calls coming in after the shooting “overwhelmed our infrastructure for sure.”

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photo: Getty

Through its GoFundMe page, Equality Florida has raised nearly $6 million for the victims and their families. Another group of organizations, including Zebra Coalition, has raised nearly a $500,000 and even the Mayor’s Office in Orlando has set up a webpage to raise funds for the Pulse victims and their families.

Pulse nightclub remains a crime scene. Its employees, those lucky enough to not be in the hospital, are out of work. Parliament House, another Orlando nightspot, is showing some love by throwing a benefit concert on July 9 to raise funds for Pulse. Pulse itself is also raising funds for its employees. “All money goes directly to the Pulse employees to assist with their daily needs while they are out of work,” the club’s website says.

Sara Brady, spokesperson for Pulse, says it is still impossible to know when the nightclub will be able to reopen. "The building is still under the possession and authority of law enforcement,” she says. “The owner doesn’t know the extent of the damage.” Nonetheless, Brady says, “The club owner and staff are overwhelmed by the love shown by this community, also from everyone around the country and world.” She adds,

“The gay community has always been pretty cohesive and united. It’s the straight community that has really come together that is lovely to see, now arm-and-arm with the gay community and the Latino community.”

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photo: Getty

Duran’s inner activist has been ignited. He says he wants to fight for legislation for metal detectors at nightclubs, gun control to help prevent further attacks, and the right for gay men to be able to donate blood. He says he doesn’t feel comfortable or safe enough to go out at the moment. “I can be flamboyant at times. That’s who I am,” he says. “I don’t feel like being myself. I feel like acting like something I’m not just to not bring attention to myself. I’m scared. We've been targeted.”

Wilkie says she hopes the help keeps coming. “Right now we are overwhelmed with the response. We’re feeling the love from the organizations and national resources,” she says. “In six months from now, where are we going to be? We’re still going to have the trauma. If anything, we’ll probably have more. It’s important to focus on the youth, how they will feel about themselves long-term.”

For now, Orlando’s LGBT community is united, and feeling the love from straight allies the world over. Pulse’s Brady says,

“Everyone from all walks of life have come together to show support for the victims and employees who survived, who are struggling, for this entire community that was rocked to its core by that horrific event.”