photo: Christopher Reeve

In the early hours of Sunday, June 12, Beeran Pinto, at home on Staten Island, awoke to a news alert about a club shooting in Orlando, Florida. He didn’t pay much attention, and went back to sleep. He woke again several hours later to some 50 missed calls and nearly 75 text and Facebook messages. Pinto’s world might never be the same. He learned that the shooting had occurred at Pulse, a gay club that he frequented when he lived in Orlando. Pinto, 25, further learned that four of his friends had been celebrating Pride month at Pulse’s Latin night when a lone gunman entered the Orlando nightspot and turned what had been a safe space for Latino members of the LGBT community and their allies into a night of hell.

Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old killer who was shot dead by police officers, had been investigated by the FBI twice for Islamic terrorism links. He was still able to legally obtain a handgun and an AR-15, the weapon of choice for U.S. mass shootings. On Sunday morning, he used his newly purchased arms to terrorize a community that has, in the last four decades, fought its way to some acceptance in mainstream U.S. society. Mateen’s father, in an attempt to explain the tragedy, said his son had expressed displeasure after seeing two men kiss in Miami.

Related From Vivala: These Are the Victims of the Orlando Shooting at Pulse

For many LGBT Latinos, the majority of Mateen’s victims, places like Pulse allowed them to be themselves without fear of violence and stigma from a generally conservative culture. They could briefly escape any contempt for differences in sexuality and gender identity. With 50 dead and 53 injured, the massacre at Pulse — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history — was not just another episode of the now common story line of a guy with a gun taking innocent lives in a public space. What happened to the small world of the East Coast Latino LGBT community was the spawn of hate and terror that would kill, maim, and instill fear in a community still trying to find its place in the world.

photo: Christopher Reeve
When it was clear what had happened, Pinto frantically called everyone he could to try to find out if his friends were alive. He posted a desperate message on Facebook, asking for leads and prayers. He checked the Snapchat account of one the two unaccounted for women, “my best friends,” he whispers, then corrects himself. “I don’t think that’s the word. I guess you can call them my sisters.” The final Snapchat upload showed a woman in Pulse’s bathroom with the sound of gunfire in the background. “She looks very scared, not knowing what to do,” Pinto recalls. Then the recording abruptly ends. Pinto broke down in tears at his first attempt to watch the Snapchat clip. A few tries later, he found hope that his friends were okay. “I realized the gun shots, although getting louder, were in the distance.”

Pinto later learned that a male friend who was at Pulse is in stable condition. The other male friend is just out of surgery and in need of another procedure. There is still no word on Pinto’s sisters. The City of Orlando has published the names of some of the victims as they continue to first contact the next of kin. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said this morning they have identified 49 of the 50 deceased.  

Pinto maintains hope that his sisters’ names will appear on the critically injured list, not the deceased one. “Either way, I’m going to grieve — whether they’re okay or not.” Pinto anticipates missing work today, and, after a long day of crying, did not attend the two New York City vigils on Sunday.   

Related From Vivala: 16 Touching Posts on Pulse's Facebook Page

(Right to left: Zulay Velazquez and Susan Little)

photo: Christopher Reeve
Zulay Velazquez and Susan Little are activists with Absolutely Innocent, an organization that fights for the rights of the wrongly convicted. After marching in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, they made their way to Stonewall Inn, where in 1969, New York’s LGBT community finally had had enough police harassment and fought for their right to gather in peace. At the place where the LGBT civil rights movement began, hours after the Pulse massacre, LGBT community members and allies paid their respects to the victims, mostly young Latinos whose singing, dancing, and laughing was too much for one armed and hateful miscreant. “It’s a tragedy that occurred — so many lives taken because of hate,” Velazquez, 37, said. “Lives shouldn’t be taken because of someone’s personal vision on the way life should be.”

Blocks away from Stonewall, the resurgence of fear was a common theme at Union Square, where LGBT community members, in Occupy Wall Street–style, shared their thoughts in tearful memoriam, only occasionally disrupted by call-and-repeat chants of “Act up! Fight back!”

“I stand here tonight with only fear in my heart,” Yasemin Smallens, 18, told a crowd of several dozen. “I see my friends and my family — I see them dead.” For many members of the LGBT community, friends become family. “Today is a loss for the entire community. I am hollow.” 

The incoming freshman at Vassar College then spoke about the feelings of self-hate that LGBT community leaders have been fighting against for decades. Smallens shared her dark thoughts during her last shower. “I wanted to wash this gay off of me,” she said. “I didn’t want to be gay anymore.”

“I’m sick of hiding. We don’t want to have to hide anymore,” Katie Fortunato, 33, said. “I’m feeling so much fear tonight.” She referenced what many of the vigil’s attendees had said: that their friends were too scared to join the event.

Related From Vivala: Here's How You Can Help Victims of the Orlando Shooting

Larissa Archondo, 18, and another incoming freshman at Vassar College, said, “I didn’t know I could be this young and this scared in my life.” She added, “It’s okay for me to be scared because it means I care.”

Hari Ziyad speaks

photo: Christopher Reeve

Everyone present was painfully aware that what happened in Orlando could have and can happen to them. “Yesterday, I was at a club too,” said Hari Ziyad, a 24-year-old writer. “Images of what happened last night were flashing through my head. It could have easily been me.” He said he attended the vigil “to be among people who understood that feeling […] to reconnect with people who are fighting back to be seen and heard. We’ve always done this in times like this — push back, fight back, cry, and scream, 'We’re still alive.'”   

Pinto, still waiting to hear if his sisters are still alive, holds back tears and says he is rethinking his plans for Pride, a month of celebration in the LGBT community. “Maybe I need to go to Florida to attend a funeral, or go to a hospital to make sure someone’s okay.” He recalls going to Pulse, “a safe haven,” especially on Latin night. He knows it could have been him on Sunday. As Orlando releases the names of the victims, the small size of the East Coast Latino LGBT family — from Miami to New York — will become too clear. “Even if it’s someone you don’t know, you can’t help but wonder that you could have met that person since we are a tight community.”

Related From Vivala: Why I Feel Like I’m Constantly “Coming Out”

He says, “It does make me scared. I don’t wish to leave my home. I don’t feel like it’s a safe world to live in anymore.”

At the Union Square vigil, Joey Ramone, 19, a student at Penn State, said he wasn’t going to let the Orlando massacre change his plans. He said he’s ready to rock his new Pride outfit later this month, when New York City hosts one of the largest LGBT parades in the world. He recalls the 50 victims in Orlando. “They’re not dead, ” he said. “They fucking live on through us.” 

Update: After this article was filed, Beeran Pinto learned of the deaths of his two sisters, both heterosexual allies of the LGBT community: Amanda Alvear, 25, and Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26.

From left: Beeran Pinto with Mercedez Marisol Flores

photo: Beeran Pinto

From left: Pinto with Amanda Alvear

photo: Beeran Pinto