Pulse Wasn’t About Me. But Covering It Changed Me
Three years ago today, I landed in Orlando, Florida, to cover what was then the deadliest mass shooting in American history. We didn’t know much then, but we knew someone had targeted Pulse, a popular LGBT bar. The next week changed me.
Before I go further into my own story, we must honor the 49 people who died in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016—the Pulse 49. In this country, where gun violence turns a living, breathing person into a hashtag every day, it’s nonetheless important that we say their names. It matters that most of the people killed that morning were young gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer people of color—most of whom were Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and Black.
I’ve been avoiding writing this for three years. My training and conviction as a journalist tells me that I should never become the story. It isn’t about me. And as a cisgender White woman who is queer but can pass for straight when I need to for safety or access, I’ve been hesitant to center my experience in a tragedy that targeted Brown, Latinx, and Black LGBTQ people. I didn’t lose loved ones that day, and it wasn’t my hometown that was shattered and had to come together like never before because of the violent acts of one man. But my time in Orlando—the people I met, the stories people shared with me in English and Spanish, the strength of community, and the voracious media circus—changed how I feel about journalism. It changed the course of my career, and it forever altered my thoughts on “objectivity.”
In June 2016, I was the managing editor of The Advocate, the nation’s oldest LGBT publication. That weekend I was in Philadelphia, where I’d been covering the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference. I awoke to early reports, and after a brief, deadly-serious call with my editor back in Los Angeles, I broke the news to the airline agent who rebooked my L.A. flight to Orlando. I heard her breath catch as I explained the scope of the violence. Friends and chosen family started texting. Checking in, reminding each other how loved we were. Asking if we were safe. Knowing that at 2:00 a.m. Eastern that day, we’d also been at a gay club, blissfully unaware, dancing and drinking and laughing, carefree, proud, and flirtatious.
I touched down in Orlando exactly 12 hours after the shooting stopped. It was above 90 degrees, the air pungent and oppressive with humidity. I remember thinking about the bodies still inside the club as we stood outside among the burgeoning media row. National and international media were already on-site, some on risers, some with tents and private generators. Everyone was jockeying for the best live shot, debating what provided the better visual: the hospital where victims were fighting for their lives; or the club’s marquee, now barricaded behind police tape and temporary fencing with an opaque screen woven through.
We were a team of two, photographer Yannick Delva and I. We met a team of local veterans, riding Trikaroo scooters and offering free water and snacks. They spoke with empathy about the PTSD survivors were likely to endure. One woman, a lesbian who lived in the neighborhood, recounted her own fond memories of Pulse, a beloved and longstanding local institution. She added that the helicopters now buzzing relentlessly overhead reminded her of tours overseas. The Subway sandwich shop next door to Pulse became a de facto media headquarters, with reporters, camera people, and producers guarding their tables and electrical outlets. We found a few familiar faces from GLAAD, who shared their Wi-Fi hotspot with us as we began sending back the first photos and reports.
Slowly, survivors started returning to the scene. As they did, each was swarmed by cameras, wave after wave, always asking the same questions. Reporters demanded they relive the trauma, recount what it felt like to fear for your life, to watch your friends die. I kept hearing the same question: “What was going through your mind when you heard gunshots?” I remember one young man in particular: I watched him repeat a dozen times how he jumped over a back fence when the gunfire began. How his mom didn’t know he’d gone out that night. He was standing in the sun, sweating, exhausted, but the media scrum was relentless.
As queer people, we’ve always had to fight for our humanity, for our survival.
When I got to him, I asked Marcus Godden, then 26, if he had people who could help take care of his heart. I asked what he wanted to tell other LGBTQ people as our community grappled with this massive loss. “As a gay community, we need to stick together and turn this whole situation around,” Godden said. He echoed a message I heard throughout the week: Orlando’s LGBT community isn’t homogenous but most people also weren’t concerned with specific identity labels. “Try to love one another,” Godden continued. “And stop being shady and messy, and love one another.” After our interview, I asked Godden if he wanted a hug. He said yes. He said he was tired, ready to go home. I asked whether he needed a ride; he said yes. So we put him in our rental car, fending off at least three other camera crews who wanted “just one more question.” I told them they could rely on pool coverage, as we used our bodies to shield Godden from the cameras. They followed us back to the car anyway.
To be clear, I don’t think we changed Godden’s life because we offered him cold water and an air-conditioned ride home. I doubt he remembers us, and that’s OK. What we did was human. I believe it was kind. I believe it was right. I realized then—as I do now—that we stepped outside the bounds of strict journalistic “objectivity.” But as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas once told me, “objectivity is a province of people who don’t have to fight to be seen fully.” And in that moment, that week, in the Florida sun, it was all too clear that we as LGBTQ people weren’t just fighting to be seen. We were literally fighting for our lives. We still are. This year alone, at least eight Black transgender women have been murdered in the U.S. This only accounts for the names we know; there are certainly more. Each of those women died from gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, Detroit Police just arrested a man they suspect of a gruesome triple homicide of two gay men and a trans woman.
Being a journalist doesn’t mean we give up our humanity. It doesn’t mean we disconnect from the pain of the people we speak to.
The massacre at Pulse held the grim distinction of most deadly mass shooting in the U.S. for barely a year. #LasVegasStrong replaced #OrlandoStrong in the trending hashtags by October 2017, as another angry man easily bought too many guns and destroyed too many lives. Last weekend, revelers at Capital Pride in Washington, D.C., were sent into a panic when a man allegedly pulled out a gun and caused a panicked stampede. Police say no shots were fired and the gun was fake, but the trauma was real, as The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow explained.
As queer people, we’ve always had to fight for our humanity, for our survival. That’s even more true for people of color, trans and nonbinary folks, and those without citizenship privilege. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, we can’t forget that the reason Pride exists—the reason we’re able to go to rainbow-bedazzled parades, to gather in public with the people we love—is because Black and Latina trans women, sex workers, butch lesbians, and effeminate gay men fought back against police brutality. And the fight to have our full humanity recognized—to truly be safe, proud, and free—very much continues.
I know that I didn’t do everything right during my time in Orlando in the wake of the Pulse massacre. There are moments I wish I could do over. But giving that young man a ride home isn’t one of them. Other moments I’d do exactly the same: I’d raise my fist at the human chain rally drowning out Westboro Baptist Church pickets of funerals for the Pulse 49; WBC’s small group of hatemongers were dwarfed by hundreds of #OrlandoStrong marchers, all joy and resilience and love.
I’d still let myself cry, feel the grief of my community, mourn for all the hearts and dreams and possibilities that were extinguished, as the bells rang 49 times. Because being journalists doesn’t mean we give up our humanity. It doesn’t mean we disconnect from the pain of the people we speak to. Our work—and the noble purpose it aims to serve—suffers when we do.
When the people we speak to, those we mourn, found solace and sanctuary in the same places we did—whether on the dance floor, in a pew, reading the Torah, or kneeling toward Mecca—we can’t afford to shut off our hearts. We have to feel it. We have to say what the loss means to us, to connect with our sources. It makes us better journalists. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
It’s been three years since the massacre at Pulse. Since meaningful gun control seems ever further out of reach, the least we can do to honor all the LGBTQ people gunned down since then is refuse to hide. We can own who we are, who we love, and bring our whole selves to our work—when we’re able, when it’s safe, for those of us who have the privilege to do so. And people like me, who have that privilege, that safety and security: We can be even louder, prouder, and fiercer for all the voices silenced by bullets, by hatred, by bigotry, by religion, and by fear. We exist because our ancestors existed. Never forget: Pride was a riot.
Sunnivie Brydum is the editorial director at YES! An award-winning investigative journalist with a background covering LGBTQ equality, Sunnivie previously led digital coverage at The Advocate, Free Speech TV, and Out Front Colorado. Her writing has appeared in Vox, Religion Dispatches, them., and elsewhere. She has a degree in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and is a co-founder of Historias No Contadas, an annual symposium in Medellín, Colombia that amplifies the stories of LGBTQ people in Latin America. She is based in Seattle, speaks English and Spanish, and is a member of NLGJA, SPJ, and ONA.