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What's Changed Since The Pulse Nightclub Shooting

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Like many cities, Orlando is adorned with rainbow flags and banners and lighting this June in a celebration of Pride Month, a month that recognizes the contributions of LGBTQ Americans to the history and life of this country. But this week, the city is also memorializing a tragedy.

Five years ago today, a gunman opened fire in Pulse nightclub, a gay club in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50. It remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. It's also the deadliest attack on a group of LGBTQ people. We have a remembrance this hour along with additional coverage on this network. But we wanted to start by asking if June 12, 2016, brought about change in any way.

We called two leaders in Orlando's LGBTQ community for their thoughts about this. Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith is a member of the Florida House of Representatives from Orlando. He was elected in 2016 after the shooting and was the first openly LGBTQ Latinx lawmaker in Florida. He's with us now. Representative Smith, thanks for being with us.

CARLOS GUILLERMO SMITH: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: We also have with us George A. Wallace. He is executive director of LGBT+ Center Orlando. It's a long-established community center with LGBT-specific services. Mr. Wallace, thank you so much for joining us as well.

GEORGE A WALLACE: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Representative Smith, if I could start with you, I understand you'd been to Pulse many times. And the night of the shooting was Latin night, and many of the victims were Latinx and other people of color. So I just wanted to start by asking, if you don't mind - like, what does this day bring up for you?

SMITH: Well, it certainly brings up a lot of emotions and a lot of painful memories about this terrible tragedy five years ago that killed 49 mostly LGBTQ people of color. You said it in your intro. It was Latin night at Pulse when this mass shooting happened. And so there were so many individuals from the Hispanic and Latinx community who were directly impacted, who were killed. Half of those victims who were Hispanic were Puerto Rican. So there were so many communities that were really, really devastated by this. And five years later, I think it is important to reflect on what's changed and what work we still have to do on so many fronts.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Wallace, I just wanted to - could you just broaden it out a little bit? And so what about the last five years? Has there been kind of a shape to that period for you that you could tell us about?

WALLACE: Five years ago, the city of Orlando shined bright following the tragedy. And we are a resilient community. There was an outpouring of love, not just here locally but from around the world. And I always preface pre-Pulse and post-Pulse because we are living in a different world. And five years later, we're still healing. And in five years, we will still be healing. This is not something that just stopped.

MARTIN: And Representative Smith, you were already running for your seat in the Statehouse when the shooting happened. Did this change the way you thought about your campaign or what you were running for?

SMITH: It really solidified, you know, my commitment to advocating for fair and equal treatment of LGBTQ people and really committing to the issue of gun violence prevention. After Pulse, we certainly saw more love and acceptance for LGBTQ people here in Orlando. But then after his election, former President Trump banned transgender Americans from serving in the military. He rolled back a number of protections until last summer, the Supreme Court affirmed LGBTQ people are protected under the Civil Rights Act from discrimination in the workplace.

So there's steps forward, and now we're seeing backlash. Our governor just recently signed a bill banning trans students from playing in school sports. He vetoed critical funding for Pulse survivors. And the only way to ensure the pendulum swings back is to tell our stories, to be our authentic selves and to fight like hell.

MARTIN: George, what about you? And I want to go back to the funding that you mentioned, that earlier this month, Governor DeSantis vetoed - what was it? - a $150,000?

WALLACE: Yes, it was $150,000. And it was earmarked for mental health counseling and case management.

MARTIN: Well, how do you see what happened there? And how did you and other activists and civic leaders cope with that?

WALLACE: So I a hundred percent agree with Carlos. I saw it as an attack on our community. We asked him - why did you do this? And he said that he did not approve the funding because we don't have a statewide impact, but we're serving people from all over the state.

MARTIN: I know it's kind of hard to sum these things up and kind of give a state of things, but how would you describe kind of the state of things? Do you think that would happened at Pulse has kind of - what difference do you think it's made in your lives and in the lives of your community, you know, however you define it? So, George, do you want to start?

WALLACE: It's hard. This is a hard week. And I just have to say that Orlando is such a resilient community. And I am thankful for the love and outpouring that the entire community, the state and the world is showing the LGBTQ brown and Black community here in Orlando.

MARTIN: And what about you, Representative Smith?

SMITH: Well, I can tell you what I've seen here on the ground in Orlando. Not only have we seen stronger solidarity with other minority communities after the attack at Pulse - you know, LGBTQ communities, Black Lives Matter, Boricuas, Muslims all working together to disarm hatred and bigotry - but we've also seen so many new queer Latinx activists, people of color who are emerging from the Pulse tragedy as powerful community leaders in their own accord. And I wouldn't even say that they're the future of the movement. They are the right now.

MARTIN: That was Orlando Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith. He was elected in 2016 after the shooting at Pulse nightclub. We also heard from George A. Wallace, executive director of LGBT+ Center Orlando. Thank you both so much for sharing some time with us today on this important day.

SMITH: Thank you, Michel.

WALLACE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Given the criticisms that came up in our interview, we thought it appropriate to reach out to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for comment. A spokesperson responded with a statement. It reads, quote, "regarding the counseling program that serves Pulse survivors, that funding has never been dispersed as part of previous budgets," end quote, adding that the governor's most recent budget includes, quote, "an historic increase for community-based mental health services to ensure that all Floridians in need, including LGBTQ Floridians, are able to access vital support and resources," end quote.

Regarding the Fairness in Women's Sports Act, aka the transgender sports ban, the governor's statement says that he is protecting women and girls from, quote, "the unfair treatment and discrimination that others have suffered in states that allow biological males to compete against biological females, unjustly putting outstanding women athletes at a disadvantage," unquote.

The spokesperson added that Governor DeSantis recently signed a proclamation that observes June 12 as the Pulse Remembrance Day in Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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