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From Grand Rapids to Orlando: LGBTQ community and allies stand in solidarity after mass shooting

After the mass shooting that killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, hundreds of people gathered outside the Apartment Lounge in Grand Rapids to tell the world: We will always unite against hate.
As the sun sets this past Sunday, a day that begins with one of the worst mass shootings in the history of the United States, the people of Grand Rapids start to descend upon the streets around the Apartment Lounge. There, outside Michigan’s oldest gay bar, people from all walks of life stand shoulder to shoulder, raising candles towards the darkening night sky and begin to sing.

“There’s a dream in the future,” Jasinya Sanchez, a beloved drag performer in Grand Rapids, belts out, the words to “I Know Where I’ve Been” filling a space where hundreds of people from Grand Rapids’ LGBTQ+ community, and their allies, stand, swaying to the acapella rendition of the “Hairspray” tune. “There’s a struggle that we have yet to win. And there’s pride in my heart ‘cause I know where I’m going -- yes I do. And I know where I’ve been.”

It is a moment of both strength and heartbreak at a time that should have been a day of celebration for the LGBTQ community around the nation, with Pride parades and other Pride Month events organized across the country where, almost exactly one year ago, marriage equality became a reality.

Instead, it became a day of mourning after a gunman, armed with an assault style rifle, shot and killed 49 individuals, many of them gay, lesbian and transgender people of color, during a Latin-themed night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Another 53 people were wounded in the attack that happened in a space that was supposed to be safe -- safe for an LGBTQ community that has, for far too long, been subjected to constant violence and harassment, safe for people to be who they are, safe for anyone, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation or race, to dance and laugh and raise their glass with friends.

In cities around the globe, from Grand Rapids to New York to London, LGBTQ communities, and their allies, gathered to mourn the victims, who ranged in age from 18 to 50 and included avid travelers and talented dancers and recent graduates -- individuals who family members described as the best people, the greatest daughters and sons and parents and friends.

“When I woke up Sunday morning and saw everything that was going on, I called my manager right away and said, ‘We need to put together a vigil tonight and show the world that Grand Rapids cares, and that we support our community -- not just here, but across the world,” says Bob Johnson, the owner of the Apartment Lounge.

And show they did. Hundreds of people flooded the downtown streets, which Johnson notes the Grand Rapids Police Department immediately agreed to shut down to cars and patrol during the event, for the candlelit vigil, which included hugs, tears, impromptu singing, and many a story from residents who spoke of the importance of the Grand Rapids LGBTQ community in their lives. They spoke of coming out, of finding strength among their peers, of feeling scared and vulnerable and angry after the shooting. They cried and hugged and wiped tears from others’ faces. They spoke of strength, of support, of pride. Gently, they placed candles around a rainbow flag, upon which hand-drawn signs read: “Remember our Pulse” and “Love wins.” And, thanks to the vigil, Johnson was able to donate $2,200 that was raised to a fund set up for victims in Orlando.

Following Sunday’s powerful event, Rapid Growth asked individuals from the LGBTQ+ community for their thoughts on the importance of Grand Rapids’ LGBTQ+ community, as well as on the Orlando shooting and the vigil. Below are the incredibly heartfelt and important responses we received. We’d love to hear your thoughts as well; please feel free to share your own feelings on these events in the comments below.

Bob Johnson, owner of the Apartment Lounge

[The vigil] restored my faith in humanity. I can’t believe in today’s world this, this shooting, can still happen. When it happened, it made me sick to my stomach. I called Rumors [Night Club] right away and the Pride Center right away and told them we organized this vigil. Rumors closed for an hour and a half to bring their people over, and the Pride Center was there. It was important to me that we unified our entire community. It was an important thing to show the people who live here we’re all united.

It’s empowering, but we have to remember we can’t let it cripple us and make us afraid. We have to let it empower us; we are trying to change things. We still have a ways to go, but when I saw the outpouring of emotion and support last night, it was amazing.

Our community is very supportive of everyone. We have the downtown ambassador program that the city started that helps to make sure people are safe; the police department didn’t bat an eye about closing down the street and sending patrols [for the vigil], and they’ve agreed to step up patrols at Pride this weekend and at our event on sunday. They’re making it a better place. I’m very, very impressed that our city is supportive and takes security very seriously. We had support from Mayor George Heartwell and now Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. She sent a letter to the city of Orlando that was amazing.

We’ve got an amazing network of support here. I want to show the world that a community can come together and make a difference as a whole.

Mike Hemmingsen, board president at the Grand Rapids Pride Center

The community -- the community as a whole, the entire Grand Rapids community -- needs to understand the value that the LGBTQ individuals bring to our community from the perspective of cultural differences, support in the economy, and just overall a better understanding and openness to anyone who isn’t quote-unquote the norm. At the vigil, I heard several stories about individuals who’d just come out and how real and difficult it still is to go through that process, even with marriage equality, which demonstrates the need for us to continue the advocacy work that we’re doing.

[This weekend’s Pride] is going to be a true testament as to where our community stands from an ally perspective. If there ever was a time to come out and demonstrate the support for the LGBT community, Saturday, June 18 is it. And, we’ll be giving a dollar for each ticket sold for the concert to the victims of Orlando.

We have hundreds of LGBTQ youth who are homeless and at-risk each year. We still have kids and young adults that face tragedy on a regular basis. When you come out and buy a ticket, no only are you giving to Orlando victims, but you’re supporting our youth. The money raised goes to programs and groups we host on a weekly basis to support the LGBT community. I’m really excited to see our community demonstrate their support.

Stand up and protect [LGBTQ residents]. When you see inequality being demonstrated towards an individual or a group, use your voice. Tell people that’s not acceptable. Tell people everyone’s welcome in our community, and be strong about it.

Robb Wiersum, owner of the former Diversions and Pub 43 in Grand Rapids and The Mixx in Saginaw

It’s been awhile since we had our final last calls at Diversions, Pub 43 and The Mixx.

Having owned gay bars for over 21 years, the attack on Saturday night/Sunday morning felt very personal. I opened my bars to create a safe gathering place, a place where we could escape from the prejudices of life. A place where we could gather, have fun, and let our cares melt away. A place where we were free to be who we are. A place to meet and grow our gay families. A place to belong.

Historically, gay bars were one of the first places our community gathered and felt safe. Bars are where we met for social events, political events, fundraisers and so much more. Gay bars were a place where we organized for social justice and LGBT rights. The Stonewall Inn many consider to be the site of the beginning of our Gay Rights Movement. So much of our community’s history was wrapped around, built upon and inspired by the Gay Bars.

Gay bars made us feel like we were home.

And then, on Sunday morning, our home was invaded and senselessly attacked. While this happened in Orlando, this could have been any bar in any city. I did not know any of those who were injured of any of those who lost their lives, but I feel like this was an attack on my own brothers and sisters in my own gay family. Like all of our community, I am sickened by this.

My heart, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of those affected by this attack.

Where do we go from here? I believe that we have to stay strong, remain defiant and fight to continue to move our community forward. As a community, we have struggled so long and have existed through so much to make it where we are today. Our triumph with gay marriage was huge, but last weekend’s event demonstrates we have so much further to go.

We must continue to talk truth to the demagoguery and vitriolic rhetoric that is being spewed this political season. And this fall we must vote and have our voices heard.

This month is Gay Pride Month, when we gather in many cities in the U.S. and around the world to celebrate our diverse community. So, let’s gather, show our many colors, our pride, and our love.

While we are all different, this is the one time a year that we celebrate that we are also all the same.

We Are Orlando!

Elisa Pérez-Arellano, board member/director of programs at the Grand Rapids Pride Center who is developing initiatives/projects for the Latino LGBTQ+ community

I have no words to describe my feelings about the massacre that happened in Orlando over the weekend. I deeply feel sad and sorry for those families who are suffering for the death of their loved ones because no one deserves to die in such a cruel way. It frightens me to think that tragedies are becoming something “normal” in the United States because it feels like there’s one every month!

However, we cannot continue to ignore that shootings are becoming part of our lives; we have to wake up and do something about it. The Orlando massacre is the result of an intolerant society that does not accept the uniqueness of its individuals. The LGTB+ community can only stay strong if we get support and protection from the whole society.

Graci Harkema, Grand Rapids business leader

I still cry.

I still cry for the victims. For the survivors. For the families. For the friends. For the allies. For the community.
For the hatred. For the alienation. For the insecurity. For the hurt. For the magnitude.

I cry for the morning, realizing this isn't a dream. I cry for the night, knowing their loved ones won't be there.

I still cry.

But in my tears, I stand. I stand with my LGBT community for the voice we all deserve. I stand for equality. I stand for freedom. I stand to fight and not sit on what's right. I stand to speak up. I stand to speak out. I stand for love.

This is our community and together we stand.

Madison Sanchez, drag performer

The gay community of Grand Rapids Michigan means the world to me. As an entertainer, I have been blessed to meet so many people from so many different walks of life that without entertaining I probably would have never met. The love that each and every single person in this community shows on a regular basis is amazing and humbling all at the same time. I have personally never felt more accepted by anyone as much as I do the LGBT community here. It's special, and I love you all for it.

Kennedy Martin, LGBT+ and women’s rights activist

Grand Rapids' LGBT+ community means the world to me, first and foremost; I've never felt a stronger sense of unity than I do with my pride family. Knowing that if at any time I need a shoulder to lean on, I can always count on these beautiful people to see my through my hard times. The undeniable support you get in this amazing community; you just can't get anywhere these days -- they keep me strong.

Simon Kittok, executive director and treasurer at the Grand Rapids Trans Foundation

We in the queer community have been trying to grapple with this heartbreaking and terrifying event in Orlando. Emotions are high. We're all pretty shaken up.  

It was beautiful to see such a large number of the local LGBTQ+ community come out to the vigil to mourn, to remember, to stand in solidarity with those in Orlando. We are family, and I think many of us needed to see each others' faces, to hug and cry together. But I think it's important to mention that I know many queer folks that felt too scared, too shaken up, too emotionally traumatized by the news of the shooting to even leave their houses.  

Yes, we've come a long way, and yes, we've mobilized to create incredible societal change in just a few decades. But at the end of the day, queer folks still know that it's a dangerous world for them to exist in.  Even more dangerous for queer people of color and trans folks. This traumatizing event is just another reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Beau Laine Vansolkema, president of the Grand Rapids Community College’s LGBTQ+ club, StandOut!

This is an unfortunate  reminder that the LGBTQ communities everywhere still have to fear what may happen to them for being who they are. We have done some great things but still have a long ways to go. Same sex marriage was the first to do; now we have the restroom epidemic to hurdle over next. What happened in Orlando can happen anywhere. Hate is everywhere. This is a significant factor when mixed with violence, more specifically a firearm in this case. Fifty lives were lost and another 53 were injured. West Michigan and our strong community will not give up. Our human rights need justice; this battle is just beginning, and, like Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I have a dream.” I have a dream of my own, and that's when all LGBTQ individuals can walk with their heads held high, not living in fear and be who they were born to be.

We also reached out to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who shared this statement with us:

Grand Rapids’ LGBTQ community enriches our city and adds to the inclusive nature of our diverse culture. I am incredibly saddened by this senseless act of violence. There is no place in our society for hatred of any kind. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones. On behalf of the entire Grand Rapids community, I send my deepest condolences to the city of Orlando and all those impacted by this tragedy. May they find peace in the support of our community and knowing they are not alone in their grief.

The Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission too issued a statement of support:

The City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission (CRC) hereby condemns and denounces the repulsive hate crimes committed upon the LGBTQ community and the entire Orlando community.  In 1994, the CRC revised City ordinances to provide protection in employment, housing and public accommodation.  These ordinances include LGBTQ protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, expanding protection to transgender citizens. 

We mourn with the Orlando victims and families. We stand in solidarity with citizens affected by this terrible loss.  Hate and intolerance have no place in our society. The Community Relations Commission will continue to work to ensure the safety and inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  The CRC has a long history of opposing acts that promote hate. It continues to fight to bring equity and inclusion to our City. Hate crimes and bias incidents affect the families and individuals involved. They also impact the entire community. Every individual has a right to feel safe in their own home and community without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, disability, source of lawful income, sexual orientation or gender identity. The Community Relations Commission urges residents to join us in supporting the LGBTQ community.

We encourage our citizens to condemn this.
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