Four months after Pulse, Orlando finds joy amid the sorrow 

"We're still here. We're rising together."

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click to enlarge Patty Sheehan - ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett
  • Patty Sheehan

Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan remembers that in the first years she participated in the Orlando Regional Pride parade, some people showed up with paper bags over their heads, fearing they would face repercussions for being gay.

Years later, Sheehan, the first openly gay elected official in Central Florida, has seen Pride parades grow and laws discriminating against LGBTQ people overturned. She's comforted a city during its most horrible days. Four months later, Sheehan says she's still trying to heal and has become a fierce advocate for gun control reforms.

"We can't all expect to get to normal right away," she says. "I still have some insomnia, and sometimes I get triggered by the pain that all these wonderful people are still feeling from the loss of their family members or from their injuries. Just because you weren't in the club doesn't mean it won't affect you."

Still, she's excited about Pride and the opportunity it brings to have some joy again. Back when Pride was a smaller affair, Sheehan says she remembers rolling a pink garbage can down Orange Avenue for people to throw money into to pay for the parade.

"At Pride, we want to see everyone coming together," she says. "There's going to be no fear, and hopefully no violent people will come to try to disrupt it, though we are going to have very good security. This is a community celebration."

Sheehan says since Pulse, she's seen a change in local religious leaders and conservative officials who have since embraced the LGBTQ community.

"Part of me was sad that it took that to make this happen," she says. "When something horrible happens and people have a change of heart, then you know their lives weren't in vain. As horrible as it was that they died and their families will never be able to replace these wonderful, young successful people, they changed hearts."

Sheehan says she's heard some people ask when the community is going to be over what happened on June 12.

"We're never going to be over it," she says. "It's changed us as a city. We're going to keep talking about how these young people were lost to discrimination, homophobia and hatred. I will never forget their faces; I will never forget their families. There's a hole in their hearts that will never go away, and we have to be there for them and survivors.

"There's some things you can't fix, but you can always try to ease their pain, empathize with them and help as much as possible."


click to enlarge Terry DeCarlo - ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett
  • Terry DeCarlo

Terry DeCarlo says his most recent form of therapy has been a 10-minute Will & Grace cast reunion video about the 2016 election. He's watched it eight times since it first went live in September, and the laughter helps keep him OK in the months after the Pulse tragedy.

"When I'm in a funk, like today, I watched it twice," he says. "Comedy is truly the best medicine."

DeCarlo, executive director of the GLBT Center of Central Florida, was one of the first advocates on the scene the morning of June 12. As the days passed, DeCarlo made the Center a safe haven for the community and a place where families and survivors could find help. Before Pulse happened, DeCarlo accepted a job in Miami as the Southeastern regional director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. He was supposed to leave June 24.

"I got so entrenched, so involved with families, with recovery at the Center, that my heart wouldn't let me go," he says. "If I left, I would always be wondering what was happening in Orlando and wanting to be up here to help."

DeCarlo says the city is starting to heal and Pride should help in that respect. The Center is currently raising funds to continue mental health treatment for people affected by the tragedy.

"It's going to a celebration of life, a celebration of the city that is coming back slowly, and of the souls that we lost and for our survivors," he says. "It'll be a good feeling. The last time we've seen the city come together like this, with this many people, we were holding candles and crying. We were mourning those lives, and now we're celebrating those lives."


click to enlarge Tony Marrero - ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett
  • Tony Marrero

Tony Marrero says he's chosen to focus on the good things as he recovers from multiple gunshot wounds to his body and the psychological wounds to his mind.

"A couple weeks ago, I had surgery on my back again," he says. "When I walk long distances, it still hurts. But just keeping positive all the time has helped me out."

Marrero was at Pulse in the early-morning hours of June 12 with his best friend, Luis Vielma, for a night of dancing and fun. Vielma did not make it out of the club, and was one of the 49 people who died. After he was released from the hospital, Marrero appeared on MTV's True Life: We Are Orlando episode, which detailed his recovery. Later, he appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he got to meet his hero, Katy Perry. Marrero says it's been difficult not being able to go back to his regular routine. Before the tragedy, he had two jobs; now, he stays home a lot. Still, the support from his boyfriend and well-wishers online has kept him moving forward.

"It's been tough, but like I say, keeping a positive attitude helps," he says. "The amount of love I've received has been amazing and I thank everybody for that. It was a horrible tragedy, but what I'm trying to do now is make a movement happen with #BeTheLight. I lost my best friend, but I'm going to live for him and the ones who didn't make it."

Marrero says the upcoming Pride parade will be emotional for him, but also beautiful. After Pulse happened, he says he felt like Orlando formed a wall protecting the LGBTQ community from harm. People hurt by the event were taking care of them, like babies, Marrero says.

"As long as we always remember those who passed away, there shouldn't be any issue," he says. "We should focus on how we're going to make them happy by living for them in a positive way. We don't have to wait for a tragedy to hit for the community to be united. We're still here. We're rising together. We're not going to give up."

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