Outside of Pulse nightclub are tributes to the victims.

Five years later, the pain of Pulse lingers

Grief swirls as survivors struggle with trauma, while plans for a $45 million museum and memorial take shape.

ORLANDO — Some nights, on his long drive home, he conjures up reasons to see the nightclub again.

It’s past midnight, usually, when he leaves work and pulls off at the Kaley Street exit. He drives past the blue hospital signs, past the dusty warehouse district where a museum is slated to rise. He makes a right turn onto South Orange Avenue, toward the stark black sign.

A temporary wall curves around the club, billboard-high, with a photo montage. This is the story the city tells, of rainbows inked on signs, of bells rung at candlelit vigils, of #OrlandoStrong. Behind the wall, the entryway waterfall runs. Translucent sheets, bolted onto the building, shroud the bullet holes and craters blasted out of the concrete block.

Some who were there that night avoid the intersection, a mile south of Orlando’s steel-and-glass core, where cars whip by the Pro Tint shop and the Dunkin’ next door. They avoid the alleys where they limped and hid and called friends’ phones left on the dance floor. They want nothing to do with the T-shirt kiosk, can’t bear the sun-bleached banners that promise, Siempre te Recordaremos.

But Brian Reagan pulls over and sits in his car.

Long-exposure image of the Pulse night club sign in the twilight with the wall of tributes visible behind the sign.
A temporary memorial wraps around the shuttered nightclub like a shrine.

He thinks about those who were killed, many of whom he knew. He’d been a manager at the club — the first gay bar he ever visited, as an 18-year-old freshman. All-white inside, with martini glasses hanging upside down, it was chic but warm. He found support. He came out. And he brought his parents. His mom handed tips to drag queens and told him, “I know you’re okay.”

He makes his mind turn to better times. That waterfall, for instance — a beauty, and a pain to clean. One night, somebody threw in chlorine tablets, which was brilliant, until a clubgoer fell in and emerged in ruined clothes.

He was wary of reporters, afterward, but wanted to tell the story of the place he knew. As the spotlight intensified, he began to worry fellow survivors might question his intentions. Five years later, he still wants the club’s story told, but knows some resent his support of the $45 million museum and memorial project. And we’re both not wrong, he thinks.

“That divide, my God, even five years later, is getting, a little at a time, stronger and stronger and further apart,” he says. “And I just want people to heal.”

Nearing home, Reagan glances to see if the dive bar near his place has changed its marquee. It stings to see PULSE STRONG, as it hurts to see the 49 names at the mall Starbucks and the rainbows in windows that snap him right back to June 12, 2016. But it would hurt, too, if they were to disappear.

That night and the aftermath

What Pulse became to the world five years ago isn’t what Pulse means here.

It was Latin Night, last call. The Grey Goose was corked, reggaeton bumping. It was neon lights under white lanterns and the “Jewel Box” thick with dancers.

It was a volley of gunshots that, at first, married with the beat. It was a sickening realization. It was Reagan’s Facebook post: Everyone get out of pulse and keep running. It was a breathless sprint, or a hiding spot in a cabinet, or crawling over bodies, or “If you’re alive, raise your hand.” It was a text to a mom: in bathroom. he has us

Later, Orlando officials scrambled, clumsily, to plug gaping holes in aid for Spanish speakers amid fallings-out over money. There was pain on national television and healing in lonely rooms.

Some still believe it was a calculated hate crime, though authorities disagree. It took months for facts to dribble out. The gunman had visited Disney Springs and EVE Orlando that night, apparently put off by visible security at both. At Pulse, after Googling “nightclubs,” he found an unguarded door, then retrieved his rifle. Pacing among bodies, he dialed 911, boasting of Islamic State retribution for U.S. killings in Syria and Iraq. On Facebook, he railed against the West’s “filthy ways.”

Whatever his intent, whatever the rumors, the truth lay in the brutality of his rampage. One third of clubgoers were killed or wounded. Most were LGBTQ and Latino; nearly half of the dead were Puerto Rican. Some were outed, some were undocumented. And an unprepared city was, for a year, crowned with the nightmarish title of the nation’s deadliest mass shooting in the modern era.

We will not let hate win™, reads the memorial wall.

Contention plagues nearly every community in the wake of a massacre. From Aurora’s reopened theater to Newtown’s rebuilt school, the urge to show resilience through symbolism is strong. In Orlando, museum and memorial plans have been underway for years. The story those spaces will tell is still being written.

Healing but haunted

In a small office behind a strip of bánh mì shops, Joél Junior Morales leans over his laptop, silver chain earring dangling. Six weeks until June 12.

“You want to grab people by the hearts, right?” he asks his team. They’d have to craft a strong narrative for Give OUT Day, a chance to ask the world for the help Pulse survivors and families still need.

Wooden blinds dim the glare where Morales sits with a team of case managers. Beyond their door, brown bags line a table, labeled “condoms and lube” and “Narcan.” White noise machines hum outside of closed doors, where walk-ins get free testing for sexually transmitted infections.

Man gestures with fingers splayed out as a woman watches
Joél Junior Morales, 38, asks his team to write a fundraising pitch that captures the needs of Pulse survivors and families. He knows most are still reeling.
Woman gestures with one finger pointing up in the air as a man watches
Gabriella Rodriguez, 35, a case manager with Orlando United Assistance Center and a founder of QLatinx, says, "Healing isn't linear." For her community, there has been "hurt upon hurt."

This outpost of the LGBT+ Center is a sign of how the once-tiny organization has grown. Just this January, it absorbed the Orlando United Assistance Center, created to support those affected by Pulse. Now Morales is director of operations for the first center and runs the Pulse response.

In other words, he is submerged in community need, and perpetually in search of money.

Morales had shared the good news — the Pulse center had its yearly budget approved in Tallahassee.

He’d shared the bad — lawmakers had rejected their attempt at creating a fund for cash aid.

Though he didn’t often vocalize it, Morales felt acutely the homophobia and racism that beset philanthropy. He would feel it again on the second day of Pride month, when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed that yearly budget, a $150,000 line item to fund survivors’ mental health counseling. Morales bawled.

Mass shootings swallow the lives of the living. Into the chasm, Morales went.

He spent 12-hour days at the LGBT+ Center as reporters crammed inside. They had only a handful of employees then and a toilet that barely flushed. He compiled lists of family counselors, talked with food banks, stared down a truckload of donated water. (“Are we in a drought?”) He spent a blurry week at Camping World Stadium, where officials set up kiosks — like a twisted resource fair, he thought. Past the stations for plane tickets, lawyers and funeral arrangements, he sat. Parents and survivors walked down the line like ghosts.

He gave out hugs and gift cards. A mother came, wearing her son’s image. Morales explained victim compensation, but in her grief, she wasn’t getting it. No hay explicación para esto... he said. There was no explaining this. What would his mom have done, in an arena like that, without a word of English? He needed air.

Do what you can now, he told himself, as his caseload grew to 200. He feared that the voices of Latinos were getting lost. Even the pronunciation of victims’ names seemed like an afterthought. Meanwhile, fundraisers gathered tens of millions — and controversy. Should money go to nonprofits, or survivors and families? What was the price of a chest wound, of PTSD, of a child killed?

When the payouts came, Morales watched nervously. Survivors bought houses. They shopped for Christmas decorations, gold chains and fresh suits. Some, feeling invincible, dropped out of counseling and dipped into drugs. Within a month, 20 people on his caseload crashed cars.

“I'm still trying to find resources for psychiatry, which has been really difficult,” says Gabriella Rodriguez, a case manager.

“A huge need,” Morales says, then announces another bit of news. One of their four contracted counselors would be stepping down, effective June 13.

“She's going to be focusing on her private practice, you know, self-care, right? Like all of us, there's a lot going on,” he says.

They would need a new counselor, preferably a woman of color.

“Bilingual,” Rodriguez says.

“Bilingual,” Morales agrees.

A week before the shooting, it had been Gay Days in Orlando. Morales was poolside at the DoubleTree, conducting HIV tests with the center. That night was the last time he went to Pulse.

Morales was good in a crisis, but the crises kept coming. He took midnight calls about overdue phone bills and U-visas. He met with a mother who had moved from the island for her son, only to build him a living room shrine. “Why can’t you help me with my rent?” asked survivors shattered by PTSD. Morales’ best friend had survived but had not let himself learn how many had died. Six months later, Morales went with him to the beach and, slowly, read aloud the names.

The bureaucracy of mass tragedy beat on. State lawmakers clashed over funding. Nonprofits sprouted, merged, wilted. Money that used to flow freely began to get snared in red tape.

Morales gave up P90X and yoga and reached for the bounty of donated cakes and cookies — a habit he’s trying to break. He spent a day taping boxes in the home a victim had shared with his partner. The victim’s family had swept in and claimed all of their child’s belongings. Morales sat in the scraped-out house, the partner bereft.

He has tried to find his own peace. Every day, he takes time to sit on a bean bag and let his thoughts go by. He dreams of working himself out of a job.

“We were in there”

The calls get worse as spring ripens into summer. Those who speak to reporters dread the same tiring questions. Even those who disappear struggle to escape the replays.

The smell of tequila or the tight squeeze of a restroom stall can stir panic. Some feel sick after fireworks, gunpowder on their tongues. Others feel the date approaching in their wounds — shattered arm nerves flaring up. They map routes out of town as if for hurricane season.

Tony Marrero, shot in the back four times, had gone on Ellen to tell viewers that if he was still standing, they could, too. But he grew angry, exhausted by his own positivity. Why had he lived, while his best friend died? “People need to realize that behind that wall, behind those pictures, you know, we were in there.” After a media blitz, he went dark. Now 35, he leans on his fiance and best friend. At Islands of Adventure, he becomes Tigress from Kung Fu Panda, reminding himself of all the things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

Firefighter and first responder Jimmy Reyes, 37, has learned tools for quieting the flashing lights in his mind and the ringing of cell phones in the pockets of people they couldn’t save. He writes down thoughts in an app. He says, “We did our best.”

Ricardo Negrón-Almodovar, 32, keeps himself busy. He’s part of LatinoJustice, the Contigo Fund and Del Ambiente. He advocates for those displaced by Hurricane Maria, for immigrants, for his fellow LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. Latin nights at Pulse used to feel like a little bit of the island. Come summer, he gets homesick.

Amanda Grau became an EMT in Tampa, got married and bought a scooter that makes her feel like a kid again. Her wife knows, when she sees Grau’s face go slack with fear, to say, “Let’s talk.” Her therapist reminds her, “You’re Amanda, before all this.” Now 38, she won a scholarship that will fund her next step in paramedics. The job can be intense. Sometimes, once she’s brought a patient to the hospital, she goes to her truck and breathes for a little bit.

In Philadelphia, 26-year-old Tiara Parker has thrown herself into activism and her makeup career. She hears her cousin Akyra, Pulse’s youngest victim, telling her not to give up. Questions about that night remain. She feels the club owners haven’t been held accountable. “What’s done in the dark always comes to light,” she says. “Own it.”

MJ Wright, 61, did not “lose” her son at Pulse. Jerry was killed. Wright became a practiced advocate for gun restrictions over these last five years, an unspeakable exertion that has left her, and her marriage, depleted. Come June 13, she will recede, she says, like a wave. She will soak up time with her 4-year-old grandson. Baby Jerry has begun to recognize pictures of his namesake. Wright wonders, “How am I going to explain?”

Brandon Wolf, a 32-year-old survivor, has spoken passionately before Congress and on countless stages. But behind the Safe Space book deal and the impeccable suits, the gun-control activism and the push for LGBTQ rights, behind the resentments of some other survivors, there’s the promise he whispered to his friend as he carried Drew’s casket. There’s the flash of raw horror across his face before composing himself again. After years of finding the right words, he can still be stopped short by what can’t be unseen.

The evidence of what happened

The morning the exhibit opens, Pam Schwartz paces the carpeted floors. Everything in here, she has touched. Every faded flag and water-stained note on display, every bit of video looping in the hushed hall.

“Well, the whole exhibition is a highlight,” she says to a local TV reporter. For this year’s Pulse showing at the Orange County Regional History Center downtown, historians have added more about the day itself, behind gray curtains and a sign that warns, This area of the exhibition contains items that may be particularly emotional.

“Because the further we get removed, the less people are going to be familiar with that event,” Schwartz tells him.

A woman wearing a black facemask speaks to a man facing her.
Every object collected has a powerful story, says Pam Schwartz, executive director of the Orange County Regional History Museum. "And it seems selfish of me to want to know them all. But I do."

On this Saturday in late May, the shuffling of a quiet couple mixes with murmurs from the video. Snippets of oral histories play over B-roll of the dance floor awash in spotlights. A Pulse dancer says, “I think it loved me, too.”

Schwartz had moved to Orlando for a job at the history center just a few months before the shooting.

On the news, a mother begged for her son under the whirring of helicopters. “They said there’s a lot of dead bodies in the club,” the woman said, beginning to cry. Schwartz thought, What is her story going to be?

She sketched a plan as clips flashed by, to bottle history as it was happening. With the legal all-clear, she and her team knelt at the memorials, skin tacky from the heat, and began.

From vigils at Lake Eola to the sidewalk by the emergency room, they looked for posters beginning to fade and teddy bears water-logged from summer showers. They picked up glass from kicked-over candles and scraped wax off pavement. Vases filled with stagnant water, they emptied. Some tributes made them laugh, and others just hurt, until reading anything at all got too hard.

Night view of a large lake with reflections of a city skyline and illuminated fountain on the far side.
Part of the Orlando skyline as seen from Lake Eola.

Schwartz, now the center’s executive director, is bracing herself for the private showing for those closest to the tragedy. How will they respond, behind that gray curtain? There, the bashed-in tailgate of a black Ford F-150 hangs in pieces. The pickup made a dozen trips to the hospital with the injured piled into the truck bed, buckling under their weight.

After biohazard crews cleared the club, Schwartz had gone inside with owner Barbara Poma.

Disco balls shone above the gutted floors. Couches were gone, and the white lanterns, too. Poma tried to tell Schwartz what it had looked like before. Schwartz took photos, dimensions. What would capture Pulse, from safe space to massacre?

“None of you have to go,” Schwartz told the staff.

Of those who went, a few got sick in the parking lot. Smells lingered. Certain corners brought flashes of what had been. But the club had already suffered break-ins, and they couldn't risk waiting.

Schwartz and an employee spent two and a half hours in the bathroom where hostages were held, gluing every tiny bullet-hole fracture in the door’s frosted glass. She told herself: My job is to cut out that piece of ceramic wall without breaking it. My job is to take down the beaded curtains. My job is to save the door.

In a mirrored dressing room, she lay under a sink half-torn from its mount. Above it, the sky gaped through a hole. Eight people had hid here, pulled down an air conditioner, then climbed on the sink and crawled out.

Schwartz saw smears of mascara. She found makeup brushes. Work, work, work, she thought.

It was different, sifting through history’s ruins, when the tomb was so new.

“How are you doing it?” a curator from Dallas asked, catching Schwartz on the office phone. The woman went on: People are mad. But I just — I want to make sure that people understand what happened here.

Schwartz realized the woman was talking about a mass shooting in Texas.

“Do you want me to share what we did?” Schwartz said.

After Vegas, she wrote an email. “Condolences,” she said. “You’re probably not thinking about this yet but in our experience this is what’s headed your way.” Schwartz sent emails to Parkland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Boulder and Boulder again. She thinks about how a “forensic curator” isn’t a thing. But it should be.

Many of the 12,500 pieces may never leave storage, but Schwartz takes comfort in the evidence. She has not dealt with what gathering them took from her, but there is the fact of 230 oral histories, and the fact of that door, and the fact of that Ford.

The museum and the mission

In the shadow of Interstate 4 lies a former meatpacking warehouse, part of the industrial region Orlando is rebranding into the slick SoDo district.

This is where a spiraling, open-air museum is anticipated, with a rooftop promenade offering views of the memorial site a few blocks away.

There, the club will stand, sealed, with a walkway cut through it. A reflecting pool’s basin will gleam in 49 colors, by a garden with 49 trees. In contrast to the museum, the memorial will be free, and always open.

Downtown, in a yellow Victorian with white trim, all the plans are taking shape. The perpetual beeping of construction seeps in through the windows of the onePULSE Foundation, created to “ensure that Pulse’s legacy of love, acceptance and hope will never be lost.”

Forty-nine angels “found hatred” at Pulse, the foundation website says, “murdered simply because they chose to be themselves.”

Barbara Poma’s kids grew up drinking Shirley Temples and playing hide-and-seek in the club’s dim corners. She brought them on Wednesdays, when she huddled with managers to talk theme nights and HIV fundraisers. Pulse was the rare bar that held Latin Night on Saturday, primetime, and the speakers thumped with bachata, merengue, salsa, hip-hop. She hired a diverse staff, so patrons could find someone who looked like them. Men told her Pulse was where they wore their first heels, their first lashes.

A woman dressed in black sits looking into the camera, Pulse memorials behind her.
Barbara Poma, a former owner of Pulse and CEO of the onePULSE Foundation, says that she most values the voices of those affected by the shooting.

Poma’s husband, Rosario, was the business guy, a restaurateur whose joints dot outer Orlando. His business partner, a gay man, dreamed up the venture. Rosario inked the paperwork and paid the bills, but Pulse became Barbara’s baby, a tribute to her brother who died of AIDS and a beautiful upgrade to the seedy bars of his youth.

She was on vacation when the call came. Months later, the city neared a deal to buy the club for $2.25 million and erect a memorial. But in a press conference that surprised Orlando, Poma held her husband’s hand and said she couldn’t let go.

She’d learned, she said later, that cities didn’t create memorials and museums, but foundations did. She had wondered, sleepless, who would do right by Pulse.

In New York, she toured the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. She visited rural Shanksville, Pa., too, and Oklahoma City, finding somber memorials with the scope of history and terrorism’s toll. Leaders there warned her, “It’s going to be ugly.” So in surveys, task forces and advisory groups, she listened — and is still listening.

The foundation has hired an interpretive planning team to “weave a story through the whole campus,” says Poma, a former teacher. Much remains to be done, from schematic designs to timelines. Post-pandemic, its estimated 2022 opening remains uncertain. Their drafted plan is 100 pages, a first run at what Poma calls the essential question: “What does this community want the story to be?”

She envisions an education center addressing gay history, from struggles to triumphs. The museum will likely showcase the history center’s archive. By the end, museum-goers will “emerge through love, inclusion.” While celebrating diversity, she said, it will focus “on how we’re way more alike than different.”

Poma has sent her youngest off to college now, but in the early years after Pulse, she was absent. It took three months to realize she hadn’t been making breakfast for her son. “Did I buy you a lunch plan?” she asked. Her daughter left for college but transferred back near Orlando. Poma found an essay she had written: It was an invasion of our home.

The work gets her out of bed. Families helped name a second class of 49 scholarship recipients this spring. Those relationships, over text and phone calls and Facebook, bring Poma the validation that the foundation is working for the majority. As one survivor wrote on Poma’s Facebook, echoed by dozens more supporters: “So many stand with you and always will.”

Yet the criticism has been intense, mostly from a group that takes issue with the project’s cost, a history of code problems at the club and what they say is the foundation’s sidestepping of survivor needs. To them, Poma says that survivor help already exists: “I stayed in my lane.” Allegations about club issues, she says, are not foundation-related and the Pomas have called them frivolous. They have released financial audits.

More than criticism, though, the foundation faces whispered discontent. In public, many hesitate to comment. The foundation is city-approved, celebrity-studded, corporate-funded: Lance Bass, Ricky Martin, J.P. Morgan, Disney and more.

But in private, gripes flow fast: The museum looks like a nuclear reactor. At $150,000, Poma’s pay is lower than similar roles, but to some, her inexperience rankles. Another sore spot is the foundation’s grant of $10 million in tourist tax dollars.

An architectural rendering of a large memorial park with a tall, dramatic museum building.
Design concepts for the foundation’s museum and memorial were chosen after input from survivors and others close to Pulse. The winning plan, overwhelmingly the community favorite, was created by French architects Coldefy & Associés with RDAI, as well as Orlando-based HHCP Architects and others. Handout

“It’s not a tourist attraction,” Poma says, her quiet demeanor growing sharp. “It’s where the story is told — not to memorialize death, but the history.” When posters fade, the museum will stand.

“It’s not about this big, pretty building,” she says. “If we didn’t do this, if we didn’t record this, then what? Then what? I want to know. Do you think it’ll ever be in a history book, taught in schools?”

Names carved into stone

It’s a hot April afternoon, summer encroaching. Patty Sheehan parks close to the lush shade of Colonialtown Square Park, home to the quieter Pulse memorial.

Small and well-kept, the park takes up the outer strip of a quaint neighborhood block. There, a wide circle of stone is inlaid with a labyrinth pattern and a fractured rainbow heart. The names of those killed ring the edges — a design championed by Sheehan, the city’s first out gay commissioner.

A woman wearing a rainbow-colored facemask and sunglasses looks down at the names engraved in the memorial walk she is standing on.
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, 60, looks at names of Pulse victims carved into stone at Colonialtown Square Park. "There is no way to describe the depth of the pain and suffering and horror," she says.

In the tense and thankless task of politicking after the unfathomable, Sheehan became “consoler-in-chief” and a lightning rod. The city corralled families into a hotel lobby, but then names began to be released and the hotel owner didn’t want all the screaming anymore, so for a while, families screamed in the street.

Sheehan called out the mayor for not underscoring that most of the victims were LGBTQ: “You can’t say this happened to all of us.” She spoke out against guns and earned an officer escort. And she and Barbara Poma, old friends, stopped speaking.

About the museum, she waves her hands in dismissal. “It’s become something else.” She had helped at first, but eventually was asked to part ways. She insists she doesn’t want to get tangled up in it but can’t resist. The foundation’s T-shirt kiosk outside the club: “Really offended me.” The grand scale of the rendering: “We celebrate it too much by doing that.” The museum’s planned “modest fee”: “To my sense of humanity, I think that's not right.”

Something like this is better, she says, away from where everyone died. She finds families here some days. Or a candle atop a name.

“I try to remember everyone’s story, but...” she says, and starts to walk the labyrinth’s edge.

“Shane, oh my God. He was a singer. He sang at Mall at Millennia.”

“Stanley’s mom was just lost. She loved him so much.”

Sheehan touches her sneakers to the stones.

“Yilmary was a mom.

“Alejandro, his boyfriend lays roses at his grave at Greenwood all the time.

“Amanda — her mom, so sad. Antonio was in the service. Brenda, she was the breast cancer survivor.

“I met Cory’s family... His team was out celebrating a win.”

She had seen the blood on the pavement where bodies were dragged. The sight of fallen leaves, that swirling red, can bring back her PTSD. But she says plainly, “I don’t think my pain is anything compared to the families.”

She circles, pulled by the names.

“Eddie, my friend.” She pauses. “Top Hat Eddie.”

“Franky, he was one of the oldest victims.

“Oh, Jason Josaphat, his family’s just torn up, they miss him so much.”

She remembers most stories, from the moms who listened to their children die on the phone, to the father who refused to claim his son’s body.

Of the 49 burial spots she helped reserve in the city’s Greenwood Cemetery, four were used. Room remains for families. She bought her own plot near Cory Connell’s feet, past the headstone engraved with a football and the words LOYALTY. RESPECT.

A grave monument with the name of Cory James Connell
Cory James Connell is one of four victims buried in the city’s Greenwood Cemetery. He was 21 and wanted to be a firefighter.

A mother’s anger

Christine Leinonen lives in the trailer she bought after selling her house so she could send her son to college. She and Christopher had been living in Seminole, mother and son, the Chris Leinonen Team.

She had supported Christopher at each turn, from bubbly kid to defiant high schooler. In 2002, he formed his school’s first gay-straight alliance “with an application that would have put any lawyer to shame,” his mom says. As a student at the University of Central Florida, he protested marriage inequality while also crafting exquisite theme parties. Becoming a counselor made sense. He was unafraid of difficult things.

On a steamy April morning, in her rural Polk City home crowded with Christopher’s alphabetized movies and cat-furred blankets atop couches where she naps, Leinonen, 63, pages through his baby book. She marked the day he first stood. She smiled in sepia-toned police blues, cradling her baby by a cruiser. My thoughts when you came into my life, the book prompted. Leinonen had written carefully: “Never before had I ever wanted to so become a better person. In every way.”

A pensive woman sits on a chair in a garden, holding a portrait of a young man.
Christine Leinonen, whose son Christopher Andrew Leinonen was killed, sits by the tree she planted in his honor. His boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, also died that night. Leinonen says her son told her, "I think I met the man I'm going to marry.”

Most days, she waters her plants and feeds her cats, including the friendly stray who reminds her of her son. She tends to the tall and wobbly rainbow eucalyptus tree, decimated by a storm but regrown from a leaf, in which she feels his spirit.

What she doesn’t do much is lead the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum, though she is its most prominent member. That torch is carried largely by Zachary Blair, an academic who lives out of state but spent formative years in Orlando. He and others, including some survivors, accuse the Pomas and the city of egregious failures that led to avoidable deaths. These issues, drawn from public records, Blair compiled into a 210-page report titled They Knew.

Leinonen made it to Orlando while the gunman still lived. Her face was one of the first on television, pleading for news outside the emergency room.

Later, she needed to know: What had her son seen in his final minutes? She called and called. After two months, the autopsy report came.

Eight gunshots had littered his body with bullet fragments. A diagram was marked with circles up and down his right side, from collarbone to shin.

The body is that of a well-developed and nourished, adult man.

Striped ankle length socks and athletic style shoes are on the feet.

The heart weighs 250 grams.

In those early months, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention against military-style rifles. She joined her son’s friends in supporting LGBTQ students. She stood next to Barbara Poma. Still, she pressed for answers and grew bitter.

At a ceremony announcing legislation to designate the nightclub a national memorial, Leinonen shouted at Poma, “You should have had security!” On a CNN town hall in 2019, she told Chris Cuomo that the Pomas hoped to profit “in perpetuity off the death of my child.”

She launched a Change.org petition to call off the museum plan and joined lawsuits targeting the club, its owners, the city and law enforcement “cowards.” She doesn’t trust Poma to tell the story of the 32 years and 11 days that Christopher was her life.

She doesn’t trust Poma to account for all of the things a mother shouldn’t have to know.

She can count the seconds that the extra-duty police officer spent outside the club listening to the gunfire. She knows the killer’s long walk around Pulse’s black, 6-foot fence — and she can cite each city regulation that fence did not meet. She imagines her son, searching for a door or a window, but finding them latched, blocked. She fixates on the first responder who drew a map on a sweaty piece of paper, because renovations weren’t on file.

Her son died on a dance floor which, she will tell you, the city had told the club to remove.

“You didn't even attempt to remove it,” she says, as if to the Pomas. “You said, ‘Yeah, okay, Orlando. I'll remove it. Ha, ha. Okay, Orlando, I'll get more security. I'll hire additional Orlando cops for security. Ha, ha.’”

She stands and talks in a torrent. The effect is like blazing down a highway and looping around detour after detour, always returning to the hole at the center of her life.

Because a mother’s mind, she explains, is occupied by a child’s future.

On Zillow, she browsed houses for auction, in case Christopher was interested. She saved for his one-day PhD.

“Every time I would go to the store, I would say: ‘Oh, pistachios are on sale. Christopher likes those, I'm going to grab those.’”

“My brain has to say no, he's dead. No, he's dead.”

A Pulse tradition lives on

On stage, she’s Venus Envy. Tonight, she’s in the audience, a petite 29-year-old with a bleached streak. She wears Doc Martens, a plaid miniskirt and black earbuds to dampen the sound.

The bass of Kesha’s Take It Off throbs, but she’s not dancing. It’s late, and work starts early. She’s here to support a close friend. Twisted Tuesdays’ drag talent show was exactly what was special about Pulse — a stage to figure out who one wanted to be. At Southern Nights, her friend carries on the tradition.

She can taste the familiar sweetness of the fog machine, its clouds catching the strobing white lights.

The night of the shooting, she was working as a VIP hostess. She hid, saw nothing. She insisted on being the one to open the door afterward. Then, she saw everything.

Blue and red strobes glint on the silver of her dog collar. She twists her thumb ring, looks out at the sea of fishnets and short shorts and that perfect midnight freedom. It can be hard to explain the feeling of permission in a gay club, where the judgments of the outside world are suspended. In the glow of pink neon, at least one former Pulse bartender slings White Claws and wells.

Woman wearing a blonde wig, glamour makeup, long black gloves, fishnet stockings and a costume dress poses in a nightclub.
Venus Envy performs at Room 22 in Orlando, a few days before the five-year mark of Pulse. These days, she often feels like she is chasing the better version of herself that she lost that night. But drag brings out her confidence.

For years, she had spent at least five nights out per week, working and soaking up shows by new idols like Axel Andrews. A man with a male on-stage persona, Andrews made drag feel possible for the young woman who practiced to Lady Gaga songs alone in her dorm.

Her first performance lives on YouTube. She can still see the rush of confidence she felt, strutting the Pulse stage to Bad Romance and Sissy That Walk. But her style was not yet her own. At first, she wore beehive wigs and gaudy, sequined gowns. Ever the 4.0 student, she lip-synced to outdated ballads, as if to say, “I did my research!”

She checks her phone. 12:07 a.m. Behind her, the Employees Only door swings open. Andrews emerges in Monster’s Inc. drag, a fuzzy blue Sully suit with straps across his bare chest. He hugs Venus, then shakes his tail and bounds onstage.

The crowd eats him up. Venus squeezes through and holds out a few bills. His eyes soften.

Andrews perches by a bank of TVs that flash the night’s flier, Pulse logo included. “Whose first Tuesday is it?” Hands fly up. “Whose days are just constantly blurring together?” Venus meekly raises a hand.

In all, she spent a long month at home. But clubs have always been the closest thing to what she imagines people feel at church.

Six months post-Pulse, she made a resolution and left her old name behind. No more homages. As Venus Envy, her goth-lite style turns bubblegum pink and campy, like pop-punk Barbie crossed with Chromatica. She doesn’t compete in Twisted Tuesdays anymore, because she’s found her place.

Andrews pauses to introduce the last performer before the talent show. It’s his co-host Kai’ja Adonis’s birthday.

“Kai’ja gave me my first standing ovation at Pulse Orlando,” he says. “We created this night together, and I have to be honest. It’s pretty f— beautiful that it’s still the way it is now.”

Awaiting the amateurs, Venus follows a friend to the back of the club. Close to 1 a.m., a queen in a Mystique bodysuit prowls onstage. She hangs from the rafters, drops into splits. In the quiet of her earbuds, Venus doesn’t flinch at the soundtrack’s pumped-in gunshots. From where she stands, she can’t see the dancers in military garb playing dead onstage.

Five years ago, she had begged, “God, if you exist, please save me, and I’ll believe in you forever.” Her guilt is like a stain. The thought clouds her head in crowds: It’s going to happen here, now, again.

But clubs are still home.

“Did y’all have a good time?” Andrews calls. “Say hell yeah!”

The music reignites. Closing time is edging near, and the energy in the room feels looser, wilder. Britney Spears sings, “Bring it on! Ring the alarm!” Venus has stayed later than she’d expected. With a wave to her friend, as music thumps through the walls, she pushes into the still-warm night.

On the eve of June 12, like usual, she’ll stay up. She’ll drive over to Pulse in the dark for a meeting of the employees.

Someone usually leads a prayer circle, drawing to a close at 2:02 a.m. Venus will search for her generation of queens. They’ll huddle and remember how they’d crowd into the dressing room with the one string of lights. They’ll remember lining up by the club door in the 5 p.m. sun. How they’d sit and sweat on giant suitcases of spandex and corsets, hoping to land the last slot of the night, so theirs would be the show to remember.

A shadowed figure walks past a heart with the pictures of Pulse shooting victims.
A wall at the history center's Community exhibit honors those killed at Pulse.

In remembrance

About the reporter

Claire McNeill

is an enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Read more…