On the night of June 12, 2016, I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the British Isles. When I awoke the next morning and gave myself five minutes to use a bit of my overpriced international data plan to check the news, I was shocked to see that another act of violence had taken place at a nightclub the evening prior. Then I learned that it was in my backyard, back home in Orlando. And then I learned that it was at an LGBT-friendly nightclub, a community with which I have a very strong connection. And finally, I learned that it was the worse mass shooting in the history of the United States.
Over the next couple of weeks, I felt isolated. I was halfway across the world from where the tragedy had taken place, and had absolutely no way of helping my community grieve and mourn. I couldn't give time, resources, or a voice from where I was at, and had to obtain any bits of news I could from my restricted communication with friends back in Orlando. When I finally got home a few weeks later, the opportunities to go out and make a substantial difference, like donating supplies or giving blood, had been fulfilled or were no longer needed. All that was left to do was provide support for the city and the people of the world that had been affected.
I was fortunate enough to have a unique role in the rebuilding of the city's moral, due to my role as a Walt Disney World cast member. We made it our goal to make Disney as safe and as caring a place as ever, where people could come and find comfort that there was still happiness left in the world. We were thanked time and time again for showing up to work with a smile despite what had happened, and how it truly did make guests feel hope for the future.
When the annual Come Out With Pride celebration this fall began to grow nearer, I knew that I wanted to find a volunteer opportunity for the event and contribute in any way I could to make up for my lack of presence in the direct aftermath of the shooting. On top of the fact that it was to occur exactly five months after Pulse, it also happened that the presidential election took place earlier in the week, an election in which the results left minorities terrified for their rights and their safety. Pride was more important than ever this year for its participants.
Of course, who better to provide me with the chance I was looking for than my beloved employer, The Walt Disney Company. Through their cast member program, "Voluntears," I was able to sign up for a chance to help out at their location throughout the festival and march alongside fellow cast members in the parade. Never had I been so proud to wear my name tag.
Arriving at Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando for the festivities was nerve-wracking, I can't lie. There was security present but no way to search everyone in the open public space, and this past year's events were still very present in the back of my mind. A Veterens Day Parade was concluding nearby, and while the veterans had nothing but my full support, the presence of so many weapons in the crowd was unnerving. On top of that, the sheer number of people beginning to file inside the festival's perimeter was intimidating regardless of the circumstances.
But the day was amazing, the atmosphere full of a kind of support that surrounded you from all sides. There were individuals there from all walks of life, large companies proudly declaring their support of minorities, and many people getting to come out in public and be themselves for the first time since their community was the target of a horrific hate crime.
So much of the population was wearing tributes to the victims at Pulse. Having never been to pride before, I wondered if the tragedy had brought out more people to the event that in previous years, and what these people would have worn had the community not been attacked. There were more than occasional visitors who looked slightly uncertain and out of place, wearing "Orlando Strong" shirts but not really meshing in the with the crowd. These seemed to me like people offering support who otherwise would have not attended a gay pride festival, had something not happened to the gay population of their city. If there's a silver lining in what happened that horrific night at Pulse, it's that minds were opened and hearts came together. Seeing these sorts of people was a valuable reminder of that.
In regards to the recent election, there were a few political signs and outfits presence, but nothing from a place of disrespect. "Love trumps hate" was a common phrase, and everything else were merely offerings of support and love no matter what the president and his followers might say or do. These insinuated many hugs and reassurances that we would all make it through together, and fit well into the overall moral of the day.
Marching in the parade was like nothing I've ever experienced. First off, being with so many coworkers who shared the same values as me was surreal and another of many hundred reasons why I love my company. Additionally, we were thanked by Disney higher ups for all our work post Pulse and always keeping our city positive and united, a message that made me ever so thankful that I have the chance to do what I do. When our float set off down the parade route, we received cheers and nothing but pure love from thousands upon thousands of people for the next two hours of marching.
At the end of the night, on my way back to the car, one of my friends held high a poster advertising free hugs. We were stopped every few feet by complete strangers who would embrace us and wish us a happy pride, often engaging in heart warming conversations and reassurances that we were beautiful and loved.
A few blocks from the parking garage, one attendee who was wrapped in a rainbow flag pulled my friend aside into a wordless hug that went on and on as tears poured down his face. Everything about the day, about the city, the community, the country, even the world, and how we all felt, seemed to be embodied in that hug. It hurts and the emotions are overwhelming, but we have each other. There will always be someone to hold you until the bad times pass and your sense of hope is restored. Always.