Joél Junior Morales was at Pulse the week before a gunman killed 49 people there.
Morales had moved to Orlando a few years earlier in search of his “people” – namely LGBTQ people and fellow Puerto Ricans. He found them, but Orlando’s queer Latino community was less visible in the years before the devastating mass shooting.
“It was a community, but it was kind of, like, in pockets,” he said. “It wasn’t anything outside of the nightclubs.”
So he frequented Pulse, a beloved gay nightclub known for star-studded drag shows and bachata-sountracked “Latin Nights.” The bar on Orange Avenue was one of the few places where his fellow LGBTQ Latinos felt at home in their city.
“Just seeing my people having so much fun … Pulse was the place,” he said. “I never imagined it would be my last time there.”
When the tragedy at Pulse – on Latin Night, June 12, 2016 – shuttered the bar for good, Morales lost at least one friend in the shooting and his home away from home. His best friend was there on the night of the shooting and is still tending to his trauma five years later.
Morales dedicates his career, now, to Pulse survivors and families of those who died, many of whom were Latino. He helps lead the LGBT+ Center, a nonprofit that operates a support center specifically for people affected by the Pulse massacre.
He and other queer Latino residents of Orlando, once left to find community in clubs, are now the faces of LGBTQ advocacy groups, serve as elected officials, and call attention to the needs of LGBTQ Latinos with platforms they were not afforded before the mass shooting at Pulse – and the city is listening.
“We didn’t have a voice here, and in the last five years, our voices have been uplifted through this,” said Morales, director of operations at the LGBT+ Center.
Orlando fundamentally changed after that night at Pulse, LGBTQ Latino leaders told CNN. But to make positive changes for LGBTQ Latinos permanent, those community leaders must continually justify their work to the state and federal government to receive funding, or else they risk a decline in progress.
The work is exhausting, those leaders say, but essential to help the city, particularly its queer Latino residents, continue to heal.
LGBTQ Latino activists became leaders
Several organizations were borne out of the the tragedy at Pulse, Morales said, including QLatinx, an advocacy organization that began as a support group for LGBTQ Latinos to gather in a safe space outside of nightclubs, and the Contigo Fund, which provides grants to LGBTQ Latino causes in the state.
Like those groups, the LGBT+ Center’s Orlando United Assistance Center, or the OUAC, developed out of necessity. Since many victims of the shooting were LGBTQ and many of their family members didn’t speak English, supporting them required an intersectional approach, Morales said.
“What happened at Pulse was … kind of labeled as a gay issue, when in reality it wasn’t. So many communities were impacted,” he said, emphasizing that everyone affected by the shooting needed a different approach to healing.
The center provides what state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith calls “culturally competent care” – where the case managers share many of the same lived experiences as the clients they’re serving. They connect clients to medical and mental health care, legal services, housing and more, though they just as often provide comfort and a friendly ear to those who need it.
“You can’t just send them to a mental health counselor,” Smith said. The case managers “look like them and speak their language.”
Some survivors of the shooting lived in poverty and couldn’t access resources without the assistance of the center, Morales said. Some victims were undocumented and felt they couldn’t trust government assistance. Other victims were outed to their families simply by being at the bar on the night of the shooting and needed to navigate that trauma, too.
Tailoring their services to their clients and their unique traumas fills a void in Orlando, Morales said. The grant used to create the Orlando United Assistance Center expired after three years, so the center has sometimes struggled to find stable funding, but survivors and families still need the center’s help, he said.
“This was not going to be short term,” he said of the city’s healing process. “This is going to live in our community forever.”
How the only LGBTQ Latino Florida state legislator represents his community
The sharper focus on Orlando’s LGBTQ Latino residents after the Pulse shooting elevated many community organizers, like Morales, into more visible roles.
“I wouldn’t say they’re the future of the movement, they’re the right now,” said Smith, the Florida state representative, of Morales and other leaders.
Smith said it’s his job to support those advocates in his position in government. He’s one of three LGBTQ politicians in the Florida legislature. He, along with Reps. Shevrin Jones and Michele Rayner, who are both Black, are the only representatives of queer people of color in the state capital of Tallahassee.
The tragedy at Pulse strengthened his commitment to advocating on behalf of Black and brown LGBTQ Floridians, he said.
“I think when Pulse happened, there were a lot of folks in elected office locally who also reflected on, ‘How inclusive are we really being?’” he said. “Yes, Orlando was very affirming for LGBTQ people before Pulse, and that commitment to equality was certainly strengthened in Orlando after Pulse, but it was also an important moment for our community to reflect and see how we can be even more inclusive.”