Pulse foundation forges ahead with memorial project

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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An overview of the winning design for the Pulse memorial and museum in Orlando, Florida. Image: Courtesy Coldefy & Associés
An overview of the winning design for the Pulse memorial and museum in Orlando, Florida. Image: Courtesy Coldefy & Associés

It was a day that many LGBTQs will never forget.

On June 12, 2016, 49 lives — mostly LGBTQ Latinos — were lost and more than 50 were injured during a mass shooting inside Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Coming during Pride Month, the terrible news was a shock for the community. Now, six years later, the owner of Pulse is well into a plan to create what she describes as a fitting memorial at the site as a means to pay tribute to those whose lives were lost and to create a sanctuary of hope for future generations.

Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse, established the nonprofit onePULSE Foundation in 2017 with the goal of establishing the memorial. Poma, a straight ally, was until recently the president and CEO of the foundation but stepped down in February, shortly after she was in San Francisco as part of a multi-city tour to promote the foundation's work. She remains the founder of the foundation and the "keeper of the story," according to the organization, which is now searching for an executive director.

"I'm spreading awareness of the project," Poma told the Bay Area Reporter when she was in town. She said it was the first time she'd been in San Francisco and she'd met with foundations and other potential funding sources. The memorial and museum, for which the winning designs were unveiled in 2019, is expected to cost around $40 million. So far, about $22 million has been raised to support the foundation's mission.

The memorial will be on the site of the nightclub, which closed after the massacre. It will feature a garden of 49 trees to commemorate each of the 49 victims, along with a palette of 49 colors, according to a 2019 news release from the foundation that the B.A.R. reported on. The design concept is from the French architectural group Coldefy & Associés in association with six other participants, according to the release.

"The design unveiled in 2019 has not changed substantially," Poma said, adding that the foundation has held lots of listening sessions. The goal now is to complete the survivors' park and then the memorial, hopefully by next year. The third part will be the museum, to be located about a third of a mile away from Pulse. It's planned to house around 7,000 artifacts from the nightclub and specifically from the night of the killings, Poma said.

"It's going to be a very immersive center," she said. "We will talk about the attack, of course, but also the LGBTQ community. Stories told about tending bar — a really immersive place so people come out changed. Our survivors were emphatic that they didn't want it to be a sad place."

In the meantime, there is an interim memorial at the site of the former club, which opened May 8, 2018. Poma said the building is still standing and surrounded by a barrier wall to protect it. There are viewing areas where people can read the names of those killed, and a waterfall back by the bathrooms where gunman Omar Mateen held hostages for three hours.

"It's a touch point to tell stories and a place to leave items, because people still do leave written messages," Poma said, adding there's a kiosk where people can type in notes.

"We had over 300 a day before COVID," she said.

An artist rendering of the interim Pulse memorial that opened in 2018 at the site of the former LGBTQ nightclub. Illustration: Courtesy onePULSE Foundation.  

The interim memorial is all outdoors. The building itself is closed. Poma said that she has been inside since the shooting but that now there is a facilities manager to keep an eye on the site.

Most Pulse survivors approve of the foundation's plans and some have gotten involved with gun control efforts since the tragedy. Before and since Pulse there have been hundreds of mass shootings, including at a Florida high school in 2018, and just recently, at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. There is a bipartisan framework on some gun safety legislation in Congress, but, as the New York Times recently reported, Republicans and Democrats are sending "disparate messages about its scope and implications."

Brandon Wolf, one of the Pulse survivors, told the B.A.R. in a recent email that he responded late to a query from the paper because he was trying to process the mass shootings in May. Ten people, almost all of them Black, were killed at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo. In Texas, 19 children and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School.

"When you lose someone you love dearly, one of the most visceral emotions you experience is fear," Wolf wrote. "Fear that you will forget them, driving you to save old voicemails and squirrel away old T-shirts to hold onto fond memories. And there is a fear that the world will never get to know them as you did, never get an opportunity to be loved by them as profoundly as you were."

Wolf explained why he's continuing to be involved in gun control efforts.

"My work to end gun violence and anti-LGBTQ bigotry over the past six years has been fueled by a desire to see the lives and legacies of my best friends Drew and Juan kept alive through action," he wrote, referring to Pulse victims Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero. "I am hopeful that a museum focused on combatting anti-LGBTQ animus and putting human faces to the cost of militarized hatred will be part of that work to ensure that my best friends are never forgotten — and that their legacies are that of a world they would have been proud of."

Wolf will be the keynote speaker at The Conference, which is part of New York City's Pride events, June 23, at New York Law School. Since the shooting, he co-founded and is current vice president of the Dru Project, a nonprofit organization that empowers safe spaces in schools for LGBTQ youth, and serves as press secretary for Equality Florida, the state's LGBTQ civil rights organization.

Others are critical of the foundation's plans. The Community Coalition Against A Pulse Museum said it is against turning the location of the massacre into a "tourist attraction," as the B.A.R. previously reported.

"Everyone in Orlando smells money like crazy," Christine Leinonen, who lost her son, Christopher, in the massacre, said in a phone interview with the B.A.R. back in 2019. "They're trying to appeal to my ego. Of course I want my son's story to be told, but it's like, this owner is trying to capitalize."

Poma said that she and the foundation are not deterred by the criticism. "I've learned you'll never have 100% agreement," she said. "We have a majority [of survivors]. She's a grieving mother; I'm a mom."

Poma and her husband, Rosario, who was a co-owner of Pulse, have three adult children. Poma's salary when she led the foundation was $150,000, which was approved by the board, she said, though she added that she has not always made that much. Other staff also took a reduction in pay during the COVID pandemic, she said.

"Everyone stuck it out," she said.

OnePULSE Foundation founder and Pulse co-owner Barbara Poma discussed plans for the memorial and museum during a visit to San Francisco in February. Photo: Cynthia Laird  

Harrowing event
Mateen, 29, went on a rampage June 12, 2016 when he stormed the club during its popular Latin Night. In addition to the 49 deaths, more than 50 people were injured. Mateen died in a shootout with police. In 2018, his wife, Noor Salman, was acquitted of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and of obstruction of justice in connection with her husband's attack.

Poma recalled happier times at Pulse before the mass shooting.

"It was an energetic place," she said, with dancing and drag shows. The building was small, about 4,000 square feet, and had three rooms. Like many LGBTQ clubs, there were different music formats in the different rooms. Latin Night featured Latin music on the main floor, with hip-hop in a dance area and house music on the patio, she explained.

She said that initially, she had hoped to open another LGBTQ bar. "It was another way of not letting hate win," she said. But she has decided not to.

"One day our business just closed," Poma, 53, said during the February interview. "There was no income. It was far more important to honor what happened here. Now it's five years later, now I'm five years older. It took us two years to open the first time and emotionally, I didn't know if I could do it."

People left flowers at a memorial for the Pulse nightclub victims at 18th and Castro streets on Sunday, June 12, the sixth anniversary of the shooting. Photo: Christopher Robledo  

Pulse continues to reverberate
The horrific Pulse shooting has not been forgotten, even as it's one of so many mass gun incidents that have taken place over the years. On the anniversary earlier this month, a small crowd gathered in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district where Indigenous dancers performed. People also left flowers at a small memorial at 18th and Castro streets.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) recalled the event.

"Six years ago, a horrifying act of mass murder at Pulse Nightclub stole away 49 lives, injured more than 50 others and left countless loved ones shattered," she stated. "On what should have been a wonderful night of music, dancing and celebration, this hateful act instead devastated a sanctuary of safety and solidarity for Orlando's LGBTQ community."

AGUILAS El Ambiente, a nonprofit that serves the Latino community in San Francisco, has plans for a Pulse memorial at its offices at the LGBT Community Center. The project, however, which started three years ago, has been held up by city bureaucracy, Renato M. Talhadas, program director, stated in an email.

Congressmember Val Demings (D-Florida) represents part of Orlando and is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Marco Rubio (R) in November. Formerly Orlando's first female chief of police, Demings was elected to Congress months after the Pulse shooting in 2016. She, too, recalled the tragedy of that night.

"June 12, 2016 should have been a day of love and acceptance spent in bliss," she stated in a news release on the Pulse anniversary. "It was Latin Night at Pulse nightclub, and the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando was celebrating Pride Month by joyfully gathering in a safe space.

"What should have been a joyous occasion turned into a devastating nightmare. That night, Orlando witnessed the deadliest attack against the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history," she noted. "We lost 49 people in a mass shooting — and I am still mourning each of them on the sixth anniversary of this tragedy."

Poma said that the foundation continues to raise funds for scholarships, which started in 2019.

Working with the families and loved ones of those killed, onePULSE Foundation established the 49 Legacy Scholarships in 2019 based on the respective victims' interests, careers, or aspirations, according to the foundation's website. The inaugural class of 49 Legacy Scholarship recipients was awarded $330,000 in scholarships in 2019 and the second class was awarded $236,300 last April, the website stated. Recipients come from all over the United States and have a common thread of community service, leadership, and advocacy.

The onePULSE Foundation awards 49 scholarships annually, each up to $10,000 for use at an accredited institution of higher learning, including career and technical schools.

The new "Queer As Folk" show, now streaming on NBC's Peacock, references Pulse. Set in New Orleans, the show addresses the issue of gun violence head-on by centering its story on a mass shooting that recalls the Orlando incident. The Daily Beast reported that the show, which debuted June 9, included a warning card ahead of the first episode, given that it aired shortly after the Uvalde, Texas rampage. (https://www.thedailybeast.com/queer-as-folk-is-the-latest-show-that-needs-a-mass-shooting-warning)

The onePULSE Foundation was critical of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signing the "Parental Rights in Education" bill into law in late March. Referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, it will not allow classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3, while "age-appropriate" teaching would be allowed in older grades — though it is not clear what is considered "age-appropriate." The bill would also allow parents to sue schools or teachers who violate the legislation.

"Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill is hateful, discriminatory and bigoted and will further stigmatize, marginalize and isolate LGBTQ+ youth and their families," the foundation stated. "We denounce this unconscionable and shameful law and will continue to #SayGay and stand in solidarity with all LGBTQ+ Floridians to help ensure that every student — especially those most vulnerable and in need of support — feels safe, welcomed and included at school.

"The importance of safe spaces — like Pulse nightclub was for Orlando's LGBTQ+ community — cannot be overstated," the foundation added. "It is our hope that the National Pulse Memorial & Museum will serve as such a critical space and educational forum in the future."

For Poma, the memorial and museum "will hopefully change hearts and minds along the way."

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