I haven't slept much in the past week. I still can't begin to imagine what those inside of Pulse Nightclub went through in those early hours of Sunday, June 12. I'll admit, I was numb and disappointed in myself upon first hearing the news.
Where was I when it happened? I was taking life for granted, just a few blocks away, getting a late night snack, after a night out at Parliament House. It wasn't until I got home that I learned what was going on just minutes from me. I sat, along with the world, gripped to my television for hours. Knowing what those in the LGBT community before me have accomplished, and what we continue to accomplish, never in my life did I think I would encounter such hatred or horror.
I didn't know how to feel. I had no words, my brain desperately trying to find some logic in it all. I felt guilty for not feeling more - or for feeling at all. I felt selfish to feel anything. I wondered, 'Who am I? This didn't affect me directly. So, how dare I feel anything near what those that were there that night or their loved ones are feeling?'
To those heroes inside the club who sheltered, bandaged and guided a friend or stranger out of harms way, you are brave. You are love.
Later that day, still not having slept, I decided to take a break from the televised coverage and keep brunch plans I had at The Hammered Lamb; a decision I'm glad I made. To my surprise, the restaurant was crowded with people just like me, that just needed to be with others. I stood among allies, acquaintances and friends filled with despair, shock but most of all love.
This hate-filled event had brought out compassion, strength and unity. Somehow, this tragedy had allowed us to see one another, as equals. As humans. As I sat with my friend, a young woman with her husband, across the way, put out her hand and grasped mine. We didn't know each other, but we both knew we were going through this together. As the afternoon went on, I was by hugged strangers and friends alike, without a word needing to be spoken.
When our Commander-in-Chief took to the TV screens throughout the restaurant, an audible hush came across all in attendance as our eyes and ears desperately focused on something, anything he could say to make sense of what was going on.
"This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation — is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country," President Obama proclaimed.
Tears strewn down our faces with uproarious applause as he closed his speech.
Sunday night, I returned to Parliament House, along with a capacity crowd, to do the only thing I could think to do, be with my community and to prove that I wasn't afraid. I spent the evening embracing friends, acquaintances and strangers - gay and straight - telling them "I'm glad you're here."
It wasn't until drag host Darcel Stevens took to the stage out of costume to lead - what would be - the first of many vigils, that I realized I wasn't the only one filled with questions.
"It could have been any of us. Any of us," Stevens said. "Why not us? Why are we here?"
I don't consider myself an advocate - or special. Yes, I'm a gay man but I'm also just a human, living my life, continually striving to be a good person. I didn't know what I had to offer, so I did the only thing I felt I could do...Listen. I spent the days preceding just listening to people in our community; listening to their stories, their heartache.
It was through that, I found out there is a reason I'm here. I was talking to a friend, whom I had met only a few weeks prior. Out of nowhere, he said, "You saved my life, you know?"
"Whatever." I said, laughing, thinking maybe he was just being melodramatic.
He went on to say that he was on his way to Pulse that fateful Saturday night, when he received a text from me, asking him to come meet me at Parliament House. "I wanted to hang out with you, so I diverted from my normal Saturday night plans," he stated, welling up.
I began to sob. Something as seemingly insignificant as sending a text had changed one person's timeline. It was then, I finally began to allow myself to say, "Yes, this did affect me, too."
I lost these people, too. I've marched with these people. I've cheered for these people, watched them perform. I've supported them, cried with them, danced along side them. I've celebrated being part of the LGBT community with them.
Later that week, I found out that the killer was actually at Parliament House Saturday night but security had escorted him out for "suspicious behavior."
Needless to say, I wavered from sadness, shock, anger, and anxiety, realizing how close to home this event really did hit. I found myself not wanting to leave my house, getting physically ill, and having night terrors. I decided to see one of the many grief counselors available, where I learned that I was, indeed, traumatized by the events. I learned that it's OK to allow myself to disconnect from all the news and social media posts we're being inundated with to take care of myself, so that I can be here for others. And I need to remember to breathe.
I don't think I will fully understand why this happened but I take some solace in envisioning our loved ones at one hell of a party somewhere. Just picture it. Among the crowd is Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, and Andy Warhol. Judy Garland, David Bowie, Prince, Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Selena, and Whitney Houston are putting on extravagant performances. The music never ends and there is never a cover.
Like many who have become before us and fought, we will rise. We will be visible. We will live. As we continue to heal, we need to continue to love. The good that has come - and continues to come - from one person's hate is staggering. As we've seen, the worldwide love of epic proportions we have received in the wake of tragedy just proves that love will always conquer hate.
Erik Raymond is a freelancer for SFGN.