JT (left), 32, and Jenica Karol, 34, currently live in Cummings, Ga., and met at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on Oct. 3, 2007. Nine years later, they married in JT’s hometown of Navarre Beach in northern Florida on June 26, 2016, two weeks after the Pulse massacre. JT is a close friend of the photographer, Cassi Alexandra. (Cassi Alexandra)
Brandon Wolf was having a hard night. Just after deciding with his love interest, Eric Borrero, that they wouldn’t be in a relationship, Eric wanted to go out that weekend as friends. That Saturday, despite dragging along his close friends, Juan Guerrero and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, as a buffer, the air between them at the club was tense and frustrating.
But Leinonen took on the role of peacemaker. “One thing we don’t do enough is remind each other how much we love each other,” he said. “So I’m going to be the one to say to you, ‘I love you.’ I love you all,” he said.
It was the greatest blessing amid the darkest curse that Wolf was given this moment with his friends — just before a gunman began to spray the pulsating crowd at the club they were at with bullets.
Guerrero, Leinonen, and 47 other people died because of the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Nearly one year ago, it entered the history books as the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Beyond the victims, family, friends and community members like Wolf have felt the ripple effects of the devastation.
Photographer Cassi Alexandra has been working for the last year to capture all their stories. She titled it “We are family” to underscore how much the community means to each other in the face of tragic circumstances. Some also identify themselves as “family” as a way of saying they are part of the LGBTQ community.
Brandon Wolf grew up in a suburb of Portland, Ore., and has lived in Orlando since 2008. He went to Pulse that night with three friends — Eric Borrero, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero. Leinonen and Guerrero died in the Pulse massacre. (Cassi Alexandra) Christine Leinonen, the mother of Drew, sits in a spare room which now stores his belongings. He was her only son. “It was horrible; it was horrific,” she says. “It was, it’s still incomprehensible. I still can’t deal with it mentally. I have to make it a nonevent because when I do deal with it, the reality is that, ‘Yes, my son was slaughtered.’ ” Christine suffers from insomnia and wakes up many nights at 3 a.m. (Cassi Alexandra) Aryam Guerrero, Mayra Guerrero, Juan Ramon and Celia Ruiz lost their youngest son and brother, Juan Guerrero, that night. “My kids go to Catholic school,” Celia says. “My daughter knows about her uncle and she didn’t have a problem. We haven’t talked to my son. He’s 8.” (Cassi Alexandra) Brittany Sted is co-founder of The Dru Project, an organization created in memory of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen. The project’s mission is to create gay-straight alliances in schools and provide support for existing ones. Brittany and other friends felt they didn’t want Drew’s death to just happen, they “needed something to come from it,” she says. Leinonen had started a gay-straight alliance in high school. (Cassi Alexandra)
On a superficial level, Pulse Nightclub was just another club. Its walls were a mishmash of patterns — from lush red curves that mimicked the movements of the undulating crowd, to a sparkly black. But those walls were special because they delineated a safe space — spaces where its members not only feel welcome, but also see reflections of themselves in the crowd.
The space no longer exists as it once was. But, as captured by Alexandra, it still survives in fragments within the survivors, families and anyone else who chooses to continue fighting for acceptance in the face of hate.
Raelynn Dittrich, 25, cuts Nay Burton’s, 29, hair in the kitchen of their Orlando home; they met in 2013 while both worked at Publix Supermarket. In the wake of the Pulse massacre, Nay, a customer service staff at Publix, was helping bag when a customer asked her if she was “family.” She said yes, and he gave her a hug. The cashier didn’t understand the question so Nay explained “in the gay community, “family” is used to connect with each other. (Cassi Alexandra) Emily Addison and her 2-year-old son, Diyari, lost Deonka “Dee Dee” Drayton in the Pulse massacre. Addison and Drayton dated in 2009, but were separated at the time Drayton was killed. Addison says the two had been talking about reconciliation. Because the two weren’t married, Emily has no rights regarding Drayton. She had to push to get information about Drayton’s funeral. (Cassi Alexandra) Christopher Cuevas, 24, is one of the co-founders and lead organizers of QLatinx, an organization founded by LGBTQ+ and Latinx community members after the Pulse murders. Latinx is a gender-neutral way of using the words Latino or Latina, since there are individuals who don’t conform to gender norms. “We’ve never had a space dedicated entirely to us, for us, by us, and so in lieu of that Latin Night, or Noche Latina, was really the only place that we could ever go and see other brown and black bodies that make up the Latinx community. With that no longer available, with that gone, it’s a challenge,” he said. (Cassi Alexandra) Rev. Terri Steed moved to Orlando in 2012 to take the pulpit of Joy Metropolitan Community Church. When a pastor reached out to her after the Pulse shooting, asking for a conversation, the Charlotte, native agreed. “Jesus went to those on the margins. Jesus went, he said he came to preach to the poor, to reach the outcasts, to set the oppressed free. Jesus did this, he modeled the behavior that we’re still seeking, you know. We have so much work to do, but it at least got, this time at least got the conversation started. That’s all I can ask for.” (Cassi Alexandra) Blue is a well-known figure in the LGBT community of Orlando and owner of The Venue, a performing arts facility, at which Chakra Khan performed “Pulse” for the first time the night the Pulse massacre happened. On June 12, 2016, Blue worked with Hope and Help and The Center to be a secondary responder to help support them in whatever ways needed. (Cassi Alexandra) A rainbow banner is seen at the Rally to End Hate event on Aug. 11, 2016, in Orlando. (Cassi Alexandra)
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