The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Orlando’s club Pulse owes its name and spirit to ‘loving brother’ who died from AIDS

Law enforcement officials work at the Pulse nightclub after a deadly mass shooting Sunday in Orlando. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Barbara Poma’s big brother taught her the necessities — how to apply her makeup, how to highlight her lush hair, how to be fabulously fashion forward.

To her, John was not gay, not just a politically-charged label. He was, in her words, her “loving brother.”

As teens in the beachside town of Fort Lauderdale, nestled along Florida’s southeastern coast, John introduced her, at age 14, to his mysterious, dynamic world, a vibrant, sexy, underground realm that came alive overnight in bars and clubs. There, with John at her side, Barbara learned how to party — and love unconditionally — inside these spaces that were safe for all.

Then on Feb. 13, 1991, her brother died. He had battled for years with HIV, at a time when thousands of gay men were robbed of their lives in the height of the AIDS epidemic.

A decade later, to keep his memory alive, Barbara co-founded a new nightclub in Orlando with her friend, Ron Legler. Like the places where John first introduced her to his community’s colorful life, her club would embody that energy. It would have decor to make John proud and “an atmosphere that embraced the gay lifestyle,” according to its website.

Her club would be more than “just another gay club.”

And so all those who visited would know its purpose, Barbara and her business partner named the venue Pulse.

“For John’s heartbeat,” the website says.

It thrived in that spirit for 12 years, serving as a community hub for HIV prevention, breast-cancer awareness and immigrant rights. Until Sunday.

As the bar prepared for last call on Latin Night and the dance floors throbbed with bodies, an armed man toting an assault rifle and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State tried to snuff out the safe space that Barbara had built, leaving in his wake a building bloodied by carnage unparalleled in the history of U.S. mass shootings.

Fifty people died. Even more were injured.

Family members gathered at a hotel in Orlando to receive updates on the status of their loved ones following the worst mass shooting in American history. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Across the country, advocates and pundits and newspaper editorials declared the actions of the shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, an assault on the core of the LGBT movement. Others called it another act of war against the freedom that Americans cherish.

It’s unclear why Mateen targeted Pulse, located miles away from his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. After the attacks, the gunman’s father, an Afghan immigrant, told reporters that his son had become enraged months ago when he saw two men kissing in Miami.

On Sunday afternoon, President Obama spoke with a tone just as tired as it was somber.

“This could have been any one of our communities,” he said.

The target was a gay nightclub. The target was also all of us.

It could have been any city — just as San Bernardino, Calif., and Newtown, Conn., and Paris and Brussels could have been any city — but instead, this time, it was Orlando. The home of Mickey Mouse and retirees and one of the largest gay communities in Florida.

It happened in the Sunshine State, under the cover of darkness, in a place where the people inside were supposed to feel protected from the very thing that killed them. Pulse was supposed to be their haven.

“From the beginning, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community,” Poma said in a statement posted to the club’s website. “I want to express my profound sadness and condolences to all who have lost loved ones. Please know that my grief and heart are with you.”

Parliament House, another popular gay resort and bar in the city, responded in solidarity by posting on its business sign “WE ARE PULSE UNBREAKABLE.”

Across social media, mourners described Pulse as home, a place they felt safe. Some said it was the very first gay club they ever frequented.

In an essay for Fusion, Daniel Leon-Davis wrote of growing up in Orlando as a minority man, in a culture driven by hyper-masculinity. Often, he drove past Pulse, he wrote, and would turn up his nose at the people who gathered there.

“I refused to go to gay clubs because it meant that I would be one of ‘those gay men,'” he wrote. “… The first time I ever entered Pulse, everything changed. For the first time in my life, I saw people that looked like me living freely. I saw people in their joy. I saw people in their celebration of life.”

Leon-Davis wrote that the club grew in the years that he attended, acquiring more space to accommodate the swarming crowds that celebrated there. Pulse is one of Orlando’s few gay clubs, reported the Miami Herald, and among the most upscale. Partygoers there reveled in drag shows, strip competitions, karaoke and dancing.

In a review of the club in July 2004, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mark K. Matthews wrote that co-owner Legler, who at the time ran the Florida Theatrical Association, wanted Pulse to be the go-to spot for visiting Broadway actors and celebrity tourists.

Matthews described the decor in Pulse’s signature room, calling its “ultra lounge” an “eerie scene from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey'” because of its walls, floor and ceiling coated in a brilliant white. Mirrors and flashing colored lights painted the room like a rainbow, Matthews explained, and lit up martini glasses like “alcoholic glow sticks.”

“It’s weird. It’s chic. It’s so not Orlando, more than a few revelers said at the club’s grand opening last weekend. I agree,” he wrote. “This room, by far, blows away anything else in the city when it comes to innovation.”

But beyond its status as a trailblazing nightlife venue, Pulse has been a community partner in many educational and advocacy efforts, including Come Out With Pride, Equality Florida and the Zebra Coalition, an organization that works to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths who face homelessness, bullying, and physical and sexual abuse.

“Pulse is like a family. Everybody who works there is treated equally. Treated like brothers and sisters,” Benjamin Di’Costa, 25, a former Pulse dancer, told the Herald. “When somebody is hurting or in need, we always look out for each other.”

That solidarity was echoed on social media.

In his essay, Leon-Davis wrote: “Like so many gay nightclubs, Pulse played a major role in the community. This often gets dismissed because it’s just a ‘nightclub.’ In reality, it was a community center. It was where you went to be yourself. To get away from hate. To be free.”

By Sunday, the future of Pulse remained unclear. Families and friends were still waiting for a final list of those who died inside. The crime scene was still active.

But among the Pulse community, there was hope that its doors would once again welcome allies and members of the LGBT movement.

“Together we will rebuild,” Leon-Davis wrote, “but today, we lay here in pain.”

More reading: 

Gunman who killed 50 in Orlando nightclub had pledged allegiance to ISIS

The target was a gay nightclub. The target was also all of us.

In Orlando, an agonizing wait as shooting victims’ names are slowly released

Ex-wife of suspected Orlando shooter: ‘He beat me’