Remembering Pulse: How Tragedy Catalyzed Change for Florida's LGBTQ Community

Following the recent anniversary of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, Florida, Arcus remembers those who lost their lives, their friends and families, the disaster’s survivors, and the LGBTQ leaders who rose from the ashes to create change in their communities. We’re privileged to have helped mobilize a philanthropic response to the tragedy, focusing our support on ensuring the communities most impacted had the support they needed to heal, organize, and build their capacity to become more visible, influential, and effective at advocating for their needs. Here we take a look back and—with some of those most involved or affected—a look forward.

On June 12, 2016, Americans woke up to the horrifying news that a gunman had entered a nightclub on Latin Night and murdered 49 people—most of them young LGBTQ people of color—and wounded 53 others. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history up until that point, and remains the deadliest incidence of violence against the LGBTQ community.

“I woke up that morning in complete disbelief, and my perception of the world completely changed for the rest of my life,” remembered Marco Antonio Quiroga, then an immigrant rights activist and gay Latinx man who grew up in Orlando. “That shooting felt like a safe space was robbed from me.

“I considered Pulse home,” Quiroga continued. “I saw it as a place where we could celebrate [and] heal from all the trauma that we experience out in the everyday world.”

The shooting devastated the region and its queer community of color, which had been living at the margins of society.

The public response in the days and weeks after the shooting was immediate and overwhelming. A GoFundMe page created by Equality Florida raised more than $8 million to support the survivors and the families of those killed. The city’s OneOrlando Fund raised over $30 million, much of it from corporations and businesses, locally and nationally. Ultimately, both funds were combined and administered by the National Center for Victims of Crime, which distributed the money to the victims’ families (biological and chosen) and to those who survived but were wounded, both physically and emotionally.

Arcus Foundation recruited some of the leading private foundations in the U.S.—including Ford Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations—to support a new initiative that would leverage existing community leadership and assets, create new ones, and maximize the resilience of the growing LGBTQ Latinx community. A needs assessment conducted by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and its partners provided the necessary data and rationale for the creation of what ultimately became the Contigo Fund.

Although somewhat controversial at the outset, Arcus decided to house Contigo (Spanish for “with you”) at the Our Fund Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, the only LGBT community fund in Florida. The local philanthropic community in Orlando was not initially pleased with the fact that this new fund, founded to resource Orlando-area organizations, would be based some 200 miles away. But with the hiring of Quiroga as the fund’s manager, the effort quickly earned the respect and support of local leaders.

In September 2016, only three months after the tragedy, the Contigo Fund announced its first grants: three rapid response awards to emerging organizations serving LGBTQ Latinx community members. Since then, Contigo has provided more than $1 million in funding to grassroots groups in Central Florida through a grantmaking process that uses the expertise of community-based funding committees. This support has catalyzed the following:

• 29 LGBTQ leaders and leaders of color are now in positions of decision-making power that were not in place at the time of the Pulse tragedy.

• Nine new organizations led by LGBTQ people of color were founded.

• 25 movement-building and direct service programs were launched to provide culturally competent care and training.

These changes are especially impressive when one realizes that on the night of the shooting, the only place where the growing LGBTQ Latinx community could gather was the monthly Latin Night at Pulse. Now, there are many more options.

“Our communities are incredibly resilient,” said Christopher Cuevas, executive director of Contigo grantee QLatinx, which was established after Pulse. “It’s that personal, peer experience, that chosen family that gets created, that helps to guide someone to the kind of care that they need, that helps to walk with them on that journey, that listens to them cry at 3 o’clock in the morning, or has lunch and tries to ignore and forget all of the grief. That is incredibly and tremendously healing.”

For the first time, Cuevas said, people of color, trans people, and gender non-conforming people are “finally [getting] a seat at leadership tables and influence to talk about the things that our communities are experiencing. And it’s happening slowly, but it’s happening. And that to me is a really powerful thing.”

While it is profoundly sad that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to create this kind of change, it is also important to note that when such crises impact a community, it is critical for all sectors of society—including and especially philanthropy—to come together to ensure that not only can the needs of the direct victims be addressed, but that the most marginalized in a community can be made visible, strengthened, and empowered for the long-term.

For a more in-depth look at the philanthropic response to the Pulse tragedy, see the author’s Foundation Review article.