The aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting tests the courage of gay youth

Matt Casler, who wants to be a journalist, photographed a vigil Monday night, the day after the mass shooting at Pulse, a nightclub near his family’s home in Orlando.
Matt Casler, who wants to be a journalist, photographed a vigil Monday night, the day after the mass shooting at Pulse, a nightclub near his family’s home in Orlando.
Published June 19, 2016

ORLANDO — Matt Casler didn't recognize his neighborhood as he drove home last Sunday morning.

Cop cars lined every corner. Barricades blocked the streets. Sirens screamed.

A few hours after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, it had been turned into a war zone.

He steered past armed troopers, beneath hovering helicopters. Dizzy and disoriented, the 18-year-old kept checking his phone: 20 dead so far, and the count would climb.

Pulse nightclub is on a residential road two blocks east of Matt's home, far from the Disney castles and downtown skyscrapers, surrounded by townhomes and chain stores: Starbucks, Chipotle, Pizza Hut.

Normally, the neighborhood is quiet.

Now his hometown would be on that list, ahead of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook. How could that happen? Just because they were gay?

Matt's brother and sister had hung out at that bar. They'd promised to take him there this summer, before he left for college — his first foray into a new world. They had told him how open everyone was there, how warm and accepting. How people of all ages escaped to those strobe-lit rooms to watch drag shows, dance to the DJ and surround themselves with folks who made them feel like family.

It had seemed like a safe haven. Now that it was gone, would people feel like they had to hide?

A couple of months earlier, before graduating as valedictorian of his high school, Matt finally summoned the courage to tell his mom he was gay. But he wasn't ready to tell the world.

The whole drive home, he worried about who had died.

And how he would he ever feel safe enough to be himself.

• • •

He was a toddler when his parents divorced. His dad, a photographer, moved out but saw him often. Matt and his older brother and sister, who are twins, grew up in a tall house with an energetic mutt and their mom, who is a pediatrician.

She took them to church and art museums, to the symphony and library. She told her children they could be whoever they wanted to be.

"I want them to help others, and be happy," said Alix Casler, 54. "I just told them to be the best people they can be."

Matt's sister, Sara, came out to her parents at 16. Her mom was fine. Sara has hardly talked to her dad since.

Sara's twin, Nick, told his mom the next year.

Matt was 12 when he started noticing boys. But he was too scared to approach any.

At Boone High, he had 2,900 classmates. Only 15 had come out. Matt immersed himself in AP classes, and was accepted at Northwestern University. He was named Florida's Student Journalist of the Year.

He dated a couple of girls, went to homecoming twice. For junior prom, he brought his camera instead of a date. Last month, he went to a journalism convention instead of his senior prom, where his classmates voted him king. "No one knew I was gay."

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Telling them just felt awkward. He wasn't ready to brave his classmates' taunts, endure their questions, or accept that label. Before he could tell others, he had to be more sure of himself.

He controlled what he could, he said, concentrating on achievements and image, staving off emotions. Trying to convince himself he didn't need to get close to anyone, so his sexuality didn't matter.

In April, Matt's mom took him to Toronto. They were in the elevator of the CN Tower, riding up 115 stories, with two young men who were holding hands. Matt could tell they were in love.

"That," he thought, "is what I want."

• • •

No one at Matt's house could sleep Sunday night. He texted his brother, who is in medical school at Florida State University. He talked to his mom, who said, "There is so much more good in the world than bad."

Matt and Sara slumped on the couch with their dog, in front of the TV, while CNN started scrolling victims' names across the screen.

A travel agent. A worker from Universal's Harry Potter ride. A young drag queen, who had a young son.

Sara's girlfriend lost a friend in the massacre. Another still was missing.

Like millions of others, Sara and Matt kept thinking: That could have been me.

• • •

Few high schools teach gay history. While struggles for women's rights and African-American equality have been added to curriculums, accounts of the LGBT movement seldom are.

Matt knew the highlights: The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, when gays finally stood up to police. Arson at a New Orleans gay bar in 1973, which killed 32 people. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was murdered in 1978. And Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and left to die in Wyoming, in 1998, the same year Matt was born.

"I know being gay used to be considered a mental disorder," he said. "And I know it used to be illegal."

Instead of causing people to retreat further into the closet, past attacks on the gay community brought people out.

At the time of the Stonewall Riots, there were about 50 gay groups in the country. A year later, there were at least 1,500, said activist Frank Kameny, who organized gays to picket the White House in 1965. Two years after the riots, Kameny said, the number of gay groups had grown to 2,500.

Milk knew someone would shoot him, and hoped his death would help others. "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country," he said.

"Sometimes it takes a crisis to get people to come out," said Dr. Judith Glassgold, 59, an executive at the American Psychological Association. "Human connections can provide solace and a sense of safety."

Matt and his sister had talked about how glad they are to be growing up now, when being gay is next to normal. Gay people are being elected to Congress, hosting talk shows, playing professional sports. They can even get married.

"All these people fought for us for all those years," Matt said. "We don't remember their pain."

He and so many young people thought the violence was behind them.

But Sunday's attack shattered Matt's dream of going to Pulse — or any other gathering of gay people.

"I wouldn't put myself in that possibility of danger," he said.

He had never felt such fear.

• • •

Monday morning, Matt's neighborhood was still on lockdown.

He steered past stone-faced troopers and gawking residents.

He had a summer internship at the marketing company contracted by Orlando Regional Medical Center. Usually, he spent the days sifting through the hospital's social media feeds. But now the hospital was full of shooting victims.

Matt found himself fielding online pleas from desperate people. Has my son been brought in? How's my partner? One woman emailed a detailed description of her daughter's outfit, and who she had been with at Pulse.

"I felt this enormous sense of shame," he said. "All those people who had gone out that night, they weren't afraid."

Still, he refused to go to the Monday night vigil. He didn't want to be out there, surrounded by thousands of gay people. What if protesters showed up? What if another shooter took aim? What if someone from school saw him?

"Orlando PD is saying don't do it," Matt told his sister. "There's not enough police to protect everyone."

Sara scowled. "Now is not the time to stay inside," she said.

No thanks, Matt said. He was going to shoot pictures of Pulse, of the broken building and blocked-off roads. He wanted to document the aftermath through a long lens.

• • •

Maybe it was the news teams that had planted tents so anchors could have shade to blot their make-up. Maybe it was the TV reporters who kept pontificating about politics and guns instead of talking about the victims. Maybe it was the way they joked and laughed, as if no one had died.

Did being detached mean being insensitive?

Mostly, Matt said, it was the security guard who confronted him while he was photographing the fresh scars on his neighborhood.

"Hey!" the guard yelled. "You don't belong here."

"I don't belong?" Matt snapped. "I live here."

As the sun slipped behind the hospital, Matt turned back toward the nightclub for a few final photos. The towering satellite dishes, the hedge of microphones, the new normal. All the sidewalks wrapped in sunshine-colored police tape.

Matt was walking back to his car when it hit him:

Thousands of people from all over Florida had flocked to a downtown park to raise candles. News crews from across the world had come to watch.

And here he was, scouring the streets stained with yesterday's headlines, afraid to embrace either of his identities.

He is gay. He wants to be a journalist. Both will force him to confront realities that make him afraid.

"If this is what I want to do, I should start now," he told himself.

He didn't have to talk to anyone. He just had to be there.

• • •

It was dark when Matt approached the park, except for a few flames flickering on the ground. People had set candles on cardboard signs, planted them beside pinwheels and around pictures of lost loved ones.

Matt walked against the thinning crowd, folks of every race and age. Wearing cowboy hats and do rags, silk ties and homemade tattoos, nun costumes, military caps, Republican T-shirts. Everyone seemed to be with someone.

Matt hid behind his camera, trying to focus.

He moved on through the makeshift monuments, photographed a twirling toddler and a girl playing guitar. When he saw a sobbing young woman, about his age, he stopped to frame the shot. Then put down his camera.

Usually, Matt wasn't a hugger. But he draped his arm around the girl. When she hugged him back, he started to cry. Others came, and enveloped them both. They held each other up.

He had planned to go to Pulse this summer with his siblings, to finally dip his toe into the new world he hoped to enter.

Instead, he dived into a sea of strangers. And they embraced him.

• • •

Monday night, from the window of his third-floor bedroom, Matt could see a halo from the police strobes. People still were suffering in the hospital. Families were starting to plan funerals.

He flipped through his photos and tagged the most emotional: people hurting, hugging and singing. Wide shots to show the swath of the scene. Tight zooms on shimmering tears.

People should see this, he thought. They should feel it.

He uploaded an album to his Facebook, 80 pictures, and started to type.

He was ready for everyone to know.

Last night, I trudged back to my car from the Pulse Shooting Vigil with my camera in my right hand, its grip sticky with sweat and its backside covered in tears. I went to the event as a journalist, to try to showcase the pain my city was feeling, but I found myself swept up in the sadness. I cried with people who I had never met over loved ones whose names I did not know. I hugged strangers who sat alone in the grass, tears flowing down their faces. I witnessed a mass outpouring of hurt.

But this pain is not a display of weakness. This pain is not surrender. This attack on the LGBT+ community, my community, proves its resilience and strength. We stood in defiance of fear to show our love and fortitude to the whole world. Forty-nine people may now have passed, but we stand united still, with the world at our backs.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Lane DeGregory at or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.