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Tampa Bay LGBTQ community reflects on five years since Pulse shooting

Five years after the Orlando shooting, one survivor is still putting his life back together. Loved ones are still mourned. Others live new lives in honor of those who were lost.
Survivor Michael Morales, 39, poses for a portrait in the living room of his Tampa home in front of a wall displaying tangible memories of his fiancé Martin Benitez on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago.
Survivor Michael Morales, 39, poses for a portrait in the living room of his Tampa home in front of a wall displaying tangible memories of his fiancé Martin Benitez on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 12
Updated Jun. 12

In the three years they dated, Martín Benítez would only dance with Michael Morales.

“‘My friends would ask him to dance and he’d say, ‘No, I only dance with Michael,’” Morales said.

The Tampa couple’s last dance was June 11, 2016 at Pulse. Hours later, the gay nightclub in Orlando was attacked in the single deadliest incident of violence against LGBTQ people in the U.S. A gunman killed 49 and wounded 53. One of them was Morales, who was shot three times in the left leg and once in the right. The love of his life died in his arms.

Related: Five years later, the pain of Pulse lingers in Orlando

Now 39, Morales has endured 16 surgeries and anticipates two more. His last shift as a nurse was the day before the mass shooting, and he has struggled to find work in the years since. Morales said limited mobility hurts his chances of getting hired. During interviews, he said, when employers learn about the extended gap in his resume, they seem unwilling to accept his mental and physical traumas.

“Instead of thinking I can be an asset, that I can share my story and show that anything is possible,” Morales said, “hospitals are a business, and they see me as a liability.”

Saturday marks five years since the mass shooting, and the aftershocks still reverberate across Tampa Bay and its LGBTQ community. Pulse had a profound effect, even on those who didn’t know the victims.

• • •

Julia Koffee (left) and her wife Jenna (right) tied the knot in April in an outdoor wedding in Islamorada. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg.
Julia Koffee (left) and her wife Jenna (right) tied the knot in April in an outdoor wedding in Islamorada. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg. [ ROSE WONG | Times ]

When Julia Koffee, 33, thinks about Pulse, she’s really thinking about her high school crush.

Her crush had dark brown hair and demanded to be let onto the men’s high school football team at Admiral Farragut Academy. The school relented, but the rookie receiver broke her leg in the first weeks of the season. She and Koffee were best friends in middle school and freshman year of high school, then grew apart as upperclassmen. Koffee never told her how she felt. Her friend later moved to Orlando.

After the shooting, Koffee saw an emotional Facebook post from her old crush.

“She said she went to Pulse all the time,” Koffee said. “She wasn’t there that night, but all her friends were there. She had a lot of survivor’s guilt.”

Weeks later, Koffee learned via Facebook that her friend checked into a rehabilitation center for alcoholism. Koffee reached out but got no response.

Months after the attack, Koffee saw a social media post that her friend had died of an overdose.

Koffee, the general manager of Paciugo Gelato and Caffè on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive NE, knows the losses suffered on June 12, 2016, go beyond that night:

“It’s also the people around it, the people who are close to those people, and people who, by some quirk of fate, weren’t there.”

• • •

Lauren Ross, 35, regrets coping from the loss of her close friend in the Pulse shooting on her own.  “In my mind, I would’ve been burdening my friends and family with my emotions and grief.” This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg.
Lauren Ross, 35, regrets coping from the loss of her close friend in the Pulse shooting on her own. “In my mind, I would’ve been burdening my friends and family with my emotions and grief.” This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg. [ ROSE WONG | Times ]

Twelve days after the attack, at a benefit concert for the OneOrlando Fund, Lauren Ross couldn’t stop crying. She had lost her close friend and several acquaintances at Pulse.

She had to leave an hour into the concert.

“I chose to struggle alone and if I could go back, I would do it differently,” said Ross, 35. “In my mind, I would’ve been burdening my friends and family with my emotions and grief.”

Ross asked the Tampa Bay Times not to use the name of her friend to protect her friend’s privacy. Ross, a senior administrator in the accounting department of L’Oreal USA, met her friend through work. They were bright, bubbly and “seemed to know exactly where they fit in this world.” Ross, though, was a closeted queer woman struggling to find her identity.

She moved from Orlando to St. Petersburg three years ago. When the pandemic struck, Ross felt isolated from her friends in the performing arts and LGBTQ community. But she said it gave her time to reflect. When she was labelled as straight, it felt like denying a part of herself, but bisexual and gay didn’t feel accurate, either. Then she found her answer: She was pansexual. Her affections were not limited by gender.

She shared her true identity with close family and friends, and then celebrated her own Independence Day on July 4, 2020, when she told the internet.

Ross said she feels less alone today than she did five years ago. Ross thanks her friend for making it possible.

“Seeing them live their life so freely and openly was certainly a big part of what inspired me to live my truth,” Ross said. “All I can do now is hope that they would be proud of me.”

• • •

Jonathan Soots, 36, sees a "direct attack on the trans community" by the state and national government. "The LGB needs to stand with them," he said. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg.
Jonathan Soots, 36, sees a "direct attack on the trans community" by the state and national government. "The LGB needs to stand with them," he said. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg. [ ROSE WONG | Times ]

On one of their first dates, Jonathan Soots’ husband took him out on his deck boat.

They met up in downtown St. Petersburg, where Soots thought the boat was “just the most adorable little thing.”

That was also the day they learned that their friend Eddie Sotomayor Jr. died in the shooting. More than 500 attended the 34-year-old’s celebration of life in Sarasota.

Still in the bud of their relationship, Soots, 36, and his future husband turned to each other for support. They bonded over their memories of Sotomayor and attended his funeral together.

The two married 2½ years later. They credit their late friend for bringing them together.

At their wedding, Soots told family and friends about attending the vigil held for Pulse victims in downtown Orlando at the end of June 2016. It had rained earlier that day. Soots recalled seeing a rainbow, “from the direction of Pulse on Orange Avenue.”

“I think Eddie would be happy and more than likely give a blessing,” Soots said.

• • •

While Joey Buccellato (right) helped Roger Warren (left) come out as a gay man, Buccellato, 29, realized his boyfriend also helped him grow into a more patient, empathetic person who's less critical of others. "We really made each other better," he said. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg.
While Joey Buccellato (right) helped Roger Warren (left) come out as a gay man, Buccellato, 29, realized his boyfriend also helped him grow into a more patient, empathetic person who's less critical of others. "We really made each other better," he said. This photo was taken June 5 at St. Pete PrideFest in St. Petersburg. [ ROSE WONG | Times ]

Joey Buccellato, 29, wasn’t at Pulse that night and didn’t know anyone who was.

Still, in the months afterward, he refused to visit crowded clubs or bars. To this day, he avoids partying in enclosed spaces without establishing an escape route.

As a gay man, Buccellato believes that he must always be on guard.

“There’s always that fear that there’s a hateful person amongst the crowd,” he said.

“It affects me more than I would think.”

Buccellato didn’t find safety somewhere but rather with someone. In February 2019, he matched on Tinder with Roger Warren, a 28-year-old warehouse manager for a company that makes paint-by-numbers kits. Warren had been a closeted gay man who only dated women. Buccellato made him realize he didn’t want to hide anymore.

Warren’s father told him to take care of himself and hasn’t communicated with his son since. So Warren grew closer to others, to friends old and new. That includes his boss, who “treats me like a son,” he said.

“It just showed me who really loves me and who doesn’t.”

Buccellato and Warren now live together in Tampa. Buccellato, a food delivery service driver, said that he used to think he was the change agent in the relationship, helping Warren own his identity as a gay man. But in time, Buccellato said he’s realized that Warren has made him a far more patient and empathetic person.

“We really made each other better,” Buccellato said.

• • •

For many, it’s hard to reflect on Pulse without thinking of the current political climate.

On June 1, the first day of Pride month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning transgender females from women’s and girls’ scholastic sports. One the second day of Pride, he vetoed $150,000 that would have funded mental health services for Pulse survivors.

The governor says the timing is unintentional, and his office says DeSantis has actually expanded mental health funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. But Ross sees it as an intended slight.

“It’s a big slap in the face,” Ross said.

Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith agrees.

“We’ve been able to defeat every anti-LGBT piece of legislation for the 25 years of our existence because we could work with moderate Republicans who served as an emergency brake to the extremes of the party,” Smith said. ”We’re seeing an anti-democratic push by a party that is consolidating power and demanding loyalty to its most extreme impulses.”

Koffee said she wouldn’t live in Florida if she wasn’t in a gay-friendly space such as St. Petersburg. She believes that politically, the state is increasingly anti-LGBTQ.

One of the great tragedies of Pulse, Koffee said, is how much hasn’t changed since then.

“It wasn’t a big wake-up call to be nicer to (LGBTQ) people.”

• • •

Items that Martin Benitez wore the night he died at Pulse nightclub in Orlando are displayed in his fiancé Michael Morales' living room on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago. Morales was shot four times.
Items that Martin Benitez wore the night he died at Pulse nightclub in Orlando are displayed in his fiancé Michael Morales' living room on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago. Morales was shot four times. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Pictures of Michael Morales and his late fiancé Martin Benitez seen on a wall in Morales' Tampa living room on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago. Morales was shot four times.
Pictures of Michael Morales and his late fiancé Martin Benitez seen on a wall in Morales' Tampa living room on Thursday. Benitez was one of 49 victims who died in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando five years ago. Morales was shot four times. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Michael Morales and Martín Benítez got engaged in 2014. They were saving for a wedding in New York City’s Central Park and then a big party in Puerto Rico uniting both their families. They set a date for fall 2018, eager to say their vows under the yellow, orange and red leaves.

Those were Morales’ elaborate wedding plans. Benítez wanted to get married right away. Morales said that he only wanted to do it once, so it had to be right.

Sometimes, Morales regrets waiting.

His $5,000 check from the OneOrlando Fund ran out long ago. He gets by on monthly disability checks. Still, the former nurse plans for the future. He is pursuing a master’s degree in nursing at Ana G. Méndez University in Tampa. Benítez was once a student there and was awarded a posthumous degree.

Morales, who lives in Town ‘N Country, said he’s on track to graduate next summer and hopes to become a nurse practitioner. He wants to give patients the compassion and care that he said he has been denied since he was shot.

“Going back to school was a goal of mine before Pulse happened, and I had to put it on hold,” he said. “So I’m very happy.”

In November, after years of physical therapy, he can now walk without a cane. Four months ago, Morales reunited with “one of [his] favorite things in the world” — Salsa dancing.

And he’s open to finding love again.

“Maybe someone will see this interview and find me,” Morales said with a laugh.