DUNEDIN — One night a week for 10 years, Natasha Richards made a 100-mile drive to Orlando, only to drive another 100 back the next day, so she could work a shift at Pulse. It wasn't just a bar, she says. "It was a home."
She made the trip to put on Latin Night, a drag show event she and her friends originally brought to the nightclub from another Orlando gay bar that turned straight in the late 1990s. They wanted somewhere to feel free again, so they turned to Pulse. And it turned out to be just the place.
"They welcomed all of us — bartenders, drag queens — with open arms," she said. "They allowed us to come in and put on a night that we loved."
Richards, now 43, was born as a man and began to transition into a woman as a young adult living in New Port Richey. Everything was changing, so she moved to Dunedin in search of a more welcoming and tolerant community.
She eventually started doing drag shows at Blur, a popular local bar, and went on to win a string of more than 30 transgender beauty pageants. As her fame grew, she started performing throughout the state. But Pulse, although nearly two hours away, always drew her back.
"It was never just a building to me, because the people inside made it something more," Richards said. "They appreciated my work, my talent, my beauty. They valued me."
And that's how it was for every person — gay, lesbian, transgender or straight — that walked through Pulse's doors, she said.
"There were never any labels or limits or questions or hatred — only acceptance," Richards said. "People went there to be themselves. That was the heart of Pulse."
That always meant music and dancing, hugs, kisses — "lots of kisses" — and love, she said. It was a place for people to discard their troubles. A haven for harmony. A place to fully live.
"I am proud and honored to have been there and to have been a part of it all," Richards said.
Even though it has been years since she last performed at the nightclub, Richards says she made lasting friendships there. When she got news about the shooting, the first thing she thought to do was check on friends who may have been working.
"I knew the first thing I had to do was make sure my girls were okay," she said. "I found out two of them went out of an air duct system."
Richards said she never thought something like this could happen at a place that emitted so much light and positivity.
"This bar was nothing but joy and happiness and love, things (the shooter's) heart, like many other hearts, obviously couldn't understand," she said. "That's what is so shocking about this ... It was just a happy place to go, there was no negativity, but he demanded hate and evil."
Regardless of the taint the shooting has left on Pulse, Richards says she hopes to see it reopen. Seeing it torn down or closed would bring her to tears, break her spirit, she said.
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"It shouldn't happen. We must stand strong, stand by our beliefs and show everyone we are here to stay," she said. "If that building comes down, (the shooter) wins, and how dare he? We are the winners, always. Always. Nobody is taking us down."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.