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Tampa Bay LGBT community struggles to make sense of Orlando massacre

An American and rainbow flags stand at half-staff Sunday at the LGBT Welcome Center on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
An American and rainbow flags stand at half-staff Sunday at the LGBT Welcome Center on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
Published Jun. 13, 2016

Shock, fear and sadness from Sunday morning's mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest in U.S. history, could be felt throughout Tampa Bay.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community worked through a rainy morning and afternoon to make sense of the tragedy.

With St. Petersburg Pride weekend only two weeks away, security loomed as chief concern.

St. Pete Pride executive director Eric Skains said security has been tightened at the weekendlong event, which draws up to 100,000 people annually, ever since the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. Pride events are scheduled from June 22-26 throughout downtown St. Petersburg.

There will be a visible security presence at Pride as well as plain-clothes officers, Skains said. Officials with the event are also reaching out to Orlando Pride to invite them to attend and assist in a moment of recognition for the lives lost in the shooting.

St. Pete Pride won't be derailed by the act of terror, Skains said. Instead, it will bring members of the LGBT community together to support those reeling from the shooting.

"We won't let this deter us from coming together as a community," Skains said. "This isn't the first time there's been a violent act against LGBT people, and hopefully this raises awareness and brings back the purpose of Pride, which is to commemorate all the acts we have overcome. This is a time for us to stand together."

Carrie West, founding member of Tampa Pride and the GaYBOR District Coalition, spent Sunday morning desperately searching for friends. Some who work for Al and Chuck Travel, an LGBT travel company, were at Pulse on Saturday night and were still missing Sunday.

"We're looking on Facebook, checking local hospitals. We just have nothing right now," West said. "So many people from Tampa go to Orlando on Saturdays, especially for Latin night. We're just totally involved in the sorrow of what's happening. I'm just really, really sad."

West said Edward Sotomayor, national brand manager for Al and Chuck Travel and a University of South Florida graduate, was shot in the club and underwent surgery at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Orlando police reported later that he was among those who died.

West's partner, Mark Bias, was called in to an early morning meeting at Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City, where he is a bartender, to go over safety precautions and procedures. For now, the club and restaurant plan to open as normal, but the establishment has already received numerous cancelled reservations, West said.

A group from Tampa Pride went to Orlando to see where and how they can help while others have left to donate blood. State law, however, prevents homosexuals from donating blood for fear of HIV/AIDS or other viruses, he said.

"It's still the law of the land we can't give blood," West said. "People are trying to help and they're just eliminating the pool of people and our community needs it."

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"It's really felt on your sleeve, the tears of what happened here," West said.

West said the GaYBOR District Coalition and others are working to organize a vigil tonight in Centennial Park. A vigil for victims is also scheduled for 7 tonight at the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa.

Lorraine Langlois, CEO of Metro Wellness and Community Centers, said the organization is accepting monetary donations for the LGBT Center of Central Florida in Orlando. Metro Wellness brought in extra counselors to the LGBT Welcome Center in St. Petersburg on Sunday afternoon to help those affected. It is also accepting snacks to donate to those working in Orlando.

"We'll just have to wait and see. Once the list comes out of who has died and who is in critical condition, then more people will know how they've been affected," Langlois said. "With Pride coming up, it's just a time where we have a lot of crazy people and copycats so we'll just have to see what happens."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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