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Mass shooting in Orlando: Why Pulse is more than just a bar

Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the site of the worst mass shooting in US history Sunday, is an important institution for Orlando's LGBT community.

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    Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orlando police chief John Mina and FBI agent Ron Hopper speak at a news conference after a shooting attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016.
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A gunman opened fire in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub early morning Sunday, killing approximately 50 people and injuring another 53. 

Clubgoers were enjoying an evening at Pulse, which describes itself as “the hottest gay bar in Orlando,” when shots started to go off around 2 am. A three-hour hostage situation ensued, ending when authorities used an armored vehicle to break down the door of the building and kill the gunman at around 5 am.

Sunday morning’s attack surpasses the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 to become the worst mass shooting in US history.

Authorities have identified the shooter as 29-year-old Omar Saddiqui Mateen from Fort Pierce, about 120 miles southeast of Orlando. CNN reports Mr. Mateen was previously trained as a security guard.

The federal government and FBI “have suggestions the individual has leanings towards [Islamic terrorism], but right now we can’t say definitely,” says Ron Hopper, assistant special agent of FBI’s Orlando bureau. But Mateen’s connection to Islamic terrorism has not been proven, leading authorities to also investigate the shooting as a possible hate crime against the LGBT community.

Pulse is more than just a terrible crime scene. Barbara Poma founded the club in 2004 to empower the city’s LGBT community after her brother John passed away. [Editor's note: An earlier version misspelled Ms. Poma's first name.]

“Being raised in a strict Italian family, being gay was frowned upon. However, when John came out to his family and friends, the family dynamic transitioned from a culture of strict tradition to one of acceptance and love,” says Pulse’s website. “At that time, the gay scene was a misunderstood culture that was shrouded in secrecy and mystery. To Barbara, John wasn’t gay. John was simply her loving brother that did her makeup, put highlights in her hair, and taught her everything she need to know about fashion.”

For the last 12 years, Pulse has held community events with Equality Florida, Come Out with Pride, Make a Wish, Equal at UCF, and more, keeping with the club’s larger vision for more than a fun night out. The club also hosts monthly LGBT-related education events

“Our mission at Pulse is to continue to raise the bar of awareness and be a part of our community in any way possible,” says the club’s website. 

"Pulse wasn't just about drinks and dancing – it was a place that invested in its community," Orlando resident and frequent Pulse visitor Daniel Leon-Davis writes for Fusion. "Although the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando is large, the reality is that Orlando is still in the South, and the hate these individuals have to face every day requires a place like Pulse to exist. Like so many gay nightclubs, Pulse played a major role in the community. This often gets dismissed because it's just a 'nightclub.' In reality, it was a community center. It was where you went to be yourself."

And Pulse has continued to shine a light on LGBT issues even in the immediate hours after the shooting. 

The Orlando office of OneBlood, a blood donation facility, tweeted that the bank was in “urgent need” of donations Sunday morning following the shooting. But within hours, OneBlood announced their bank was at capacity due to the long lines of volunteers who showed up to donate.

However, after the initial tweet at 10:40 Sunday morning, criticism of the United States’s stance on blood donation by the LGBT community resurfaced on social media by those who wanted to help but were prohibited due to their sexuality. The US Food and Drug Administration repealed a lifetime blood donation ban for gay men in December, but replaced it with a provision that some still call antiquated and discriminatory. Now, gay men are prohibited from donating blood if they have had sexual relations with another man within a year.

The shooting occurred during LGBT Pride Month, with parades and festivals planned for major cities across the United States. Boston, Los Angeles, and D.C. have events planned for this weekend, with more events planned for Denver, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco in the next two weeks. 

The hashtags #LoveIsLove, #PulseShooting, #Orlando, and #PrayForTheWorld were all trending on Twitter Sunday with politicians on both sides of the same-sex marriage and gun law debates – such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Florida Governor Rick Scott and the two presumed presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – tweeting their love and support to the victims' families.

Thousands are expected to gather in Washington DC Sunday for annual Capital Pride Festival and Mayor Muriel Bowser said the event will go on as planned, with extra security personnel.

“This morning, our hearts are heavy after hearing about the tragedy in Orlando,” Ms. Bowser said in a statement. “Today as always, we will not be deterred by hate as we gather to celebrate love.” 

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