What I Learned as an Orlando Native From the Recent Shootings

I woke up this morning to the possibility of my best friends being dead.

On the night of June 11, several of my sorority sisters had planned an evening in downtown Orlando to celebrate the graduation of one of our seniors. She is a vivacious free spirit who, as the glue to our social circle, hosts weekly dinner parties at her condo. This particular friend is one of the eldest in our makeshift 'family away from family.' She is a recent recipient of her bachelor’s degree in law enforcement, and us younger girls of the sorority look to her as someone inspiring, fiercely independent and full of potential. But when you live blissfully unaware of the evil in society, you forget to add full of life to your friends’ list of admirable qualities.

Though invited to their bar-hopping escapade, I decided to stay in that night. I had caught a cold a few days prior, and wanted to spend time with the guy I’ve been dating before he left on a two week FLETC training for his job with the TSA. While the group chat with my sisters exploded with funny pictures and inside jokes as they got ready for a night of dancing, I snuggled up on my couch to watch Minions. That feeling of normalcy now churns my stomach, and makes me feel more guilty than safe.

When I awoke to my sorority’s crisis app, I knew something that night had gone horribly wrong. To further explain, I am a student at the University of Central Florida. Several months ago I was headed to the library to finish an online final and my phone buzzed with an ominous text from our app that gives us updates on chapter, philanthropy events and socials. It was a short message from our president asking us to silently evacuate as there were reports of an active shooter. While these claims proved to be a false accusation against a Muslim woman praying, it could have potentially saved our lives should there had been a real shooting. I knew my sisters only received those kinds of messages during actual emergencies, which was why I immediately rolled over in bed to read the post in its entirety.

It didn’t take long to receive the news of the shooting at Pulse nightclub. My friends and I are no strangers to the establishment. I had gone there for a fraternity social, and my sisters enjoyed it for the friendly atmosphere. I turned on the TV to listen to eye-witness reports of the crime; people huddled in bathroom stalls and crouching behind the bar in fear for their lives. I began to remember the night I had visited the nightclub myself. I had once used those bathrooms. I had once hung out by that bar.

I then checked the group chat, and all of my sisters were assuring the girls who didn’t partake in the festivities the night prior that they were safe. My sisters had not visited Pulse that night, and were home in bed before the shooter even approached the scene. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was experiencing after picturing my best friends caught in crossfire. It was the same sinking aura I felt when there was a supposed shooter in my university’s library. And it was the same feeling I had when Christina Grimmie was murdered at The Plaza Live.

Yes, only days prior to the Pulse massacre, the concert venue my friends and I frequented was infiltrated by an armed man with little motive and plenty of vengeance. I had never listened to Grimmie’s music, but recognized the name of the venue immediately. It was across the street from a coffeehouse I attended every Friday evening for free comedy night. It was in an area rich in music, art and cuisine. The Plaza Live was a place I had always felt safe, and in a district I proudly called home.

I began to run over each tragedy in my mind, and started to grasp what was happening in my own backyard. There were killings at the places I felt most at peace. There was the largest shooting massacre in US history—almost higher than the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech murders combined—in the city I’ve grown up in most of my life. But out of those realizations, I began to learn things about my own community that I felt compelled to share.

1. I learned how real social issues are.

It is so easy to distance yourself from injustice when you live in a first world country, especially in the suburban lifestyle I have grown up in. I have two loving, married parents, and a supportive family who has helped me both financially and emotionally through college. While I’ve experienced forms of sexism in the actions of cat-calling and unsolicited physical harassment, I am a straight Caucasian woman who has never and will never experience discrimination based on my race or sexual orientation.

Before these shootings, issues in the world seemed so far away. Mass shootings were supposed to happen in far-off places. Even domestic terrorism didn’t seem palpable. While I felt grief for the victims and thirst for justice in prior terrorist attacks and high-profile murders, the profound indignation I should have felt just wasn’t there. And for that, I apologize to every victim I’ve ever seen on the news and didn’t take action for.

In Christina Grimmie’s case, violence against women and signs of abuse and stalking are frequently ignored. While police have still not found motive for Grimmie’s murder, it brings to light the silent horrors so often not reported by victims of stalking and harassment. According to John Carroll University, one in six women in the United States have experienced stalking in their lifetime. Of female victims of stalking, 66.2 percent were stalked by a current or former intimate partner, and three in 10 victims reported being injured emotionally or psychologically from being stalked.

As for the Pulse massacre, those who oppose the LGBTQ+ community are rarely silent in their bigotry. “There is a public perception that there is a sea change for LGBTQ people, and that is true for public opinion of LGBTQ people,” Chai Jindasurat, who coordinates programs with the  National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, told BuzzFeed News. “But it is still dangerous to be LGBTQ in the United States.”

Whenever a Millennial such as myself discusses issues such as rape culture, hate crimes, gun control, or mental illness, we are bombarded with excuses. We are told that crime has always existed and we are just getting old enough to understand it. We are told that despite the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence stating that every nine seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten, that 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and that 94 percent of the victims of these murder-suicides are female, these are issues that do not concern us. That when over 50 innocent lives are taken because they harmlessly attended an inclusive nightclub, there is always an excuse to stay silent. That was when I learned something else from the two recent shootings in my beloved city.

2. I learned it's time for a conversation.

The year is 2016 and families are still not teaching their children about consent. The year is 2016 and the largest U.S. mass shooting was targeted at an LGBTQ+ nightclub. The year is 2016 and a rapist is serving a maximum of six months in jail after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman because the judge, an alumnus of his university, saw potential in him as an athlete. The year is 2016 and it is time for a conversation; time to get the United States on the same page.

The only way to change a culture where rape and hate crimes are so prevalent is to educate our population. It may be uncomfortable because parents do not want to view their child as a potential rapist or bigot or murderer. A report by Equality Michigan offers suggestions to stop LGBTQ+ hate crimes, such as addressing the root causes of anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected violence through working to end poverty, homophobia, and stigma. And in my opinion, these tactics can be applied to other social issues to alleviate them once and for all.

When the largest hate crime in my country’s history happened mere minutes from my house, I was shocked to see the massive differentiation in opinions on the subject. Many of my friends were mourning the loss of loved ones who had attended Pulse that night, but some were more controversial on social media. They were defending the actions of the murderer, much like they had defended Christina Grimmie’s stalker and the actions of rapist Brock Turner the night he assaulted his victim. These were not anonymous blog posts, but the comments of my own friends and family. The racism, sexism and bigotry had reached my front porch, and I felt defenseless watching the online arguments ensue.

This is completely unacceptable.

As someone who has seen my community suffer firsthand by these recent shootings, I now know my country is in dire need of education on what has been for so long considered issues that do not concern us. Martin Niemölle, a prominent Protestant pastor during the Holocaust, once stated, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” If we do not start demanding our fellow citizens respect one another, educating our children on sexual violence, and holding violent criminals responsible for their actions, we are no better than useless bystanders.

But as I learned after the Pulse shooting, there is hope.

3. I learned that people are ready for this conversation.

Once I had dried my tears and made sure my sisters were safe, a friend of mine who lives in France sent me a panicked text message. He was worried I was hurt in the shooting. As I responded to him, I remembered sending him a similar message during the November 2015 Paris attacks in Saint-Dennis. And I remember him speaking of how his country came together shortly after the murders.

Through the ugly, shameful comments by trolls on my newsfeed, I saw more than 200 of my sorority sisters post blood donation locations. Friends and acquaintances alike were sharing the hashtag #PrayForOrlando and offering their company for those unable to share their emotions with anyone else. Profile pictures of their sunny summer breaks changed to images of my beautiful city; my beautiful Orlando.

Americans are ready for the conversation. We are ready to teach our children why touching an unconscious person behind a dumpster is not a stupid mistake, it is a violent crime. We are ready to stand up for minorities so that they are not exterminated en masse. We are ready to stop our pattern of telling women to report abuse to the police, then turning around to tell them they did it for attention.

I am an Orlando native and I have learned from the outpour of support that your prayers, if properly handled with education and love, may one day be answered.

Want to write pieces like this? Sign up for the Her Campus Story Prompts listserv to receive regular opportunities to write opinion pieces for HC.