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After Pulse, queer and trans African-American and Latinx leaders in Orlando carve spaces of their own

A different table

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The first time Robin Harris and Charlotte "ChaCha" Davis met was in the Orange County jail.

The two women were arrested along with eight other people singing "This Little Light of Mine" after they refused to leave a sit-in at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's downtown Orlando office. It had been almost a month since the massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse, in which a gunman killed 49 people and injured countless others during Latin Night. Frustration was running high after Rubio, a Miami Republican who consistently supported homophobic policies like banning LGBTQ couples from adopting children, used the Pulse tragedy as the reason he was running for re-election. Florida's junior senator also came under fire from activists for letting gun violence run amok while accepting money from lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association.

But that's not why Davis got arrested. The local club promoter and community organizer was there because in all of the stories and the vigils after Pulse, Orlando's queer and transgender African-American community had been erased from the narrative, despite the fact that more than a fifth of the victims were black.

"The community wasn't being included," she says. "My focus was on bringing people to the forefront who had not gotten to tell their stories."

As news of the worst mass shooting in modern American history got out on June 12, the national media was criticized for failing to acknowledge that the shooter had not only targeted a gay club, but also that he had attacked on Latin Night, when most of the people partying and dancing would be Latinxs. Despite people recognizing that particular intersectionality, Davis says they couldn't see that other intersecting social identities existed that night among the people who were murdered and push resources out to survivors who needed it. The Pulse massacre highlighted a divide that already existed within Orlando's LGBTQ community. Separated by past decades of housing segregation, Interstate 4 and an inadequate public transit system, the queer African-American community living in West Orlando deals with higher levels of police brutality, racial discrimination and less access to health resources on top of tackling homophobia.

"The issues I have about being a black woman here in Orlando outweigh me being a black lesbian here in Orlando," Davis says. "And as a black woman living here, it has been awful. The police have been harassing my son since he was 14. It's awful to raise kids here."

After being handcuffed with plastic zip-ties and held in a jail cell for hours, Harris felt like she had taken a stand for the people who died at Pulse that experienced many of the same things she'd experienced as a black lesbian. But after the election, Harris says the organizations that had started the sit-in shifted their focus away from Rubio and ultimately, the issues still plaguing Orlando's queer black community.

"I felt abandoned," she says. "Post-Pulse, there was no space created for us to grieve and heal. I think what it boils down to is that everything we're seeking, we have to become it. What we're looking for somebody else to do for us, we have to do it ourselves."

So, they did it. Instead of finding a seat at the table, Davis, Harris and other LGBTQ African-Americans in Orlando made their own table, so to speak, by making a home at Orlando OASIS Community Outreach, a grass-roots group started by Pastor Brei Taylor.

Taylor, who also helped found an LGBT-affirming ministry in town, says she started the organization to empower LGBTQ people of color in Central Florida. Some of their first conversations were forums addressing the racism and discrimination within the queer community. Ultimately, Taylor and other community organizers want to establish a place with a variety of resources, including AIDS/HIV education and prevention.

"We wanted create a safe space in our black community for people to decompress because we haven't really had a welcoming space that wasn't club-oriented or a church service," she says. "We want genuine inclusion fostered by authentic representation."

Like Harris, Viviana Troche felt some of the same isolation after Pulse. When the shootings happened, she was living in Poinciana, one of the many communities of Latinxs spread like patchwork across Central Florida. In the past, she had driven the hour it took to get to Pulse to listen to Spanish music among her lesbian and queer friends, losing herself in the memories of her hometown pier in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Like her, many of the victims were Puerto Rican and would drive the half-hour from Kissimmee just to be themselves and dance. Without that safe space, she says she felt alone and depressed in a place with few, if any, LGBTQ resources.

"It was this utter emptiness, like my body felt like it had no organs, but at the same time, it felt heavy, like it was full of cement," she says. "I would wake up feeling like I was just waiting for my turn."

Troche eventually discovered QLatinx, a community organization that sprung up after the tragedy to focus on healing and empowering queer and trans Latinxs when many of the governmental agencies and institutional LGBTQ organizations couldn't provide services in a language other than English. They meet on a weekly basis to talk about a variety of issues affecting LGBTQ Latinxs, like immigrants rights, mental health and coming out to their families. Christopher Cuevas, one of the founders of QLatinx, says the group started as a group of strangers who got together in someone's living room right after Pulse.

"We just sat there eating, crying, laughing and sharing these beautiful memories," he says. "In that moment, I just needed to be in community with queer people of color that understood me."

Kent Marrero, who identifies as a genderqueer transgender person, recently started attending QLatinx as a space to heal after Pulse. Marrero, who uses the pronoun "they," says there's still a long way to go for racism and colorism to be addressed in the Latinx community and the larger LGBTQ community. They say sometimes it might seem like these communities are intentionally trying not to feel united with the rest of Orlando, but that's not the case.

"In order to be 'Orlando United,' we also need to make sure these communities are being listened to and that it's not just business as usual," Marrero says. "We need to make something better for the future, like create a city united in diversity, not in homogenization."

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