Patrick Saunders: We must see what hate did

I was anxious. I kept up a steady conversation with the reporter next to me to keep my mind busy as the shuttle bus rumbled down I-4. What would it feel like to be there … like, actually there where it all happened?

It was March and I was in Orlando for an LGBT journalists conference. The day started with panel discussions on the shooting. We knew it would be a rough conversation when conference organizers walked around putting boxes of Kleenex on all the tables before it began.

The first panel consisted of reporters who covered the shooting on the ground in Orlando. Almost everyone in the room, me included, reported on it from afar. So the reporters on the panel were there to tell us what it was like. What did they see? What did they learn? None of them made it through their stories without reaching for the Kleenex.

After that was another speaker, this time a survivor, Ricardo Negron-Almodovar. He told us eloquently and thoughtfully about being badgered by reporters like us.

“When we’re going through that, we’re not thinking about your deadline. We don’t care about your deadline,” he said. “It was too much. It was honestly too much.”

He also talked about how a lot of LGBT media outlets were reporting that it was an attack on an LGBT club but didn’t mention that it was Latin night, and how Latin media outlets reported that it was Latin night but didn’t mention that it was an LGBT club. People who shared one of his identities didn’t want to claim another of his identities. He explained how that felt. I shook his hand and thanked him afterward.

That evening it was onto the shuttle. We weren’t going there to report, only to pay our respects. While I was busy chatting with my seatmate, I noticed we were getting off the exit. I looked out the left side of the bus just as we pulled up to the main drag – S. Orange Ave. When I turned to my right, there it was. That black sign. The white font. Pulse.

All the chatter turned quickly to complete silence. We pulled up in front of the club and got out. A gate wrapped around the entire property, with banners covering it so no one can see anything but the roof. Covering the banners were messages from people all over the world. “Love from Germany.” “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one remembers to turn on the light.” “Be yourself. Always.”

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what it’s like to stand 20 feet from where 49 people were killed and another 58 wounded. My main takeaway is how glad I am that I went.

We must see what hate did. We need to go there whether it’s an LGBT club in Orlando, a skyscraper in New York or a church in Charleston. We have to go there to pay our respects, really feel what happened there and give ourselves time to think about it.

It doesn’t make a mass killing any less tragic if we don’t go. But it can definitely open up a door of insight previously closed.