The 2016 Pulse massacre reverberates still through Orlando city politics. Councilwoman Patty Sheehan, whose district includes Pulse, talks with Baltimore OUTloud
On June 12th, 2016, a deranged gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse, a gay bar and dance club in Orlando. “Some families lost their only child and another family lost a mother. So much pain,” said Commissioner Patty Sheehan, Orlando City Councilwoman who represents the district where Pulse was located and is herself a member of the LGBT community. “It was a hate crime against the LGBTQ people.”
Sheehan notes that since the nightmare, victims are still struggling and some have died. “Officer Debra Clayton, one of the first to respond to the Pulse shooting, was killed in the line of duty in January. Two survivors have died. Others have lost their jobs and lost their apartments because they are still in crisis mode.”
The two survivors that have died are Chris Brodman and Jahqui Sevilla. Brodman died suddenly on September 11th, 2016 from a rare brain hemorrhage and Sevilla died on May 30th in a car crash. On May 1st, Johnathan Amaya, also a survivor, was diagnosed with Acute T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, though fortunately with a 90% remission rate.
Sheehan noted that the shock of such evil brought the community together. “The First Baptist Church and other conservative churches, evangelicals, have outreached to the gay community. There is a positive change in the religious community. People are talking to one another,” Sheehan says.
Sheehan said that one of the most beautiful memorials to the victims were the 49 floral wreathes that adorned the rotunda of Orlando City Hall. The flowers were donated by Kuhn Flowers and the wreaths were assembled by Katherine’s florists.
On May 4th, 2017, Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse, announced that there are plans to turn the site into a memorial and museum to commemorate the tragic event. The city had planned to purchase the site in November, but Mayor Buddy Dyer pulled it. (Members of the Orlando City Council are the mayor, elected at-large, and six city commissioners, who are elected from respective districts.) “Commissioners [Tony] Ortiz, [Robert] Stuart, and [Jim] Gray would have voted against it. Dyer saw it was going to be a divisive vote, so he pulled it. Had it passed, it would have been hard to work with them [Ortiz, Stuart, and Gray] on it. I support Dyer’s decision to pull it.”
Ortiz’s argument against it was the price – he said he didn’t want the city to overpay for the site, but Sheehan was skeptical. “After the election of Donald Trump, everything changed. Suddenly people thought they could act different. Commissioners have overpaid for land before,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan believes that City Hall will be supportive of Poma’s decision, but notes there could be problems on the horizon. “From an urban-planning perspective, Pulse worked for the area: medical during the day, and club at night. Less traffic congestion. A museum will bring more traffic during the day.”
Sheehan’s efforts to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ community have not been without criticism. On March 29th, Michael Hristakopoulos, a 27-year-old member of the Orlando Sentinel editorial advisory board and political science professor at Valencia College, published, “Commentary: Patty Sheehan’s divisive pandering turns Pulse Unity Day into private platform,” a scathing article because Sheehan was critical of Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs for not saying “gay community” in a video featured on OrlandoUnitedDay.com and that Sheehan does not use the term “anniversary” for the yearly date. (Orlando is inside Orange County. Orange County has an at-large mayor and six commissioners who are elected from respective districts.)
Sheehan points out that, “There will always be people that are critical, whether in their communities or outside. This was an attack on LGBTQ people. People should not forget. It is a one-year mark, not anniversary.”
Sheehan, elected in 2000 and re-elected four times since, may have a point. On June 12th, 2016, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was widely quoted in several news outlets when describing the Pulse massacre as saying, “It was a young person’s nightclub. I’m told. And there were some there, but mostly Latinos.” The term “gay” or any indication that Pulse was a gay venue is noticeably absent. Sheehan believes it is important that people not forget it was an attacked on the LGBTQ community.
The city has also faced criticism. On June 14th, 2017, C. Britt Beemer, an Orlando Sentinel guest columnist, published, “As Disney reports drop in guests, is Orlando’s post-Pulse embrace of LGBT too tight?” Sheehan staunchly disagrees with Beemer’s contention. “If tourism is down, it is because of Trump’s immigration policies. When you keep people out, you keep tourist out.”
Beemer’s article was such an embarrassment that on June 17th, Scott Maxwell, an Orlando Sentinel political reporter, published an article, “Boycott the Sentinel? I was embarrassed by this column … and by the reaction,” countering Beemer’s logic.
“People are coming to Orlando, despite what a few say,” Sheehan says.
Since the Pulse massacre, Sheehan notes that stronger friendships have formed. Jacobs gave Sheehan a beautiful rainbow rosary on June 12th. “This has meaning on many levels. I have returned to my faith after being shunned for my identity as a gay person.”
Sheehan is single and plans to continue what she is doing. Sheehan says, “I love my job. I love helping people and I am dedicated to Orlando.”