How is Pulse to Be Done?
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
As an anthropologist who has observed, documented, and written about the Pulse shooting and its aftermath for the past three years; as a queer who went to Pulse weekly while an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida after it opened in 2004; and as a local resident who continues to grieve insurmountable losses as a result of the shooting, I believe that now is the time to reevaluate plans for an on-site Pulse museum and memorial.
Why? Because new information has been made public about the actual plans for the museum, as well as how money is being raised and spent. What was once just an idea—an optional checkbox on an unscientific survey—is closer to becoming a concrete reality. Continual evaluation and public input should be a welcomed part of the planning process. The OnePulse Foundation should be open to altering their course of action on the basis of community input rather than steamrolling ahead with their plans, which are increasingly being challenged by tens of thousands of people.
I have regularly devoted unpaid labor to visiting the Pulse memorial to document how it has changed over time. When I went to the Pulse memorial last month to continue this work, I was stopped by an armed security guard who asked me if I was taking pictures for commercial purposes. She told me that doing so was not allowed because the grounds were private property. As someone who is unmistakably queer, being approached and policed by an armed security guard while in this space felt intrusive, triggering, and grotesque. It was also a reminder that Pulse continues to be a privately-owned space and not a public one. This is an important distinction, especially considering that the City of Orlando offered to pay Barbara Poma $2.25 million to make it a public space, which she rejected even though it was substantially more than the assessed value of the property. In addition, personal liability will likely require the proposed on-site Pulse museum to have additional security and surveillance if it opens. This ignores the historically complicated relationship that LGBTQ+ people have with police, including continued concerns over the policing of queer spaces and queer people, especially for queers of color. Is a welcoming and empowering sanctuary even possible under these conditions?
Of the controversies and allegations swirling around Ms. Poma, the reported $150,000 annual salary she makes running the OnePulse Foundation is particularly egregious (Released 990s, put this figure over $100k, which is still awful). Some have sought to justify her salary, claiming it is commensurate with CEO salaries at other non-profits. I, suggest, however, that such sums should instead prompt us to join those scrutinizing the non-profit industrial complex of putting public funds into private pockets. Other people have claimed that Ms. Poma’s salary is justified because it requires a high level of emotional labor. But, for the past three years, librarians and museum workers have already been doing the emotionally-draining labor required to memorialize Pulse victims at a fraction of the cost, with little recognition, and their difficult work does not entail attending Hollywood fundraisers. Another salient question asks: How can any salary, particularly one that is more than what was proposed by local lawmakers, be justified when there are survivors who testify to the difficulty of paying for their ongoing medical costs? This is a situation punctuated by the fact that the Orlando United Assistance Center, which has been the only local organization to provide expansive care and monetary support to survivors, is due to run out of federal grant funding within the next few months.
I support a more expansive view of honoring victims and supporting survivors that includes redirecting taxpayer money approved for the OnePulse Foundation towards funding an off-site, free public memorial park where everyone can go to mourn and reflect. I imagine such a space would include a memorial marker naming the lost, a reflection pool, substantial green space, art by local queer artists, and an acknowledgement of the role that U.S. imperialism and militarism had in shaping the mass shooting and its aftermath. Instead of the ominous presence of private security forces and surveillance, such a park would provide a peaceful place to gather, grieve, and process emotional trauma.
Requiring only a fraction of the cost of the proposed $40 million museum, such a park would also free leftover funds to be invested in the continued care of survivors, creating an expansive open-source LGBTQ+ K-12 curriculum, and organizing to make this curriculum mandatory for all Florida public schools. There has already been a public discussion about the need to update Florida’s sex education classes. Florida can join states like Colorado, New Jersey, and California that have already mandated the recognition of the contributions of LGBTQ people in history and social studies curricula. This would be an investment in educating all children, not just those who visit Orlando’s proposed “pay to grieve” attraction.
If Pulse being privately-owned remains a prerogative, it should be razed and rebuilt to become the largest queer dance hall in the state. Transform it into a worker co-op so that it can become the most formidable worker-owned gay bar in the country. While the former idea was considered early-on, the latter was not. True to the nightclub’s legacy, this new business model could ensure that lifetime dividends are paid to survivors and then, afterwards, to other community-building projects. Such an intervention would answer calls for resiliency that were voiced in the aftermath of the shooting—to “Keep Dancing.” It would also give Pulse the potential to revolutionize American gay culture, saving queer spaces and revitalizing queer communities.
Radically transforming the way gay business is done may well require that Ms. Poma sell the property at 1912 South Orange Avenue for a fair price, dismantle her board of corporate executives and representatives, and reject paychecks that have been made possible only through commodifying gay death. This means acknowledging that just because someone owned a 4,449 square-foot gay bar at the time of the shooting does not qualify them to lead the monumental task of carrying out the best interests of the LGBTQ+ people affected.
Therefore, it is reasonable to ask: Just how deep is Ms. Poma’s commitment to the LGBTQ+ community? Enough to step down from being the self-appointed executor of the will of those unconscionably taken before their time? To forgo an income that reeks of exploitation? To graciously invite queers to take the reins in memorializing our friends, dance partners, drinking buddies, and lovers? To us, the victims and survivors of the shooting were not former customers or minimum-wage employees (several of whom needed to have second jobs). To us, they inspire conceiving an expansive vision of our future that includes an end to gun violence, the decolonization of Puerto Rico, dismantling racial inequality, defying neoliberal multiculturalism, and the achievement of other aspirations that have yet to be articulated because of the lack of a sufficiently robust public debate.
Thus, Sara Grossman’s commentary titled, “Museum or rubble,” published in The Advocate, presents a false choice that—in presuming to speak for a victim—threatens to close the space for open dialogue. Furthermore, charges of malfeasance have compelled Ms. Poma to issue reassurances that the OnePulse Foundation is conducting itself legally, transparently, and only with the support and guidance of victim's families, survivors, and "the community." Such reassurances serve to preempt further inquiry and shame critiques into silence, while also avoiding substantive engagement with calls for public input, oversight, and debate.
Still, with the backing of celebrities, politicians, and major corporations, the OnePulse Foundation is on track to reproduce the capitalist practices of memorialization that will turn Orlando into just another market on the “dark tourism” map. Regardless, I implore people to keep imagining queer alternatives. A plan to honor our friends, family, and lovers with a public memorial park seems to be a more ethical choice at a time when queer public spaces are nearly non-existent, queers continue to challenge oppressive systems of security and surveillance, and environmental crises demand the proliferation of urban green spaces.
Instead of holding against us our supposed lack of participation during an exclusionary process of “public engagement,” perhaps the OnePulse Foundation and others will reconsider their proposed plans and respect the time it takes for a community—the families we choose—to grieve, reflect, generate new ideas, and become comfortable and confident enough to contribute to the discussion. Queers are always late to the party and we are in no rush to follow a manufactured timeline that best suits Ms. Poma’s bottom line.