Dozens of people attended a vigil in Jackson Heights on Tuesday to mourn the victims of the Orlando shooting that left 49 people dead.
Organized by Eddie Valentin, the owner of several gay bars in Jackson Heights, the vigil began outside of Club Evolution on 77th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Participants lit candles and waved colorful flags as they walked down Roosevelt Avenue and stopped at gay bars along the way including True Colors on 79th Street and Friends Tavern on 78th Street.
Jackson Heights, a largely Latino community, is also home to a thriving LGBT population. Most of the people killed in the mass shooting were of Hispanic descent – 90 percent, and 23 of them were from Puerto Rico. The majority of speeches made at the vigil were in Spanish.
Valentin, who has owned Club Evolution for 19 years and Friends Tavern for 26 years, said he was especially saddened to read the news since he has visited Pulse, the nightclub where the shooting occurred.
“It was very tragic, especially having been to Pulse, and knowing it has a very heavily Latino gay community. Several of our customers were there,” he said.
Tony Russo, an Orlando resident who used to live in Jackson Heights and frequented Club Evolution, was injured during the shooting and has recently woken up from a coma, Valentin said.
Councilman Daniel Dromm reminded the crowd of the violence faced by the LGBT community in Jackson Heights in the ’90s when Julio Rivera, 29, was killed by white supremacists after leaving his shift at a gay bar. He added that the shooting was more heartbreaking because it happened at a gay bar, a “sanctuary” for many in the LGBT community.
“A lot of people who are non-gay don’t understand why our bars are so important,” Dromm said. “Our bars are like churches to other communities. It’s a place where we can come to socialize without worrying about being judged, without worrying about holding our partners’ hands.”
He credited gay bars and Valentin for supporting him when he founded the Queens Pride Parade in 1993, partly in response to Rivera’s murder. He also urged others not to turn this into prejudice against the Muslim community.
“I want to stress this is not an LGBT versus Muslim issue,” Dromm said. “We must all fight transphobia, homophobia, the Islamophobia because if we divide up and try to fight one separate from the other, we will never win this cause.”
Valentin said he will beef up security at his bars and also encourages business owners to purchase inexpensive surveillance cameras.
“We all have to beef up security, whether it’s a gay bar or straight bar, whether it’s a movie theater,” Valentin said. “We’ve seen this happen in so many place that it’s hard to guess where they’re going to happen next.”
He also added that “the biggest thing that this country needs at this moment is stricter gun laws.” He commended politicians for fighting for these laws and said that members of the government, including Republicans, have to start seriously considering putting these laws in place.
According to published reports, regulars at Pulse had seen the shooter, Omar Mateen at Pulse for several years before the shooting. Others, including Mateen’s former classmate, have said that Mateen has hit on them and used the gay dating app Jack’d.
“That’s something that I have said to several people, that this could be homophobia to an extreme, which is somebody who himself is dealing with his own sexuality,” Valentin said. “It could be something where he says, ‘Well, if I do come out, I’m not living up to my dad’s [expectations] so let me just say that I’m doing this for a stronger cause.'”
Valentin argued that acceptance needs to be taught at a younger age.
“Mostly these things are happening because we’re not educating our children properly,” he said. “If this young man would have been educated at a young age that we’re all free to care for who we want to care for, something like this wouldn’t happen.”