For decades, many LGBT people could only talk freely about their lives, hold hands with a partner or feel completely safe in one kind of place: a gay bar. Some would say that's still true today.
But the horrific mass shooting at an Orlando club has stripped away the idea of safety.
Early Sunday morning, the shooter surprised a lively crowd with a spray of bullets that killed 49 people and injured 50. Across the nation, people in the LGBT community said it was a painful reminder that they can be targets of hate and violence.
A St. Louis social work student has launched a project to help people in St. Louis and Orlando begin to heal.
Aaron Laxton is videotaping those who want to send messages of solidarity and hope to survivors and families in Orlando, that he’ll share on Facebook and other social media.
Laxton also is asking participants to talk about how the shooting has changed their lives. During a crowded Sunday night vigil for the victims, held in a park bound by two busy streets, he had a sobering thought: anti-gay violence can come out of nowhere.
“I wondered, ‘What’s to say we’re not going to have someone veer their car towards us?” Laxton said.
‘I’m going to be as gay as I can’
Brandon Reid, 29, was among the first in line Tuesday for the video project. For him, bars have always been a “sacred space,” especially right after he came out.
“That’s where I could honestly be me and that’s where I first became OK with being gay,” Reid said.
Now, Reid said, says he’s on alert when surrounded by other LGBT people. He said his mother told him to make sure he “has a plan.”
“That’s not something we should have to deal with this day and age — going to a bar just to hang out with our friends to think that, ‘Where would I go? Where are the exits?” Reid said.
Still, Reid won’t let his fears force him back into the closet.
“I’m going to be as gay as I can,” he said. “We cannot be afraid to be who we are.”
Hoping to ride the momentum
Sarah Sowell is also participating in the project. The 40-year-old president of Metro East Pride is an accountant with a second job that keeps her from giving into any fears she might have.
“I actually bar tend at the gay bar in Belleville, so I don’t have a choice I have to go to work,” Sowell said.
Aaron Cummings, 35, is from Jacksonville, two hours from Orlando. He’s never been to Pulse, but he remembers the struggle of growing up feeling different, and then coming out at 18. It was in gay bars that he celebrated his new freedom and then the march of progress that finally led to same-sex marriage.
“To have all the odds stacked against us and to finally feel security in the world, where I can actually be free and be myself — this bombshell takes that joy away,” Cummings said.
Cummings and others who recorded video messages don't blame the massacre on terrorism or religion but on the availability of assault weapons and the presence of homophobia. Cummings said trying to show the humanity of LGBT people is one thing he can do to build greater acceptance.
“I plan on speaking up more. I plan on being prouder of who I am, to respect myself and to respect others,” he said.
Laxton, too, sees a small measure of good that could come out of the tragedy. He said the shooting has united the St. Louis LGBT community and its allies. He hopes the momentum will help local activists and other citizens fight for LGBT equality in Missouri’s next legislative session.
“Hopefully, we can use this as a catalyst, Laxton said.
A second taping session will take place at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis, 7200 Delmar Blvd.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL