Joining communities around the country, more than 1,000 members of Sarasota's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and their allies gathered to remember the 49 victims of the worst mass shooting in American history—men and women, mostly young, gunned down at a gay nightclub in Orlando by an American citizen who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
The hastily arranged candlelight vigil, organized by leaders involved with the annual Harvey Milk Festival, drew a large crowd to Five Points Park, the park that has become the Milk Festival's regular home. The crowd surrounded a small makeshift stage on the steps of Selby Public Library, filling First Street and stretching back to the halfway point of the park. One rainbow flag was held aloft; attendees unfurled another in front of the library. A short spell of rain that hit before the event left the air steamy. Well before sundown, attendees lit candles and held them aloft.
A series of speakers addressed the crowd, in turn calling for solidarity, encouraging fearlessness and memorializing Eddie Sotomayor, the Sarasota native and Booker High School graduate killed at Pulse nightclub on Sunday. Singer Jennifer Real performed a beatbox-assisted version of John Lennon's "Imagine," while the crowd joined in for the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" and an especially emotional "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
"The world needs to be a safe and accepting place for everyone," Donna Hanley, the executive director of ALSO Youth, told the crowd. ALSO, an LGBT youth center, opened its doors Monday to support struggling young people. "We believe the world needs to run on love and compassion and that those are the norms, not the exceptions," she said. "Yesterday's violence and hate-filled murders have shaken and stunned us all. We are traumatized by the news and the images of death, injury and grief."
Sotomayor's friends and coworkers remembered a young man who "embodied love and compassion," in the words of his friend Jonathan Hall. "Eddie's smile was contagious," Hall remembered. "He wanted you to feel great. He had a knack, as one friend said, of 'making you feel like royalty.'"
"This is the time to embrace those around us and remember that our hearts beat on, showing our strength and dedication to keeping their memories alive," Milk Festival founder Shannon Fortner said. "We have struggled with feeling safe and being accepted by our friends and families; it's hard to look back and imagine it any other way. We have burst down the closet doors and we are speaking out against hate, against anyone that has or will try to cause us harm."