WEST HOLLYWOOD – His story…. We never know the path of life. We never know how to follow our loves and passion can lead to heartbreak, and we never know how our heartbreaks can then turn into new hope.
No one can attest to this truth more than Barbara Poma. Barbara is the owner of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On the night of June 12and2016, a man named Omar Mateen walked into her life and her vision and not only tore her down, but left her to mourn for 49 of her dear patrons.
It wasn’t the first time in his life that his glorious rainbow path was broken. Barbara had known grief before.
Barbara’s journey into the fabulous life began with her big brother, John.
John was gay and came out at 18. Barbara was 14 at the time. “John was everything that I am not. He was very witty and funny and he wasn’t serious. He was a rule breaker, and I was a rule follower. I checked all the boxes, followed all the rules. For John, none of this was happening. He was my first best friend in life, I loved being with him. It’s really because of him that I connected to the LGBTQ+ community and grew up in it,” she told me during our conversation on the Rated LGBT Radio podcast.
John’s coming out was hard in their Italian Catholic family. He did, however, find ways to embrace her. He would take his little sister to “the beach”, but not to a beach imagined by his mother. It was gay beach and T dances on the strip in Fort Lauderdale. “So I grew up with drag queens and gay people. That was my normal. That was all I knew and loved. I thought everyone had a fabulous gay big brother. I was lucky It was my connection to the community.
February 13and, 1991 Barbara lost that lifeline to the community she fell in love with. John, his brother and best friend, died of AIDS. Life would go on, like so many of us in those days, until Barbara found a way to channel John’s celebration into a new entity, a nightclub. A friend brought her a proposal and business plan for a gay bar, and her husband agreed to fund it…if she ran it.
She embraced it even though she never intended to be a gay business owner. She wanted to create the neighborhood’s safe space. “It was awesome. It was for me though, going back in time, the club full of people dancing and having their friends with them, their straight friends, because that was really important to us when we started Pulse. We wanted it to be a beautiful, clean space you’d be proud to bring your mom to. It was really important to us, and it was,” she recalls. “We started with this mission that everyone who walks through this door is welcome, everyone who comes in is part of the family. That’s how we were.
That’s how the staff was. We were a different place than other bars where there were only ‘twinks’ or ‘girls’ or ‘bears’ or just ‘the most handsome men without their shirts’. It wasn’t what Pulse was, it was where everyone could see people like them. Girls like boys. We had girls at the bar, boys at the bar – which everyone told us would never work, but it did. All people of different races, genders and sizes were represented every night. It’s something we’ve worked hard to build.
Barbara’s new rainbow connection had emerged.
That June night, she was in Cancun, Mexico on a mother/daughter trip to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation. At 2 a.m. she received a call she will never forget. It was his manager shouting “He’s shooting!” He shoots ! He shoots ! Everything was noisy where she was and she had trouble understanding what he was saying. It made no sense to her. There had been a shooting elsewhere in Orlando the night before, but they had never had a problem at Pulse. She asked if he was talking about the previous shooting. “NO, he’s inside Pulse shooting inside right now,” was the reply.
“I was completely in shock. I can only explain it as the darkest and scariest times of your life, all I kept saying to my manager was ‘please Please tell me no one is dead, please tell me everyone is fine.” I couldn’t catch what he was saying. We didn’t know it was an attack Terrorist, we didn’t know – he was out so fast. I started doing a staff roll call. Where’s Bobbie? Where’s Kate… passing by everyone. Where’s Brian? I made him try to contact people, find out if they were still inside or if they were out,” she says.
She was on a plane the next morning. “It took me a while to understand the reaction of the city and the world. I didn’t know if one day had passed or if five days had passed. I had no concept of time. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I was just trying to wrap my brain around what was going on. I was not allowed to leave the house—the people around me kept me at home.
The press was allowed to be at Pulse, but I was not allowed to be at Pulse. I tried not to watch TV too much because it was too hard. I just wanted to be there and be with everyone but I was isolated here at home. When it started to kick in, it was really hard to digest and understand.
Four weeks and two days later, when she finally got Pulse back from the FBI, she walked into his club. “I walked into the building and experienced what I can only describe is what happens when a soul leaves a human body. I experienced it when my brother returned his last breath, all of a sudden, he was just a shell of himself. Pulse was completely a shell unto himself. It was gone. The spirit of it was gone. It wasn’t not what it was, it felt. And I knew instantly that we couldn’t dance in this anymore.
If the Universe hadn’t learned anything, it needed to learn this: It could burn down the fabulous of Barbara Poma, but she’ll always rise again with the next new hope. This new hope is the onePULSE Foundation. The foundation creates a monument of wonder at the spot where the worst LGBTQ massacre happened. President Biden has already signed the bill with the national monument designation. It will consist of a permanent museum, a permanent memorial, and a “survivor’s walk,” which is a walkway between Pulse and the trauma unit that saved so many lives.
onePULSE also offers an educational program based on intersectionality. “96% of our victims that night were black and brown. It’s an important consideration to incorporate that fact,” says Barbara. It includes a tribute program to the 49 dead called Think, Relate and Influence. It trains organizations in inclusivity. They have safe space education for religious pastors on how to transform churches to be more assertive.
Barbara also threw down the gauntlet of making 49s more than victims, she opened the door for them to be angels. She empowered each of them to find a sense of immortality by sending others into the world who will pursue their individual inspiration.
“We have our 49 Legacy Scholarship, that we have a scholarship in the name of each of the victims, who has been nominated by their family members in the victim’s career aspirations or the career they achieved, for example, Alcamenda Alverez wanted to become a nurse. but had not yet achieved it, so her family set up a scholarship for people seeking a nursing career. We are in our third cycle. These range from EMT to cosmetology to medical. These are national scholarships open to everyone. The criterion for recipients is how to further the legacy of one of the 49 angels.
Working with the Oklahoma City and 9/11 commissions, Barbara was guided. Each quizzed their community on how people should feel visiting the memorial site for each horror. Oklahoma City and New York designed theirs to capture “grief, anger, grief, loss, sadness.” They succeeded. These are the feelings you get when visiting these sites.
The Pulse families ask that they be the fruit of the new memorial: a sense of love, hope, community, courage, strength and acceptance. “Our families want it to be a beautiful space where people want to come. We want people to experience the joy of Pulse where people had fun like never before. Our goal when you visit the memorial and museum when they are ready, is that you take the spirit with you and then transmit it wherever you live,” explains Barbara.
Barbara Poma has a vision. She’s on a mission to make the Pulse Memorial a reality, she won’t give up until it’s done, and she will succeed. She will once again stand in a rainbow of hope.
She’s still talking to her brother John, looking up to the sky she asks, “Really, was this all meant to be?”
She gets no response. I ended our conversation with this: Barbara, I didn’t know your brother, but as a gay man with a little sister myself, I know, I KNOW he’s looking down on you right now.
And he is very, very proud.
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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he is one of the founders of evolequals.com.
A gay father, businessman, community activist and blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television and culture with occasional politics.