Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NINE: Luis S. Vielma

Luis S. Vielma


Luis, a "bright young wizard," as described by those who worked with him at Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, died in the largest hate crime against the LGBT community in U.S. history. A student of Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat rightfully placed Luis into Gryffindor, "where dwell the brave at heart, their daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart." There, he served as a language interpreter and guide for incoming students. A bright, motivated individual, Luis was also pursuing a Muggle degree at Seminole State College where he was studying the magic of saving others through emergency medicine. 

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, social media began circulating a tweet by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, reacting to the massacre. She laments Luis's death with the shock and sadness as if he was one of her own, "he was 22 years old," she wrote, "I can't stop crying." Rowling's visibility undoubtedly brought scope to immense loss of individual life as she, and her fans, could connect in a tangible way to Luis. He was here. He was like us. He is gone.  

I've always had a sort of love/hate relationship with the notion of celebrities. I am unabashedly fascinated by watching the their craft and fame intermingle, whether it be acting, sports, writing, or even uh, Kardashianing? That said, I find it problematic when people don't seek guidance beyond their celebrity role-models because so many celebrities are under-qualified for the job, some just barely existing on cocaine and product endorsement smoothies. 

I don't think there is a way to stop people from listening to celebrities and that scares because it grants them such immense power. The consolation prize is celebrities can use their power to promote peace and goodness. Like J.K. Rowling, who transcends the term "celebrity," and is most definitely the Mother Theresa of our generation. Or these guys, 49 famous people using their voices to stand up to the never-ending violence and hatred in our society, only out of the ordinary when our favorite author beams it out from her smartphone.

Today, in honor Luis, I'm embracing my own celebrity, albeit the comparatively minuscule power of influence I have in my children's young minds. I commit to being the best person that I can so my children have a strong role-model to look to. I'm by no means perfect, but I can at least try to teach them the virtues extinguished in the victims of this incomprehensible crime. If we teach our children well, maybe their generation wont have to work so hard for peace because they will already have it.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

EIGHT: Cory James Connell

Cory James Connell


Cory James Connell was celebrating his 21st birthday with his girlfriend at the Pulse nightclub when his life was extinguished in a spray of bullets. A star athlete, Cory was chasing his lifelong dream of helping others as a firefighter. His final act on this earth was protecting his girlfriend, Paula from the gunman - she was gravely injured but her life was preserved by Cory's act of bravery.  Known for his charisma and welcoming smile, Cory was was a friend to all who knew him. The impact he had on his community was so immense that the City of Orlando posthumously made him an honorary firefighter and the Orlando Gay Chorus sang for his funeral. 

Cory, was, perhaps notably, straight and the fact that a popular football player such as himself had no problem hanging out at a gay club speaks volumes to how far our our society has come in terms of LGBT acceptance. Unfortunately we have not come far enough and violent acts fueled by homophobia continue to plague the community. Young people who come out to their families are still told "it's just a stage,"  transgendered individuals face scrutiny every time they need to pee, and closeted, angry individuals take out their rage on innocent people because they live in an environment where it impossible to embrace their own identity.

As a straight woman, I had my reservations about starting this project. Primarily, I was afraid of somehow co-opting the grief of the LGBT community. Then I realized, this isn't a "gay tragedy" - its a human one. Our entire population should be grieving the fact that 49 souls no longer walk this earth. That it hit a community so historically marked by adversity makes it all the more heart-wrenching.    

Today, in honor of Cory, I am celebrating alliance. To my friends in the LGBT community: I love you, I accept you, I am honored to stand by you. I encourage others to do the same - reach out and show your support and mean it. Only when we treat everyone with dignity will we be able to move forward in harmony.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

SEVEN: Christopher Andrew Leinonen

 Christopher Andrew Leinonen


Christopher Andrew Leinonen, Drew, as he was known to his friends, died alongside his soulmate, Juan Ramon Guerrero in the act of terrorism that took place at the Pulse nightclub. Drew was a film buff and dedicated mental health counselor, brimming with charisma and sharp wit. He proudly referred to himself as a "gaysian," finding great dignity in his unique identity as both gay and Asian. When Drew was in high school he established the first gay-straight alliance at his school. This inspired a lifelong dedication to activism which undoubtedly had limitless potential before it was so grotesquely snuffed out in this senseless act of violence.

Drew is about my age, so that means we would have been in high school around the same time.  I think about who I was in high school, about the people who surrounded me and the rhetoric of the era. I think about how words like "gay" and "fag" were casually thrown around as insults. I think about Ricky Martin and Lance Bass who had to no choice but to remain tortuously closeted for the sake of our delicate sensibilities.  I think about all my peers who've come out since we shared those four years of lockered hell and about how immense their burden was when everyone already felt so isolated, so alone, so desperate to fit in, so scared to speak up.

I think about all of that and I know that there was no way that I could've had the strength or courage to do what Drew did when we were that age. We cannot forget how monumental his actions were. Less than 20 years later our perspective has changed because of activists like Drew.

Today, as our congressional representatives sit on the house floor, refusing to move until American gun laws are revisited, I'm focusing on igniting the activism within myself. I'm using my voice to build on the change that activists like Drew have facilitated. For those of you who, like me, have spent a lifetime trying not to step on toes, it's time to be brave, it's time to make some noise. Write to your senators, speak up against evil, it's time to get motivated to do everything we can to restore peace to this planet.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

SIX: Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez


"Jimmy," as he was known to his friends, at only fifty years old, the oldest person killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre was still so young with so much life left to live. Jimmy was a professional dancer, specializing in Jibaro, a style of folk dance unique to his native Puerto Rico. The dance holds great significance in Puerto Rico as it is emblematic of strength and endurance of the pioneers to the island. Interestingly, "Jibaro" once held negative connotations, but Puerto Ricans took the term back for themselves and embraced and their roots as a source of power.

I started this project because it seemed like just a day after the bloodshed our nation was already being nudged to move on. Another unspeakable tragedy, in the same town no less, took the spotlight when a small child was drowned by an alligator. Immediately, the conversation turned to trying to prevent freak accidents from happening in sterilized corporate bubbles rather than focusing on doing literally anything to stop maniacs from spraying death in public places.

I wonder why we were so quick to move on and forget the scope of this nightmare. Is it because we are desensitized to mass shootings? Is it because the majority of people who died were gay men? Is it because the victims were not "American" enough? June 12 was not just the culmination of Pride week, it was also "Latin Night" at the club and the vast majority those killed were Puerto Rican. How do their lives mean less in a country where campaigns are won on the merit of "life is sacred?"

In honor of Jimmy, today I am encouraging others to draw strength from their own heritage to unite in peace. Jimmy embraced his heritage in the most authentic way possible and thrived on the legacy of his ancestors. No matter where we came from or who we love, we are all important. Our stories have meaning - even if they are in written a different language.

More Information:

The 49 Days Project

Friday, June 17, 2016

FIVE: Frank Hernandez

Frank Hernandez


Frank Hernandez, Franky, was only 27 years old when he lost his life in Sunday's terrorist attack. A fan of Beyonce and fashion, the Calvin Klein store manager proudly bore a "Love knows no gender" tattoo on the underside of his arm - one of the most sensitive and painful spots to be inked. He was known as a funny, lively and endlessly compassionate young man. He'd just celebrated his third anniversary with his boyfriend and the pair were ripped apart forever after that terrible night out at the Pulse. His family is now struggling to find the funds to bring him back to Texas for his final resting place.

It's unshakably chilling that this massacre took place during the culmination of Pride Week. I've seen it described the same as "a church shooting during Christmas" for the LGBT community.  Today, in honor of Franky and all the victims,  I'm focusing on being proud of myself for my own accomplishments. I am proud that I have gotten to day five of this project even though the emotional toll of facing each individual loss of life is nearly debilitating. I'm proud that I'm using my voice to keep speaking out about this horrific tragedy with the popular news media trying to force me to move on. I'm proud to live in a country where marriage is defined by love and not genitals. I'm proud that no matter who my kids love, their mama will always love them more. 

Be a good person, and be proud of that, we have so much potential for peace.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

FOUR: Joel Rayon Paniagua

Joel Rayon Paniagua


Joel was only a teenager when he immigrated to Florida from Veracruz, Mexico seeking a better life for himself and his family. He worked tirelessly within the construction industry, giving every last bit of himself so he could send money home to his family. Joel's cousin explained why so many people like Joel choose such a hard life in the United States: "in our country there was a lot of crime, violence and death ... and we expect it should be more peaceful here." Joel's opportunity for a better life vanished in the wake of our nation's largest mass shooting in history.

In honor of Joel, today I'm embracing the opportunities within my life, many of which have just been given to me by accident of birthplace. We have so much potential to make this world a better place if we work hard and chase our passions. Embrace every opportunity because life is short and unpredictable and you might not get another chance.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

THREE: Brenda Lee Marquez McCool

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool


Brenda leaves behind 11 children, one of whom, her son Isaiah, was with her the night she died. Ever supportive of her gay son, Brenda was visiting Isaiah in Orlando and the two had gone out dancing at Pulse. When the chaos erupted, Brenda stood between the gunman and her son, saving Isiah's life, herself succumbing to a fatal gunshot wound. Brenda's other heroic efforts include standing as an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community and surviving cancer - twice.

In Brenda's short time on her she pushed the bounds of what most believe possible. In honor of Brenda, today I'm focusing on my own strengths and how to use them to best help others. Our population is stronger than any evil the hate machine puts out there. United by peace, we can grow even stronger.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

TWO: Akyra Monet Murray

Akyra Monet Murray


Barely 18 years old, Akyra had just graduated from her Philadelphia high school with honors. In fact, she was in Orlando with her family celebrating the occasion when she'd gone to Pulse with her brother as part of the festivities. Akrya was an outstanding athlete, she received a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at Mercyhurst College. Her undeniably bright future was cut short moments after she called her mom begging to be picked up from the nightclub because there was a shooter on the lose.

In honor of Akyra, today I'm focusing on my own vitality and I encourage others to do the same. Akyra was robbed of her vitality in a horrific act of terrorism but we still have ours. Embrace it. Celebrate it. DO NOT TAKE IT FOR GRANTED. 

Spread the love, guys, we're strong enough to do this.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

ONE: Top Hat Eddie

 Edward Sotomayor Jr.


Nicknamed "Top Hat Eddie," Edward, age 34, was known throughout his community for his sweet nature and trademark black top hat. He worked at for Al and Chuck Travel, an agency specializing in vacations catering to the LGBT community and it was more than just a job for him, it was a true passion. He is remembered as an enthusiastic tour guide who brightened the lives all who met him, even giving some the honor of wearing his top hat on occasion. 

Friends have described Eddie as having an unshakably positive outlook on life, and for that, today's virtue is positivity. I know it seems hard to to be positive in the light of such a horrible tragedy, but sometimes I like to start with the hardest things first. In honor of Eddie, I encourage everyone to live today with a positive and hopeful attitude. 

This will get better guys. It will. 

More information:

The Next 49 Days

Yesterday, I watched in horror as the news reported the deadliest shooting in U.S. history at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. 49 innocent people in the midst of a joyous celebration of their culture were shot to death at the hands of an insane radical with an automatic weapon.

In the midst of these reports, media focus was largely on the attacker, his history and his motivations. Through these reports he got exactly what he wanted - infamy from his volatile brand of hate.

I refuse to make this monster a celebrity. I don't want to know everything some journalist can dig up about him. I don't want to see his MySpace profile picture every time I look at a screen. He lost his right to humanity when he systematically stole it from 49 people.

I've spent the last 24 hours on the cusp of being consumed by rage. I have no words to describe the devastation I've been watching unfold.

I refuse to let this monster get what he wants.

49 individual human lives, with unique hopes and dreams and histories have simply vanished. 49 mamas have to lay their babies down one last time. Infinite grief to the power of 49.

We cannot forget these 49 beautiful souls 

For the next 49 days I will dedicate a page of this blog to the memory of one of the victims of the massacre. I will do my best to highlight their greatest virtues and I will dedicate each day to living in honor of each specific memory. It's a big task but it's the only thing I can think of to move forward. Please, join me in the commitment to spreading the love and honoring these innocents.

Let's heal this country.