A light pink hue was cast over the Pegasus Ballroom Thursday night as silence engulfed the room.
The crowd was gathered for a vigil to honor and remember the victims of the June 12, 2016 Pulse shooting, including UCF student Juan Ramon Guerrero and UCF alumnus Christopher "Drew'' Leinonen. The names of the 49 victims were read aloud, a somber moment where audience members comforted each other. The vigil, live streamed on YouTube, began at 7 p.m.
UCF President Alexander Cartwright addressed the audience in a speech commemorating the fifth anniversary of the shooting.
Cartwright said the Pulse nightclub shooting was an unforgettable tragedy, and what struck out to him was that the shooting brought people together; there was an outpouring of support from around the world for the victims, the survivors, their families and friends, and the LGBTQ+ community.
“Even during such a dark time, it was heartwarming to see images of lines of community members waiting to donate blood, hear of the local businesses donating food and water, airplane tickets, and more to lift those in need,” Cartwright said. “I’m so proud of the way our university responded including the UCF Police Department, Victim Services, LGBTQ+ Services, Social Justice and Advocacy, and Counseling and Psychological Services responded and helped."
Cartwright said many offices and divisions were present in supporting Orlando and the UCF community, including how UCF paid tribute to the two Knights lost, Leinonen and Guerrero.
Cartwright recalled when he first had the opportunity to tour UCF, one of the first things he saw was the tribute.
“It was that day that I felt very proud to have been selected as president of this university,” Cartwright said.
UCF student Valentina Diaz, one of the recent recipients of the onePULSE Legacy scholarship in memory of Mercedes Marisol Flores, read each of the 49 victims names aloud as 49 audience members placed a flower in a vase to honor the victims.
Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-East Orlando, gave an emotional speech where he recalled how Leinonen and Guerrero left behind their families. He talked about the progress that has been made since the shooting on gun violence prevention, on LGBTQ+ equality, but also mentioned the steps back on these progresses.
“After the Parkland [shooting], Florida raised the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21. We created a red flag law to allow a court to intervene and take someone’s gun if they are a threat to themselves or someone else, two steps forward,” Smith said. “Florida also created a law that arms teachers in our public schools; a step backward.”
Smith said after Trump’s election, the former president banned Transgender Americans in the military and rolled back a number of protections for LGBTQ+ people.
“Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed LGBTQ+ people are protected under the Civil Rights Act from discrimination in employment. In January, President Biden signed an executive order reinstating those LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination protections that were rolled back, weeks later he reversed the ban on Transgender Americans serving in the military; huge steps forward, which is progress,” Smith said.
Smith mentioned how recently Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to ban transgender students from being able to play on team sports and he vetoed critical funding for Pulse survivors and LGBTQ+ homeless youth.
Smith said gun violence prevention is an LGBTQ+ issue; from the Pulse shooting, to LGBTQ+ youth suicide where firearms are used, to the rising gun violence against black transgender women across the country, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered terribly as a result of lax gun laws.
“That’s why gun violence prevention is an LGBTQ+ rights issue, and that is also the case for other marginalized communities who have been targets of hate violence,” Smith said. “We see rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, attacks against Asian Americans all on the rise. It has to stop. How?”
He said requiring mandatory reporting of hate crimes from all law enforcement agencies has to be done to fully understand the problem. Smith said Florida does not currently require reporting hate crimes to the federal government.
“We must continue to promote understanding, acceptance and love for LGBTQ+ people and all other marginalized communities,” Smith said. “We must limit access to assault weapons and large capacity magazines, and pass the assault weapons ban bill that I have introduced every single year in the Florida House for the past five years, and we got to remember the lives of those 49 angels and of our two eternal Knights, [Guerrero] and [Leinonen].”
UCF student Maiyarah Marques, a junior film major, said it was her first time attending the vigil and she will be attending more vigils in the future.
“I think [the vigil] is necessary because it’s a way to show support to the [LGBTQ+] community, and it’s a way to make us feel safe, and it’s a way to make all the students know we are in a safe environment. I think it’s important to give strength to the community,” Marques said.
The last speaker of the night, Michael Nunes, the Student Life coordinator for LGBTQ+ Services at UCF, gave the closing remarks.
"We live because they cannot, we go on because they cannot," Nunes said, "and it is with all of your actions and love that we move forward."