Sonya Wilmoth arrived to Walt Disney World in June 2016 with her four-year-old daughter in the midst of a hot, tropical vacation — but its memory is far from happy.
The night before, a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse — a gay nightclub in the heart of the spirited and vivacious Orlando, Florida.
Wilmoth, the now-assistant director of the Penn State LGBTQA Student Resource Center, said she remembers seeing helicopters dot the sky and a sullen atmosphere coated the theme park, guests checking their phones for the latest news regarding the shooting.
“There was definitely a mood," she said. "That wasn’t the happiest place on earth that day."
Wilmoth recalled a time when she and a friend frequented that very nightclub. Instead of cherished memories between clubbers, Pulse is instead now marred with a label for being the second deadliest mass shooting in American history.
For those in the LGBTQ community, gay bars and nightclubs are among the places regarded as spaces for individuals to be themselves — free of judgement or discrimination.
To Brian Patchcoski, the director of the resource center, these types of establishments serve as a symbol of pride.
“That safety is gone when a tragic event like Pulse happens,” Patchcoski said.
At the time of the events, Patchcoski was working at Cornell’s LGBT Resource Center. However, the timing of Pulse — in the heat of summer, when few individuals frequent campus — left only a few students and faculty to honor those killed.
Penn State was a similar case.
Kari Jo Freudigmann made sure to make resources available for students who still resided around campus. Immediately, Counseling & Psychological Services was called — already made aware of the incident, with counselors ready to talk with students or faculty.
A vigil organized at the Allen Street Gates brought together students and community members of all ages to bring candles, wreaths of flowers and their voices.
“As I got into college, the spaces I knew my friends and I could feel comfortable with, were at gay bars,” Freudigmann, the programming coordinator for the resource center, said. “Knowing that somebody infiltrated that space in that way can be really impacting.”
Patchcoski said though the LGBTQ community is making strides, an issue of safety is still underlying.
But, he said no one should live in fear.
One of the vital aspects of remembering Pulse, echoed by Freudigmann, is the intersections of communities that were impacted that night.
June 12 was Pulse’s “Latinx Night,” impacting not only the LGBTQ community, but also communities of color.
At Penn State, Freudigmann said the center promoted its sense of community, welcoming in students to talk and have a space to share emotions or thoughts.
Though reaching the two year milestone, Wilmoth said it’s important not to forget.
“It was a huge blow to the community but I also feel like it brought us together in a lot of respects,” she said.
Similarly, Patchcoski said when history is lost and forgotten, those events are bound to happen again.
“I think it’s an annual call for us to think differently in the work we’re doing but also honor the lives that were unjustly lost that night,” Patchcoski said. “People were there to have fun. They weren’t there to become public symbols."