Looking for the Nearest Exit

How The Pulse Massacre Changed My Behavior

Originally Published June 12, 2018

“Green exit sign with figure of a person exiting through a door against a black background” by Braden Hopkins on Unsplash

I have always been a safety conscious person. Six years of being a flight attendant ingrains certain habits into your brain. Most of these habits involved preventing injury: seeing something on the ground that could trip someone, etc. My awareness of safety went to a new level two years ago.

When the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando happened, mass shootings were not a new thing in the United States. Most of them occurred at schools or places of employment connected to the shooter. I was already out of high school when Columbine happened, so I felt my chances of being a victim in a mass shooting were slim.

In 2015, when the mass shooting and bombing at the Bataclan Theatre and Stade de France in Paris happened, it was shocking to see groups of innocent people unconnected to the attackers dying while enjoying an evening out; but because it was happening in a foreign country, I felt a little isolated from it.

In March 2016, one attack hit close to home when the same group that struck Paris attacked the airport in Brussels. Some of my colleagues were affected by the devastating siege. It caused me to be more vigilant and change my behaviors while at the airport. For example, I no longer listen to music on headphones while transiting through public areas. I don’t want to be caught off guard if something transpires.

On June 11, 2016, I was working a trip to San Francisco. I went to bed early that night because I had an early wake-up call to return to New York City. The next morning, when I performed my usual routine of rolling over in bed to check social media on my phone, I saw many posts about the attack in Orlando. Immediately, I turned on the television to watch the breaking news.

I was in shock. I didn’t personally know anyone involved, but several friends on Facebook and Instagram were posting tributes to friends of theirs that they lost during the tragedy. The only thing these LGBTQ people were doing was enjoying a fun weekend night out, but it ended so tragically.

Meeting up with my coworkers to go to the airport, I saw how they didn’t feel connected to the tragedy in the same way because of their heterosexuality; much like how I felt with previous shootings in the United States. Not one word was said about the incident the entire ride to the airport.

Photo by DIAO DARIUS on Unsplash

When I was younger I would go out a lot. I lived in West Hollywood at the time which is the gay capital of Los Angeles. Enjoying the nightlife was obligatory. Our only real concerns back then were the hangovers we may have in the morning or making a stupid mistake and bringing the wrong guy home.

Never once did it cross our minds that our lives could end through a mass shooting at the club. My generation thought we were immune from previous LGBTQ nightclub attacks of the past such as at the Upstairs Lounge Inferno in New Orleans or the assaults at Peg’s Place in San Francisco. We believed being in a gay-friendly area and the vast strides towards LGBT equality protected us much more than the generations before us. We were wrong.

Orlando is, for the most part, a very gay-friendly city. All of those theme parks attract many performers who happen to be LGBTQ. Just one year before the attack in 2015, Obergefell v Hodges made equal marriage the law of the land. Our community finally felt validation from the government and society. None of these things protected the victims at Pulse.

The following weekend, I went out with friends in New York City. We hit a few gay bars, but the energy was indeed different. The doormen were more vigilant as to who was coming in. Large bags were inspected and some had to be checked in. I found myself always noting the nearest exits in every bar I visited. Drink in hand, I would glance around and make a game-plan as to how I would evacuate if someone came in with a gun. It was a sad but necessary reality.

Two years later, I still find myself looking for the nearest exit in any new venue I attend. If a place gets too crowded I feel uncomfortable and want to leave. Now, I live in Chicago which is known for the countless street festivals during the Summer. Even at these events I glance around looking for an escape plan. I’m not the only one. When discussing my habits with friends, many of them confessed to doing the same thing.

While it is always good to have these habits, it’s also a product of the times we are living. I sincerely hope that one-day things will get better. I want future generations of LGBTQ people to be able to enjoy times where the only concern is remembering to close your tab at the end of the night.