A small crowd gathered in front of the Tower with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes early Monday morning as the photographs of 49 individuals whose lives were taken too soon stared across the West Mall.
Monday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, when 49 predominantly Latino LGBTQ people were killed after Omar Mateen opened fire inside Pulse, a popular LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In remembrance of the anniversary of the tragedy, 20 different student, faculty and campus groups came together to plan a morning vigil and daytime visitation to honor the victims.
The secular vigil took place on the Main Tower steps facing West Mall as an altar with pictures of the victims remained up throughout the day for visitations.
On the night of the shooting, Pulse was having their popular “Latin Night.” Several of the speakers at the vigil focused on the significance of the multiple identities present among the individuals at the club when the shooting took place.
Casey Butler, chair of the Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, said they hoped to foster a sense of community building and raise awareness about intersectional LGBTQ issues with the vigil.
“Queer and trans people represent every single identity category and experience out there,” Butler said. “It’s important that we center those folks that were more disproportionately affected by this tragedy, and in our movements, spaces and communities we need to do the same.”
According to data collected by the FBI last year, LGBTQ people — particularly those of color and transgender people — are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group in the United States.
The cultural significance of the shooting occurring specifically on Latin night in an LGBTQ nightclub cannot be ignored, Butler said.
“A lot of people outside of queer and trans communities don’t understand that bars and clubs were the institutions that we were given,” Butler said. “We weren’t allowed to be ourselves anywhere else.”
UT student body president Alejandrina Guzman, a Mexican American studies and government senior, said she vividly remembers the moment she found out about the shooting.
“It took me a long time to process it,” Guzman said. “When I read the personal accounts, all I could say was ‘why?’ It could have been any of us. They were just living their lives and this happened.”
PEFSA wrote an open letter to the UT community last year after the lack of response from the UT administration regarding the tragedy.
“We were angry and we were sad,” Butler said. “We need higher administration and leadership to let us know that they see us and that they hear us and care about us.”
Butler said the vigil was very important to the organizations involved because they were looking to “fill the gap” left by the administration.
As members of the UT community walked past the vigil, some stopped to participate. Butler said the vigil’s visibility was intentional because they wanted onlookers, especially LGBTQ orientees, to know that UT has a place for them.
The vigil concluded with a flower ceremony where people’s voices broke as they read out the names and short biographies of the 49 victims. A flower was placed on the altar for each name read.
“It’s not just about the number 49,” PEFSA member Kris Dillon said. “These are each individual people. They had individual lives, they had backgrounds and they had history.”