ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Noel Jeremy Ruiz moved to Orlando, Florida at 18 to attend college. His first week, he tagged along with his roommate to Pulse nightclub.
6'5" with swoopy hair, Ruiz stood out in the crowd. The stage performer spotted him, pointed him out and said, "Look at the One Direction member over there!" Clubgoers looked on as the host teased Ruiz about his boy band looks for a good five minutes. When Ruiz went home that night, five Facebook friend requests were waiting in his inbox.
"I was scared and awkward," Ruiz said in an interview. "That made me feel included."
Last week, Pulse went from being a favorite neighborhood haunt for the LGBTQ community to a national symbol after the tragic shooting that claimed the lives of 49 people. Like the Stonewall Inn, Pulse now serves as a brick-and-mortar monument to queer resilience.
Before Sunday, though, it was just Pulse. Owner Barbara Poma opened the bar on South Orange Avenue in 2004, naming it "Pulse" in honor of her brother who died of AIDS-related illness. She wanted her brother's pulse to live on.
"Pulse is the best known gay club in Orlando," Ruiz said. "It's the heart of Orlando."
One of only a handful of gay bars in a city with 270,000 residents, Pulse kept a regular calendar: Noche Latina on Mondays, Twisted Tuesdays, College Night Wednesdays, Tease Thursdays, Platinum Fridays and Upscale Latin Nights on Saturdays. On Latin nights, drag queen Jasmine Jimenez performed as Puerto Rican diva Jennifer Lopez.
Some gay bars court a specific clientele — twinks, otters, bears or even people of a certain race. But several Pulse patrons who spoke to Mic described the club as "eclectic," a place where LGBTQ people and straight friends of all ages and ethnicities gathered to drink and dance. Other words that came up: "home," "safe haven," "fun," "energetic." Students at the University of Central Florida said Pulse's college night was the best one in Orlando; Many said Pulse was the first gay bar they had ever attended. The club has an especially devoted following among gay Latinos, who turned out en masse for the club's Latin-themed nights.
Justin LaValle, 29, said that he "practically lived" at Pulse. The diverse crowd allowed him to feel comfortable in his own skin, which had not always been easy for him.
"I was too white to fit in with Latinos and I was too Hispanic to fit in with white kids," LaValle said in an interview. "But on Latino Night on Saturdays I didn't feel that way. It was just literally a time and place where everyone could be together and enjoy yourselves."
Performer Adrian Padron, who goes by Mr. Ms. Adrien, began his career on Pulse's stage in 2012. At the time, Padron felt he had no creative outlet — a theatre major at the University of Central Florida, he had not stepped foot on stage in the first couple of months of his program. On a whim, he donned some colorful clothes, put on some makeup and signed up for Pulse's Tuesday night talent show.
Pulse's Tuesday nights, which staff call "Family Nights," draw huge crowds. Locals pack the room to cheer up-and-coming performers trying to make it in drag. Performer Axel Andrews, who practices a "genderfuck" style of drag — meaning he eschews typical gender roles — was hosting that night.
"Axel walked on stage with his crazy club kid chest out and mohawk and I was like 'oh my god, they love everything, they accept everybody here,'" Padron said.
Padron got second place in the talent show that night.
"It made me come back the next week, and then I won," Padron told Mic. "And by then I had [fallen] in love with everybody, and I went back every single Tuesday until I got the job there."
Padron and Andrews are now best friends.
"Pulse was home," Padron said. "A lot of people have been reading 'Pulse was like home.' Pulse really was home. Out of all the clubs from the staff to the people there, it just felt like you were walking into your living room."
A few days ago, Padron posted a picture of his very first tattoo on Facebook — the symbol for a pulse on a heart rate monitor over his wrist, with the club's logo tucked below.
People went to Pulse to escape, to find solace on the dancefloor from the world outside. It was the first gay bar Alex Cardona, 32, ever stepped foot in.
"Pulse had that reputation, [it was] the place you go to have a good time and to be carefree," Cardona said. "The people there were bubbly, fun, looking to dance the night away. That's why they were there."
That sense of security was shattered on Sunday, June 12 when shooter Omar Mateen entered the club with an assault rifle and killed 49 clubgoers. What followed was a series of vigils nationwide and throughout Orlando, including one less than 24 hours after the shooting at Orlando's Parliament House nightclub.
When I started calling and realized their names weren't on the roster, that's when I knew we had to prepare for the worst.
"I lost my people that were always ready to dance the next song, always ready to not care if they were sweating on the dance floor so long as everyone was smiling and having a great time," Cardona said.
The day after the shooting, Cardona tried to find friends and loved ones who had been shot or injured. He called local hospitals and asked for names of people he knew had been there that night.
"When I started calling and realized their names weren't on the roster, that's when I knew we had to prepare for the worst," he said. Cardona ended up knowing several people who died in the shooting.
When the owners of Pulse stood in front of the thousands who attended the Tuesday night vigil-on-the-lawn, they made clear that Pulse will live on and continue to be a safe place for the community. They led vigil attendees in a chant of, "We will not be defeated!"
Padron, who knew several people who worked at or attended Pulse regularly, wanted others to remember the fallen as people who brought joy to those around them.
"It's how I remember everyone at the club — whether you know, you like really knew them or you just saw them when you were out or you didn't see them in months," he said. "When you saw these people you would just give them the biggest hug, even if it was just for a second."
Last Saturday night, before the massacre began, Pulse celebrated queer Latino life. Only hours later, it became a space for LGBTQ Latino grief. And when it reopens, it will be a place where new memories are created, where new people find solace, where pulses continue to quicken as the patrons continue to dance.