'Hearts and minds changed'

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 6/12/2017, 10:54 a.m.
You see them everywhere you go in this bruised city. Murals, hand-painted signs, stickers in windows, ribbons on lapels, decals ...
City of Perth's Council House lighted up at 5:30 pm (Perth WA, Australia, GMT +8) in honor of Orlando, Florida mass shooting victims at Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016

By John Couwels


ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) -- You see them everywhere you go in this bruised city.

Murals, hand-painted signs, stickers in windows, ribbons on lapels, decals on police cars. #OrlandoStrong. You Matter. #OrlandoUnited. Love Wins.

The rainbow-colored messages even stretch across entire buildings, like the one at Se7en Bites, the eatery that Trina Gregory-Propst runs with her wife east of downtown. To her, they are bittersweet symbols of a community that is healing.

"When people try to push you down, there's always a rise up (afterwards)," she says. "And this rise up has been about the good and not just dwelling on ... the bad that happened."

The bad that happened. A year later, it's still hard to talk about.

And yet 12 months after a gunman massacred 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub, members of Orlando's LGBT community say they feel embraced here like never before.

The blood drives and candlelight vigils in the days and weeks after the June 12, 2016, shooting were soon followed by more enduring action.

Donations poured into a fund set up by the city to help the families of those killed, along with those who survived. By the time the OneOrlando fund closed officially on March 31, it had distributed more than $30 million.

Although gay rights have been a divisive issue among Florida Republicans, nearly two dozen GOP officials in Central Florida signed a resolution last year calling for laws banning discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

When Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs unveiled the measure a month after the Pulse shootings at an annual Republican Party fundraising dinner, she got a standing ovation.

"I took it head on and was shocked by the support ... that was just unbelievable," said Jacobs, who has been increasingly forceful in her support for the city's LGBTQ community. The mayor says she has seen a dramatic shift in attitude among her fellow Republican lawmakers on gay rights, and she speaks often of the city's new "culture of compassion."

'This is your family'

In December, Orlando Police launched a Safe Place initiative which encourages businesses and organizations to display decals stating their commitment to sheltering gay, lesbian or transgender people who are victims of hate crimes or are feeling threatened.

Buildings displaying the decal agree to serve as a refuge from harassment or violence while police are called. More than 200 businesses have signed up.

In the wake of the shootings donations to the LGBT Community Center of Central Florida have allowed the Orlando agency to expand its free HIV testing and mental health counseling, says Gabe Martinez, the center's director of clinical services.

"The Orlando community has changed ... we have more of a togetherness," he said. "When anyone goes through such tragedy we know that people tend to come together. I think we have that unity more than ever."

And then there are the murals and the rainbow flags, which have sprung up seemingly everywhere since the shootings. None has been defaced.