Members of Connecticut's LGBT community expressed outrage and grief in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shootings, but also a deep commitment "to go on living our lives," and to keep on "reminding the world we are humans."
"We can't relent to terrorism. If we start to feel that way, to question our right to have gatherings and meetings, and to live our lives, then they win," said John Vincent Pica-Sneeden, executive director of the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Chamber.
"I love my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my house, my life. I'm not going to let this sick individual, this person with no courage, driven by hate to do fanatical acts, change that."
Sunday night, Hartford police supervisors went to Chez Est in the city's South End and other clubs and gathering spots to let people know patrols had been increased.
"We want our LGBTQ community to know they are protected. We want them to feel safe," Hartford Deputy Chief Brian Foley said Monday. "We also let the community know this appears to be an isolated event in Orlando and not indicative of anything that is going to happen across the county."
With LGBT Pride Month events planned through June and the rest of the summer in Hartford, New Haven, New London, Norwalk and elsewhere, LGBT leaders are encouraging people to attend the festivals and show unity and pride.
There was also recognition that a club like Orlando's Pulse, where the 2 a.m. shootings took place, is supposed to be a safe haven, fostering a feeling of "peace and ease," as Kamora Herrington of the mentoring program True Colors in Hartford put it. She said it's important that the murderous rampage doesn't rob an entire generation of a safe haven to gather.
"It's just so very sad — this hatred, this motive, it doesn't make sense," said Jon Aidukonis, a board member at OutCT, which hosts the New London Pride Festival. "We need to mourn, to feel what happened, and to view it as a reminder that we have more work to do."
Community members acknowledged the more accepting environment in Connecticut and New England, and the strides the LGBT movement has made across the country. But they also said that swaths of intolerance and ignorance remain.
"No doubt we in Connecticut have benefited greatly from the acceptance," said Joshua O'Connell, co-director of the New Haven Pride Center, "but it also cushions us. We can forget that others in this country are still afraid to come out of their homes. Orlando is a welcoming, accepting place — but this guy didn't live in Orlando. He drove there."
Herrington, of True Colors, said that clubs like Pulse are vital, particularly for the young gay, lesbian and queer community.
"For many, the club is the same as church. It's their sanctuary," Herrington said. "This is where our children find safety. They need to know that gay clubs are still safe places for them."
Former Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra echoed Herrington's remarks. He has visited Pulse during several trips to Orlando, and called the slaying "horrific."
"The thing about this club, as is the case in many gay clubs — they're more than just a nightclub. For other people, a nightclub is a nightclub. For the LGBT community … it's not like you have many venues to go to where people will be open and accepting."
He likened Pulse to Chez Est, a place where people from the LGBT community gather to socialize, but also to support one another.
"It means something a little bit different for our community," Segarra said. "Gay clubs generally tend to be … they're not places where you have fights. They're very, very safe, very peaceful places people can just go to have a good time, meet with friends. So the idea that this happened … it's just so sad."
Pica-Sneeden, of East Windsor, said the media should continue to drive home the point that the murders occurred at a gay club.
"Because it's really an American issue," Pica-Sneeden said of the rash of mass shootings. "We've had schools, a movie theatre, now a dance club. And every mind in America is on Orlando today, not because these were gay lives, but because they were American lives.
"At the same time," he added, "the country needs to know that we were targeted, that we were killed, that he went after 'soft targets' because of his personal hatred."
Aidukonis, who has helped produce large LGBT festivals and parties, said it's important, in light of the murders, that people "put a little extra effort to attend events this summer, to show the world you're not going to stop living.
"If we keep spreading our story, it puts a face on the LGBT community. It's a movement that cuts across racial, gender and social lines. We want to declare ourselves humans, to be proud, to stand up.
"Be smart, be vigilant, but don't stop your life," Aidukonis said.
Downtown Hartford Vigil
About 70 people attended an interfaith vigil at The First Church of Christ on Gold Street Monday afternoon. Attendees sang songs, lit candles and read aloud the names of victims in the Orlando massacre. A rainbow flag adorned the church altar.
News of the tragedy hit home for members of the church, which became an "open and affirming" parish in 1994, meaning everyone could attend regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.
"As a gay man who has seen such injustice in my lifetime against the gay community, I just felt that I needed to come and pay my respects," said Timothy O'Leary of Hartford.
The Rev. Damaris Whittaker, the senior minister at the church, said there is "a sense of hopelessness" in the community.
"I'm an optimist and so I sort of felt that maybe we had moved to another phase of not only tolerance and acceptance, but also respect for the LGBT community," she said, "and it did surprise me that we're still here. At the same time, it didn't, because we seem as a nation to go forth on issues and then just revert to our old ways."
Imam Kashif Abdul Karim, of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, also addressed the gathering.
"Today there are many people blinded by bigotry and xenophobia. This blindness leads to hate and puts an end to our mutual cooperation and alliances," he said. "The battle will be won today by fighting ideologies, the way human beings think about each other, and by putting human rights before our personal convictions."
'More Love Less Hate'
Meanwhile organizers across the state were also planning vigils and fundraisers for later this week.
"We welcome the community to attend in solidarity with all Americans and especially the LGBT community in this difficult time. The way to defeat terrorism is to stand together and reject the hate," said Reza Mansoor, president the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford. The group will hold a vigil Tuesday night in Berlin at 7 p.m. at 1781 Berlin Turnpike.
In Hartford. St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church will host a memorial mass on Tuesday at 7 p.m. for the victims of the gay nightclub attack.
An interfaith vigil will be held in Blue Back Square in West Hartford Wednesday at 6 p.m. Center Congregational Church in Meriden will hold an event in support of the Orlando shootings victims Wednesday at 7 p.m. The church is located at 474 Broad St.
Also Wednesday, the Unionville restaurant, Cure, will hold a "More Love Less Hate" fundraiser. Donations will be sent to the official GoFundMe page to support the victims of the Pulse shooting.
"I can't really comprehend it and I couldn't just sit back and be upset and be sad," said Nikki Simches, Cure bar manager and a former Orlando resident. "I had to do something to help — even being so far away."
On Thursday, Real Art Ways and Capitol City Pride in Hartford will offer free admission between 6 and 7 p.m. to its monthly "Creative Cocktail Hour" that will honor the area's LGBT community.
Courant staff writers Morgan Hines, Mikaela Porter and Taylor Swaak contributed to this story.