Identity

The shooter wasn’t the only Muslim at Pulse the night of the Orlando shooting

Abdon (centre) at a gay club in South Florida. He was at Pulse the night of the shooting, he left before the gunman arrived.

Gay, Muslim and the son of Mexican immigrants, Abdon Orrostieta is the Republican Party’s public enemy number one. At Pulse nightclub before the shooting, we spoke to him about the attack and the subsequent fallout.

Abdon Orrostieta was at Pulse nightclub with friends after a long day searching for apartments in Orlando.

Exhausted, the 23-year-old decided to head home early. It was a three hour drive back to his parents' place in Fort Lauderdale.

At around 2 or 3 am, his phone started going crazy.  When his friends told him what was going on, he freaked out.

“I was thinking about going back,” he told SBS. “I called my Dad and my Dad told me to come home.”

Orrostieta went to Pulse every other week. He liked their Latin music and the friendly community feel. The night of the shooting was one of the club’s renowned Latin nights.

Orrostieta’s parents are Mexican immigrants. He’s also Muslim.

“I’m the public enemy of the Republican Party over here,” he said.

Orrostieta came out to his mum when he was 16. He’s never properly come out to his dad.

“He knows – of course – but I haven’t really sat down and said ‘hey Dad, it is what it is’” he said. “I do a lot of work with the HIV community, so it’s not like that’s something that I can kinda hide.”

He said it was hard for him to come out, but that Islam wasn’t the main barrier.

“It’s more like a cultural thing than it is religious,” he said, “especially in the Hispanic community, it’s not something that’s extremely welcomed – and on top of that religion just adds to it.”

He rarely encounters any homophobia at his Mosque. They know he studies Health Science and that he wants to work in HIV treatment. They know he has lots of gay friends – his sexuality is no big secret, he said.

“They’re pretty good with me – they’re pretty welcoming – and they’re extremely nice. None of them ever tell me ‘hey you can’t pray here because you’re gay’” he said.

At Friday prayers last week the 23-year-old was struck when the Imam referred to the Orlando shooting.

“We have to be welcoming, we have to be loving – this is our community, this is their community,” he remembers the Imam saying.

“No matter what religion, no matter what race you are, no matter anything that you practice – anything that you do - you have to love each other, and events like Orlando remind us of that,” he said.

Orrostieta was also touched by the support he received from other straight, non-Hispanic Muslim friends. From around the world, they got in touch with him to check if he was okay.

“Hey, I hope you’re good,” some wrote. “I’m glad you’re alive, and I want you to know that I really cherish you and I really value you,” others said.

Orrostieta has other gay Muslim friends that haven’t come out; he knows he’s lucky to be in a family and a community that’s been accepting. Just as there’s some homophobia among Muslim people, there’s also Islamophobia among LGBTI people.

“In this country there’s a lot of fear and hatred towards Muslims, and there’s a lot of fear and bigotry against gays,” he said. “Nobody wants to walk around with two targets.”

“This is the 21st century and we’re still living in fear,” he said.

I asked him if he’s experienced much homophobia or Islamophobia, but he said it’s the Hispanic thing that he cops most flack for. Unlike his religion or sexuality, his race is immediately visible.

“People don’t really ask me about my religion, they ask me about my race,” he said. Friends don’t normally know he’s Muslim until they ask why he won’t eat certain things, or why he isn’t free at certain times.

“They’re like, ‘Oh really, there are Muslims in Latin America?’ and I’m like ‘yeah, it’s not just in the Middle East, it’s everywhere’” he said.

While Orrostieta narrowly escaped being in the initial attack, it’s clearly affected him. He was in tears when he found out what had happened.

The gay Hispanic community in Orlando is especially close, he said, everyone knows everyone. Funerals, photos and vigils fill his newsfeed.

“Their parents are burying them, and that’s just not supposed to happen, that’s not the way life goes,” he said. “One of my friends, he just buried his mother. She died protecting him – that broke my heart.”

“It’s extremely painful to watch and see all of these things.”

Orrostieta said that shooter Omar Manteen’s actions are unforgivable. Human life is incomparable; murder is the most unforgivable sin.

“It’s Ramadan, you’re supposed to be charitable, you’re supposed to be fasting, you’re supposed to be giving and you’re supposed to be praying,” he said. “What he did is not a representation of Islam whatsoever.”

Abdon Orrostieta wasn’t the only other Muslim in the club that night. He knows a few staff at Pulse who are Muslim and Arab.

A gay, Hispanic target in the initial attack, Orrostieta was concerned his Islamic community would also suffer in a backlash. He told SBS that divisive rhetoric from politicians just ads more fear, and that people shouldn’t condemn communities they don’t understand.

“You don’t know them – speak to them, talk to them, go to their congregations,” he said. “And if you don’t want to understand the people, understand the constitution. In this country people have the right to practice whatever religion they want.”

Orrostieta said the LGBTI community in Florida has rallied together in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Although many people would think that this would break us down, it’s actually bringing us a lot closer together,” he said. “We’re stronger together, we have to stand united, we have to be able to speak to one another and not live in fear.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid to say ‘hey, this is my religion’, no one should be afraid to say ‘by the way I’m gay’” he said.

“No one should be afraid to express themselves.”

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Dateline: Pride Under Fire
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