Three years later, the inside of her closed Pulse nightclub looks just as the FBI left it after investigating the murders of 49 people shot there while out dancing on a Saturday night at an inclusive gay nightspot in Orlando on June 12, 2016.
At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. It remains the largest modern-day attack on the LGBTQ community.
But outside of Pulse, its co-founder and owner, Barbara Poma, can imagine something uplifting — a memorial to those lives lost, displaying artifacts left in tribute and exhibits themed on acceptance, linked to a nearby lake via a serene walkway illustrating “the journey from hate to remembrance and hope.”
Those words come from the written guidance given to potential architects of the memorial. Poma states it in more personal terms specific to the LGBTQ community, including her older brother, John, whom she lost to AIDS in 1991, and in whose memory she opened the club.
“Every tragedy has its own story, and we at Pulse have to tell our own story,” she tells PEOPLE.
“It was a terrorist attack,” she says. “It happened to a community that was already disenfranchised.”
Amid an epidemic of mass shootings, “the loss of our 49 does not diminish or replace the loss of every other life lost,” she says. “Schools should be safe, and churches should be safe, and marathons should be safe. We should all be safe. But for the LGBT community, they’ve had to do this forever; they had to find safe spaces forever. That’s why this attack is different.”
“When we address this issue, we talk about how safe spaces were needed in the first place, how important they were to this community. We talk about what an invasion of a safe space looked like.”
“But I think the most important thing we have to cover,” she says, “is how the world responded. They responded with love, unity and acceptance.”
With $14 million already in hand, the onePulse Foundation with Poma as CEO is seeking to raise $50 million to build the memorial and museum, which it hopes to open in June 2022. Six design team finalists have been chosen, representing prior work on projects including the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in London.
At the start of a week of remembrances on Monday, two members of Congress from Florida said they would push to declare the nightclub site as a national memorial, reports Associated Press.
At the same time, a pending lawsuit accuses the club’s owners of negligence for not providing proper security prior to the attack, and of allegedly hiding assets to protect themselves from claims by survivors and victims’ families.
“Since the tragedy, we, like others directly impacted by this unimaginable act of violence, have been targeted by out-of-state personal injury lawyers pursuing us in this frivolous case,” Poma wrote in an emailed response to the Orlando Sentinel. “To question my intent or motives based on the mistaken assumptions, suggestions or speculation of others who have no knowledge of our circumstances or of our character is misplaced and unjustified.”
Initial funds collected by the club’s owners for victims went to the OneOrlando Fund created by the city of Orlando that raised and paid out more than $31 million to those affected.
The effort going forward will be focused on telling their stories in context.
When Pulse opened, it had two goals — be a place for everyone, and be a place you could bring your mother. “That really was our mission,” says Poma, who recalls her own mom finding her brother in bars that were not so welcoming. “It was important to me that every mother walk in and go, ‘Oh, I get it.’”
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Among the victims, “there were two mothers there that evening, one of them dancing with her son and the other one celebrating her first girls’ night out after she had her second child,” she says. “You also had very many of them who were allies or straight who just came for the music, who just knew that Pulse was a place you could come to, no matter what. That is what made Pulse extremely different.”
“What happened at Pulse started so many conversations,” she says. “It started LGBT conversations, gun violence conversations, hate conversations. The list goes on, and if we don’t take advantage of the conversations it started, then those 49 died in vain.”
“We will never let that happen,” she says.
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