The campus community came together on Old Main Quad Monday night in remembrance of the 49 victims who lost their lives three months ago in a mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida—the deadliest incident of violence against LGBTQIA+ people in U.S. history.
The nightclub was a haven for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and served as a key spot for a night of music, dancing and spending time with friends. Pulse held theme performances each night and was hosting Latin night on June 12 when the attack, perpetrated by a sole gunman, took place. Fifty-three people were injured in addition to the 49 killed, making it the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian welcomed those in attendance with an opening address on the ways in which the campus community is affected by this event, despite the 1,500-mile distance between New Paltz and Orlando.
“This event happened in Florida — it could have happened anywhere,” Christian said. “On our campus, we have to talk honestly about events like this that occur beyond the boundaries of our campus, and recognize their impacts on members of our community and others.”
With a robust population of both LGBTQIA+ students and allies on campus among both the student and faculty body, Christian highlighted the importance of continuing to educate the next generation of citizens with the knowledge and tools to contribute to a just and fair society for all people.
“I’m proud to see students, faculty and staff from across the college here to honor those who lost their lives in June and to share our grief,” Christian said. “Even as we stay focused on our core educational mission, we must confront these issues, and we must support and guide our students as they, you, navigate the world and advocate for social change during your time here as students. Our collective work must continue to create a diverse, equitable, inclusive and safe campus.”
Christian’s address was followed by words from Claire Williams, co-president of New Paltz Pride, who reminded her fellow peers to find solace in the “same places that were under attack” that night: in music, drag, pride and clubs.
“Begin to understand your history as a member our community, and never once doubt that your presence here is absolutely crucial,” she said. “Love fiercely.”
Members of various college organizations, such as New Paltz Pride, the Latin American Student Union, the Latin American & Caribbean Studies and the Rivera-House Living Learning Community approached the microphone one by one as they individually read off the 49 victim’s names, each inscribed on long pieces of rainbow-colored ribbon. Between names, both faculty and students stepped up to the microphone to speak, share grief, offer words of encouragement and stand in solidarity against violence and discrimination against people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations and religions.
After the reading of each name, speakers tied the ribbon onto a branch of a tree nearby the vigil on the quad. In the distance, a wreath of rainbow-colored flowers served as a pop of color among the sea of students and faculty dressed in black.
Dr. Jessica Pabón, assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies at the college, approached the podium with the impassioned offering of an open letter that she had sent to all members of the Rivera House, a living-learning community on campus named after Venezuelan-American transgender activist Sylvia Rae Rivera. She was a devoted social justice activist and advocate for LGBTQIA+ youth of color.
“I ask you to please take care of yourselves, please take care of our community, take pride in your continued resilience in the face of a racist, homophobic, classist, xenophobic, misogynistic world that uses toxic masculinity as a weapon to disappear us, to silence our voices,” Pabón said. “To echo the words of a campaign launched by the Queer Activist Organization ‘Act Up’ in the face of the AIDS epidemic: ‘Silence equals death on so many registers. We must and we will act up in resistance.’”
At the conclusion of the program, members of the crowd were welcomed to write messages of encouragement and other thoughts brought out by the vigil on white ribbon to further decorate the tree. As the attendees started to leave, students released a large bouquet of rainbow-colored balloons into the sky. Williams stood by, watching the balloons disappear into the sky before exchanging hugs and words of encouragement with her colleagues.
“I’m really proud of our turnout,” she said. “I hope that people continue to realize that this is a safe space regardless of identity, and regardless if you’re out or not, and I hope that New Paltz continues being a supportive place that helps to facilitate activism.”