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Central Coast residents gathered in solidarity Wednesday night during a march and vigil in downtown Santa Maria, to express their determination to end hate and unite in love following Sunday's mass shooting at a popular Orlando nightclub.

The attack at Pulse, a gay nightclub, left 49 people dead and injured 53 others in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Ryan Morrow, 27, of Santa Maria, marched alongside more than 80 other community members to remember the victims. 

"Being here today means a lot," said Morrow. "My sister was trans, and died in a car crash four years ago. I have lots of friends in the LGBTQ community, so I'm largely affected." 

"I've cried so much since Sunday," he said. "I was at a loss for words — to have this happen during this month, in a safe space."

"It's the 21st century — how could people still be like that?"

Jessie Funes, of the Gay Rights Advocates for Change and Equality (G.R.A.C.E.), said the vigil projected visibility and solidarity.

“We want to remind people today that we’re here, and even though this horrific, tragic event happened in Orlando, we will continue to have those safe spaces here, not only for LGBTQ members, but for allies as well,” said Funes. “We’re remembering and honoring them.”

Funes added: “We want to make sure people won’t forget that although there are people with lots of hate and anger, taking out their anger on us isn’t going to keep us from being visible.”

The march began at 6:15 p.m. on the southeast corner of Broadway and Main Street. Draped in rainbow colors, participants walked down Main to Pine Street, waving rainbow-colored flags and banners that expressed their support and remembrance of the victims. They held up signs that listed the names of each of those killed along with the phrase, "We hold you in our hearts." 

Passing cars along the busy streets of Broadway and Main honked to show their support. 

Following the march, speakers shared their feelings and reminded everyone that the incident must help the world unite in love, and that people must continue creating the safe spaces such as the one that was destroyed Sunday.

Katie Novo, board member of G.R.A.C.E., emphasized the importance of safe spaces for LGBT members. 

"I do know the power of the iconic safe space — some of you remember Club Love that took place right here. That space is where I met most of you and where some of my most important queer and social developments took place. 

"For those queer and trans folk in Orlando, that safe space was so quickly penetrated, and they lost their lives where they really felt alive and the happiest. 

"I hope most of you here tonight will continue to create those safe spaces here in Santa Maria," Novo continued.

Reverend Tinker Donnelly, Founder of HeartWorks, applauded the community's solidarity. 

"Let's take a look at all of you," Donnelly said. "Can you feel the power of togetherness? It's palpable, isn't it?

"We are all here together in love." 

Hector Sanchez said the commemoration sent a message of compassion and solidarity. 

"We see the violence and compassion at the same time," said Sanchez. "A few years ago, LGBTQ couldn't serve their country in the military. A year ago, gay marriage was newly legal. This year, trans bathrooms became a huge issue. Several decades ago, homosexuality was considered a disease.

"We have the road in front of us, and it's about us stepping forward," Sanchez continued. "It's time for us to take on these issues, stop the violence and establish more restrictions because we know the answers to the problems. Thank you all for honoring those lives lost, because they are who we are." 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


Courts/Public Safety Reporter