It has been a little over two months since the horrific Orlando nightclub shooting. While it has faded from the front pages and social media feeds, the healing process for those who survived is still ongoing. On Monday night, MTV True Life aired “We are Orlando," which told the stories of several survivors on that night and their lives in the aftermath. Like the preface of the episode—this article comes with a trigger warning. The events depicted in the episode and referenced below are occasionally graphic and potentially traumatizing.
For many of us in the LGBT Community, the mass shooting at Pulse hit close to home. It eroded a sense of safety that had grown from increasing acceptance of LGBT rights in the last decade. As someone who has dealt extensively with my own share of grief and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have had to be careful with my own consumption of media coverage of the shooting and its aftermath. "We Are Orlando" was no exception. Prior to researching MTV True Life, I admit I was a bit skeptical. Was it too soon for a story like this? Would the show exploit the lives lost and forever changed by this tragedy? I was somewhat reassured when I learned that the series had actually been nominated for several GLAAD Media awards over the years, and won for Outstanding Documentary in 2006. Fortunately, the episode proved to be both powerful and tastefully done.
“This world is falling apart. This world needs a hug.” These words, spoken by Tony, are used as a refrain throughout the episode. Tony survived with gunshot wounds in his arm and his back, but his best friend Luis didn’t make it. One of the many brave moments exhibited in the hour-long special was when Tony made the trip back to Pulse in order to face his fears and see Luis' cross. Even though his resolve is strong throughout, it is evident that healing takes time. It's not until the end of the of the episode where he finally feels ready to meet his fellow survivor Angel. Luis had struggled with feeling as though he had left Angel behind after the two had made eye contact in the wake of the shooting. Both had suffered severe injuries, and it was touching to see them make an immediate connection at the end.
Josh fled the club by jumping the fence, then ended up saving the life of a man he didn’t know by using his own shirt to make a tourniquets and holding him tightly in the ambulance to prevent further blood loss. The man he saved was Rodney. In the weeks after he suffered from night terrors, and found comfort in his best friend and his dog. When Josh finally finally works up the the courage to meet Rodney again several weeks later, it was another powerful moment. It was particularly touching how Rodney made a point to wear long sleeves and cover his wounds so as not to retraumatize Josh and bring him back to that night. One of the more inspiring things in watch unfold over the hour episode was the unusual bonds and companionship formed in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.
In a parallel story we also meet Patience and Tiara. Both of them were in the bathroom when the gunman was shot and killed. Both of them suffered gunshot wounds—Patience in both legs and Tiara in her side. Tiara’s little cousin Akyra didn’t survive. The two of them returned to Philadelphia in the weeks following, and decided to talk to a therapist. Tiara feels guilty for bringing her cousin to the club in the first place. She is reassured by family that she had no way of knowing that this could happen. The therapist also talks to the camera crew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and how the symptoms can differ in severity from person to person. This can be seen in the very different responses Patience and Tiara have. The segment was then neatly segued into a PSA on seeking help for PTSD and similar ailments, directing viewers to the resource website halfofus.com.
Grief, survivors guilt, post traumatic stress, and physical injuries are all on display in their raw form. It holds nothing back but never borders on gratuitous. The shooter’s name is never mentioned, which is as it should be. Throughout the episode I found myself coming back to my own experiences with grief and PTSD, and I want to commend the brave individuals who were willing to share their stories of loss and healing with the rest of the world. “We Are Orlando” shows us what tragedy looks like in the weeks and months after the media spotlight fades. It was difficult to sit through at times, but it felt important to for me understand the full gravity of what had happened. These stories be told. If you feel up to watching it yourself, it can be streamed for free at mtv.com.