As police increased their presence in the heart of Chicago’s gay community on Sunday in the wake of a shooting that left 50 dead at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the tragedy has left many here pondering a scary thought: That could have been me.
For Juan Casado, 25, an Orlando transplant who recently told his loved ones that he was gay, the shooting was especially hard to digest because he has partied at the dance club where the shooting happened.
“If I didn’t move here, it’s very scary, because I probably would have been there last night,” said Casado, who moved to Lincoln Park last August.
Authorities have identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. He walked into the nightclub about 2 a.m. Sunday armed with an assault rifle and a handgun and opened fire. More than 50 others were wounded but survived the attack.
“I woke up this morning to about 20 missed phone calls from my mother,” said Casado, who was hanging out with friends Sunday afternoon at a bar on Halsted Street in Boystown, a community that anchors the epicenter of gay culture in the Midwest.
Chicago Police cited the Orlando shootings, as well the arrest Sunday of an Indiana man in Los Angeles who authorities say was in possession of a cache of weapons he intended to use at a Gay Pride event, in their decision to increase patrols in Boystown and the surrounding area.
A statement released Sunday by Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi went into further detail.
“Individuals can also expect to see increased police visibility today at special events throughout the city and along the lakefront. Officers will also pay special attention to CTA transportation hubs and be conducting increased traffic and safety enforcement downtown and on heavily traveled areas. These measures are being done out of an abundance of caution. There is no intelligence or threat against the LGBTQ community or any event within the City of Chicago.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime supporter of gay rights, expressed condolences and support to the gay community.
“June is a time when all Chicagoans and all Americans proudly celebrate the contributions of our LGBT community. This horrendous violence will only deepen our resolve to continue building a society that values everyone, regardless of who they love. The thoughts and prayers of Chicago will remain with the victims of this attack as they seek comfort and courage in the days ahead,” Emanuel said in a statement released by his office.
Organizers of the city’s 47th annual Pride Parade, scheduled for June 26, also plan to take appropriate precautions, authorities said Sunday.
Two vigils were planned for Sunday evening. One was to take place in Boystown at 7 p.m. at the intersection of Halsted and Roscoe Streets. The other was scheduled to take place in Andersonville at 7:45 p.m. at the intersection of Balmoral Avenue and Clark Street.
Art Johnston, co-owner of Sidetrack, a gay club at 3349 N. Halsted, said Sunday that he plans to review security measures in place at his club.
“When gay people were murdered in a gay bar in London 20 years ago, we instituted a bag-check policy where you had to check your bags before you could come in. We’ll examine whether anything like that is necessary,” he said during a chat outside his bar.
Johnston said he’ll also be consulting with other local business owners over security concerns.
“We all know that we have to be extraordinarily careful to protect what is for many gay people the only safe place they have,” Johnston said. The bar is 34 years old.
“We must once again be vigilant as always, because it’s never over for LGBTQ people,” said Johnston, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (or questioning what they are) people.
Peter Johnson, publicity director for the Center on Halsted, a gay community center in Boystown, further emphasizes the need for safe spaces.
“I think there has been kind of a shock to spaces that our community has thought of as safe, for many that is bars,” Johnson said Sunday.
“So to have a social space like a bar come under attack does kind of jolt or jar you because it’s a space where you really think that you can be accepted and you can be who you authentically are, so I think there will be kind of a renewed sense of ensuring those spaces exist and are safe,” he said.
Johnson said he was encouraged to see people living their lives as they normally would Sunday along Halsted Street.
“I definitely think that there is kind of a heavy heart . . . but it’s not, fortunately, cause for us to change our lives, which is good,” he said.
Jason Lee, 33, paused for a moment to discuss the shooting while hanging out with two friends Sunday at Replay, a bar on Halsted Street.
“It doesn’t give me any pause to come out to bars whatsoever,” said Lee, a criminal defense attorney who lives in the Northwest suburbs. “If we stop doing what we want to do on a daily basis, then the terrorists win. They want us to change our routine. I keep soldiering through and it doesn’t affect me one bit. I mean it’s sad that it happened and I feel horrible for the families that were affected, but if we stop doing what we do on a daily basis then the terrorists win.”
Ryan Hays sat on a barstool next to Lee and added his thoughts.
“It could be any bar anywhere something like this could happen,” said Hays, 33. “Just for being who you are, you could get killed. It’s really sad.”