It's been seven years since Livingston Parish native Cody Mack lived in Orlando, but the terrors of the Pulse nightclub shooting a year ago still haunt him.
Mack moved to the Florida city from Louisiana shortly after graduating from high school in 2008. He called Orlando home for three years before returning to Baton Rouge sometime in 2010.
The relationships he maintains in that city are still strong. It's where he spent past nights at Pulse, dancing with friends as he developed his identity. It's where, after years of living in a conservative state, he chose to come out as a gay man.
He wasn't at Pulse during the massacre, nor does he know anybody killed in the rampage. But his mind still wanders back to that night, and the time he spent at the club, wondering what could have been.
"You can put yourself in that situation because you know what that building is like," Mack said on the steps of the State Capitol on Saturday before an LGBT pride march to Baton Rouge Pride’s Pride Fest 2017 at the Raising Cane's River Center.
Mack and at least 100 others — a diverse crowd of all ages, all colors and all gender identities — congregated outside the Capitol to yell their pride aloud and to honor the 49 people who were killed at Pulse on June 12, 2016, when a gunman opened fire inside the popular gay nightclub.
Gatherers on Saturday wore bright and colorful costumes, including tutus, wigs, suspenders and the shortest of shorts. They carried signs with such messages as “equality for all,” “Jesus doesn’t discriminate,” and “protect trans youth.”
In an interview before the march, Mack — who visited the Pulse site as recently as two weeks ago — said residents of Orlando, from all backgrounds, have rallied around their city. Rainbow flags, the longtime symbol of LGBT pride, can be found outside businesses everywhere.
“The entire city of Orlando came together,” said Mack, a board member of the Capital City Alliance, which helped organize the march. “They (the victims) haven’t been forgotten.”
Speakers at the march all preached the same theme: The only way LGBT residents — and all minority residents — can have their voices heard is by standing up for themselves.
“While the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion have been decades in the making, and though they continue to persist today, I have every confidence that they will not outlast our will,” said Shaena Johnson, the head of Empower Baton Rouge, a local nonprofit that aims to provide educational and entrepreneurial help for the city’s disadvantaged children.
Jena Ourso, board chair for Capital City Alliance, said the organization chose to schedule a march this year not only to help celebrate LGBT pride, but also to honor the Pulse victims. The march also memorialized three transgender women of color who have been killed in Louisiana this year.
Ourso said it’s also important for LGBT residents, particularly those in a deeply red state like Louisiana, to stand up for equality and to advocate for laws that protect them from discrimination.
“We need protections in the form of law,” Ourso said, noting that the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color is 36. “Our people are getting killed.”
Marchers held a series of six banners, each different colors of the rainbow, and bearing the names of the 49 people slain in the Pulse shooting.
Alexis Gonzalez, a Capital City Alliance board member, read each name aloud, as well as the names of transgendered women killed in Louisiana, with the crowd shouting “say their names” for each victim.
The crowd then marched through the Capitol Grounds and straight down Fourth Street, hooking a right on North Boulevard before heading down River Road to the River Center.
The marchers faced opposition on their way to Pride Fest. A group of protesters, carrying signs with messages like “stop breaking God’s holy law” and “sodomy is sin,” followed the marchers as they snaked through downtown.
The marchers hardly noticed. As the protesters bellowed at them, the marchers continued to yell chants like “hey hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go.” They even broke out in song, shouting “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor while strutting down North Boulevard.
Roughly a half hour after starting at the State Capitol, the marchers poured into the River Center, where boisterous music and even more colorful displays awaited. Activities at Pride Fest carried well into the evening, as DJs spun music, marriages were blessed and dancers danced the afternoon away.
Kimberley O’Brien, Katy Shoptaugh and Tracy Gum, a trio of Baton Rouge natives, marched from the Capitol and celebrated in the River Center. Each of them donned tie-dyed shirts, cat ears and bright sunglasses. Shoptaugh even had her dog, a tie-dyed shirt wearing rescue pup named Julep, in tow.
“This is beautiful. We’re celebrating equality,” O’Brien said of the Pride Fest event, which each year draws thousands of people. “It should be done all the time.”