Christine Leinonen

Christine Leinonen, 65, poses for a picture in her Florida home in July 2022. Her son, Christopher, was one of 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. She is opposed to a planned museum for the victims. 

Christine Leinonen awoke Sunday morning and puttered about her Polk City, Fla., house completely unaware of the tragedy unfolding half a nation way in Colorado, one terrifying in its similarity to the mass shooting six years ago at an Orlando nightclub that took the life of her son and 48 others.

She did notice her phone seemed to be buzzing more than usual with alerts, including a private Facebook message from Todd Laird, a gay friend in Chicago who left a troubling message:

“It doesn’t stop. Colorado Springs. My heart is broken.”

Leinonen, 65, was puzzled, especially after his second message: “So much hate in the world where do you start?” Others, too, seemed to be trying to connect, including family members and victims she had met in the days, weeks and now years since the Pulse massacre on June 12, 2016 — at the time the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

But why today, she wondered.

She scrolled the news feed on her phone and saw a headline that a shooter opened fire just before midnight in a popular LGBTQ night spot called Club Q in Colorado Springs. Five dead and at least 18 injured. With those words a familiar dread began to creep into her bones. She turned on her television and watched a cable news segment of an emergency room doctor being interviewed by phone, talking about the carnage from the club shooting.

In that moment she was transported back to just before 4 a.m., 6½ years ago, standing outside the emergency room door of Orlando Regional Medical Center, desperate to learn what happened to her son, Christopher Leinonen. She knew he and his partner, Juan Guerrero, had gone to the club. It took more than 30 hours before she got official confirmation both were dead.

According to survivors, the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, entered the club at about 2 a.m. and began a prowling, random spree as terrified clubgoers tried to hide. Mateen died hours later in a gunfight with authorities.

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In Colorado, the motive propelling suspect Anderson Lee Aldrich to begin shooting inside Club Q remains unclear. There was speculation almost immediately he could be charged with a federal hate crime because of the club’s clientele. Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez on Sunday described the club as a “safe haven for our LGBTQ citizens.”

Less than a week before this shooting, The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, released a report that shows at least 300 transgender and gender non-conforming people died violently in the past decade, including 32 people in 2022 alone.

Two-thirds of those deaths involved a firearm, and more than three-quarters were under the age of 35.

Violence against the patrons and employees in gay and lesbian bars dates back even further, including an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973 where 32 people died; a bomb blast in Atlanta in 1997 at a lesbian bar that killed five; and a deadly shooting at a Roanoke, Va., bar in 2000 after a gunman reportedly on a mission to kill gay people became incensed when he saw two men hugging.

Tears stung Keinon Carter’s eyes on Sunday morning as he read about the Colorado shooting. He knows exactly the terror that people inside Club Q felt. He felt it inside Pulse as he crawled behind the bar trying to escape the shooter. He could not.

Carter, who still lives in Orlando, was shot twice at point-blank range. The bullets shattered his pelvis, destroying part of his intestines and the muscles in the lower part of his body. He was in a coma for a month and has since undergone 60 surgeries, with more to come.

Throughout the day Sunday he said he felt a collision of emotions, not anger exactly but more a deep emotional wound. He wants to do more to help victims and is hopeful he can connect with those affected in Colorado as a resource since he has been where they are and will be in the long months to come.

“The pain never goes away,” said Leinonen about the aftermath, ”It ebbs and flows. You think the sea is calm but then the waves crash again.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Colorado Springs police initially reported early Sunday that five people had died and 18 were wounded, then changed it to five dead and another 25 wounded. On Monday, a joint operation between police and the city of Colorado Springs corrected the totals to five fatalities, and 17 people sustained gunshot wounds, another person injured in another manner and one victim with no visible injuries but considered a victim, according to city spokesman Max D'Onofrio. The situation was very chaotic on Sunday, D'Onofrio said, which led to the change in numbers. The suspect also was wounded and remains in police custody in a local hospital. He brings the total to 25 people impacted.

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