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"Anyone Could Blow Us Away": The New Reality, Say Gays in Wilton Manors

After Robert Taylor learned that seven of his friends and acquaintances had died in the mass shooting that took place at an Orlando gay club early Sunday morning, he didn’t go outside for two full days.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, he decided it was time. The first place he headed was Georgie’s Alibi, the longstanding Wilton Manors gay bar where he worked as a bartender and server for several years.

“This is like home to me,” he said. “These are my friends. As much as I was afraid at first, I’m not going to stay away.”

Like Pulse, where the shooting in Orlando took place, Georgie’s is described by its regulars as equal parts church, therapy, and community center. Ever since it opened in 1997, it has been a center for South Florida gay life. A few days after the attacks, business at the outdoor patio bar was slower than usual, although it was hard to tell if that was just because the crushing heat was keeping people away. The bar’s management had announced they’d add a security detail from the Broward Sheriff’s Office on weekends and ban anyone from bringing in bags and backpacks at night, but many customers had concluded that these precautionary measures wouldn’t stop a truly determined shooter.

“It’s wide open here — anyone could drive by and blow us away,” one pointed out.

“At night, you have people waiting outside in line,” another added. “It’s an easy target.”

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For many years, Wilton Manors has been a safe haven for the LGBT community. It elected Broward County’s first openly gay official in 1988 and was named the second gayest city in the United States in the 2010 Census, with 139.62 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. (Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the owner of Georgie’s Alibi’s has another bar, came in first.) All companies that do business with the city have to prove that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and the police force — which includes many gay and lesbian officers — goes through special training to learn about working with the LGBT population.

“This town, for a gay man, is better than Amsterdam, San Francisco, New York City… or Atlanta, which is where I moved from,” Craig Strain, a Wilton Manors resident and a regular at Georgie’s Alibi, said. “I marched in the first Atlanta pride parade in 1972. We got stoned — I mean, we had rocks thrown at us.” After several of his friends moved down to Wilton Manors, he decided to visit and ended up moving there for good.

Since the shooting at Pulse, however, many residents are starting to question their sense of security. “Everyone thought of Orlando as safe. Everyone thought of Wilton Manors as safe. Now we’re rethinking that,” said Bob Fournier, who, along with his partner of 34 years, co-owns Hobo’s Grill, a restaurant down the street from Georgie’s.

But, he added, “we can’t let fear take over.”

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