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Orlando Shooting Gave Pride Month A Whole New Meaning: Partygoers

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TORONTO — It was supposed to be just another big party for Toronto's Pride Month, but on Friday, a gathering at a local nightclub became a symbol of unity as the LGBT community reflected on life after the Orlando shooting.

"Everything has taken on new meaning now,'' Rick Kopfensteiner, 31, said as he sat outside Fly 2.0, a popular venue near the Gay Village.

"You can't help but look at things differently.''

Kopfensteiner and his longtime partner, 44-year-old James Fowler, have talked at length about the Pulse nightclub massacre last Sunday. A lone shooter left 49 people dead and 53 injured in what appears to be a hate crime aimed at the LGBT community during their month of celebration.

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Walt Chaisson, 50, left, and Jack Zulauf, 59, embrace outside a Pride party at Fly Nightclub in Toronto on Friday. (Photo: Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

The couple decided they weren't changing their plans to have a fun night out. Yet they couldn't ignore the feeling that their night of partying would be an act of defiance against fear.

Going to the club has suddenly taken on a new meaning at Fly, which has become one of Toronto's enduring LGBT landmarks since opening in 1999.

"You can't help but look at things differently.''

The venue served as a key location for popular cable show "Queer as Folk,'' which used its dancefloor as the fictional Club Babylon when it filmed there 16 years ago.

On Friday, organizers resurrected the trademark Babylon look with a replica disco ball, a bumpin' 1990s playlist and actor Randy Harrison, who played Justin on the series, present as host.

fly nightclub pride toronto
A couple embraces outside a Pride party at Fly Nightclub in Toronto on Friday. (Photo: Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

The event drew an unusually large number of attendees — and they weren't just the everyday faces at the local gay bar. Among the crowd were parents and relatives of younger partygoers there to show their support.

Some talked about how Orlando resurrected concerns about violence in the local community and the value of "safe spaces'' like nightclubs.

"You don't know who's going to get mad at you, yell at you, throw things at you — or shoot you.''

"Even if you're the most gay-positive person, I still think there's an inherent, deep-down moment of hesitation before you grab your partner's hand (in public),'' says Kopfensteiner.

"That's something you live with every single day because you don't know who's going to get mad at you, yell at you, throw things at you — or shoot you.''

Even seemingly gay-friendly cities like Toronto are filled with reminders of the lingering potential for violence.

Violence still prevalent, even in Toronto

Stories of friends being randomly attacked are all too common.

"Violence is prevalent everywhere,'' says Jonathan Cruz, a cornerstone of the local drag scene, who performs as Sofonda Cox.

"It's 2016 and it's still happening.''

"Two or three months ago one of our queens got bashed. She ended up in the hospital.... It's 2016 and it's still happening.''

Those stories often wind up pushed into the recesses of people's minds in an effort to live outside of fear.

fly nightclub toronto pride
Artur Iatsko, 23, left, and Javier Uzcategui, 29, kiss at a Pride party inside Fly Nightclub in Toronto on Friday. (Photo: Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

It took Orlando to awaken some of those memories and provoke conversations about the value of spaces like Fly, where revellers can be who they want to be, and party freely amongst their peers and supporters.

There's a sense of community, particularly for young people still finding their identities, suggested Fowler. Lasting friendships are formed on the dancefloor and old acquaintances often reunite unexpectedly after years of separation.

"When they go to a club ... it's a collective weave,'' he said.

"That's a very powerful place to be for a lot of gay people, particularly when they first come out.''

Security team not taking any chances

Sonia Smith, head of Fly's security team, spoke with a heavy heart about how Orlando has changed her idea of safe spaces. She's already upped security across the board since the shootings.

"It was too close to home,'' she said shaking her head.

Over the years, she's kept relatively lax security policies. Most regulars were greeted with a smile and a bag search, but in the wake of Orlando that will change somewhat.

Earlier this week, she dusted off a collection of metal detector wands she briefly introduced at the club years ago, but shelved when people complained they dampened the party vibe.

"I'm not taking any chances anymore,'' she said.

Inside the club the spirits were high and the booze flowing, just like it was before this fateful week.

The crowd let out a boisterous cheer when "Queer as Folk'' star Harrison took the stage to encourage solidarity amongst the LGBT community.

"I'm not going to change my life because some guy down in Orlando lost his mind.''

It's a message that Nancy Chomyszyn, 56, was hoping to hear as she stood alongside her son Trevor and his partner Kirby Cortez. This was their first time together in a gay club, and she said she couldn't be happier.

"With it being Pride, we can band together as a community — gay and straight — and support each other,'' she said.

"I'm not going to change my life because some guy down in Orlando lost his mind.''

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

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