Everything about Laura Vargas is remarkable – even the simple act of walking across Starbucks to greet me.
Just 18 months ago she was shot twice by the killer Omar Mateen who would go on to kill 49 people at LGBTI nightclub Pulse in Orlando, including one of her closest friends, Lewis.
Shot right at the start of the attack, damaging her ability to walk, Laura was conscious for the entire experience. It was the worst mass shooting in the US by a single gunman at the time and America’s deadliest terror attack since 9/11.
Mateen may have been killed by police gunfire during the attack at Pulse on 12 June 2016. But not before robbing Laura of so much.
Not least, the right to feel safe in public, for a short time the ability to walk, and her best friend’s life.
But Mateen also robbed her one of the most important rights of passage any LGBTI person has. He took her right to come out to her family when she was ready.
When the press found out she’d been part of the attack, her strictly Catholic family not only found out their daughter nearly lost her life – but that she was gay too.
It’s rare for Laura to speak to the media. She describes the self-imposed bubble she has been in the last 18 months. She barely goes out into even public or busy spaces, even the likes of restaurants.
But just a week after Mateen’s wife was found not guilty of aiding him, she tells Gay Star News about her devastation at the decision. Once again she feels robbed, but this time of closure and justice.
This week her hometown Pride is lighting up the Miami skyline with rainbows – Laura, in an even rarer public speaking appearance, switched them on.
Agreeing to this interview is another step in Laura’s recovery. One that is about lighting up the dark shadow the attack has cast on her life. She is beginning to see how Pulse can have a legacy of light – starting with how life has been getting easier for LGBTI people in Miami since the attack.
Laura and Lewis’s choice to go to Pulse was a last minute decision
Though she was born and raised in Miami, her family’s deeply Catholic roots are in Columbia, where many of them live.
Studying at the School of Physical Therapy, she moved to Orlando in 2014. She worked for Universal for a year, before going back to Miami. This is where she met her best friend, Lewis.
On the weekend of the attack, Lewis invited Laura up to reconnect with colleagues at a staff awards night at Disney. Just this week, the resort was revealed as the original target of Mateen’s attack.
Arriving at Pulse in Orlando on a last-minute invitation, at midnight they decided they would call it early if the night was no good.
But it was on point. At Latin night, the vibes were strong, the mood was happy and the community inside was alive.
The club was packed when Mateen shattered everything, shooting Laura and her friend Lewis – who died instantly.
Waking up in hospital, Laura was unable to walk, eat or do anything so many of us take for granted. She had lost her best friend and was awake while 48 others lost their lives around her.
Reporters pretended to be family members to get into survivors’ hospital rooms
It’s not hard to imagine why anyone would want privacy after that.
But the world was captivated by the trauma and terror of the night: people were angry, and they wanted answers. The world was watching; the press descended.
‘MTV were calling me up two days after the attack, asking me to take part in their True Life documentary series,’ she told me.
Laura says the press intrusion on the survivors of this attack, was intense. Reporters went as far as pretending to be hospital staff or family members, to get inside wards and rooms – just to get their story.
‘The hospital had to give us aliases.’
In her home country of Columbia, Laura’s story ‘blew up’ everywhere. She was the top story on the TV and on the front of the newspapers.
But she wasn’t out to her family. So when her mom called her at the hospital, not only did they have to navigate Laura being a victim in a mass murder, she had to come out.
And yet, this is where one of Laura’s incredible aptitude for compassion shines through. Instead of fury at having her coming out stolen from her:
‘I was so emotionally drained by it, he probably did me a favor. My family are Catholic, so they had to comprehend: Laura’s hurt, she’s also gay and she’s been hurt – because she is gay.
‘But there was so much tragedy, they couldn’t judge and so they focused on “is she OK?”‘
Puppy therapy was a turning point in her recovery
Anyone who faces a life-changing illness or injury will know recovery takes time. And it involves setbacks.
‘I was having a really bad day, and I was told I’d have to wait longer to come off IV fluids and go onto solid food. And my patience had worn thin. So I cursed up a storm and sent everyone away.’
But two weeks after this, Laura had a breakthrough.
A knock at the door came and she noticed two little paws were at the door.
For the coming weeks, she’d have puppy therapy in the hospital, giving her life and strength to work through the nerve damage the shooting had left her with.
Friends and family rallied around her, including her now girlfriend Brandy.
But while she recovered. The world tried to grapple with what hate could have consumed anyone to cause so much pain.
‘I’m glad he didn’t pick Disney, it would have tainted “the happiest place on earth”’
In the 18 months since Pulse, the media has been awash with different theories about Omar Mateen.
Was he gay? Did he use Grindr? Had he been a regular at the nightclub? Did some kind of internalized homophobia cause him to lash out at a community he was part of – but couldn’t understand?
Now his wife’s court case, Salman Noor, has drawn to a close – we finally know that much of the speculation, was just that.
Though an ISIS sympathizer, there is no evidence to say that Mateen picked Pulse because it was an LGBTI venue. In fact, he’d originally picked the Disney resort as his target where Lewis and Laura had been just one night before.
‘Thank god he didn’t pick there, think about how many children could have been caught up in such a terrible attack.
‘I’m glad he didn’t pick Disney, it would have tainted the “happiest place on earth”.’
Laura followed the court case, though not so close as to ‘submerge’ herself in it. But she did attend briefings the FBI put on during the case to Pulse survivors.
She couldn’t talk about what they told her until now, it could have put the trial at risk. But now its over, she says they talked her through some 1,300 pieces of evidence they’d gathered on Mateen.
Evidence the prosecution would argue made Noor Salman complicit in the attack. But last week she was found not guilty.
Having seen the evidence too, Laura and Brandy sit in front of me, ‘devastated’ and ‘disappointed’ as they talk through what the FBI told them.
Learning to let go of survival guilt
The FBI officers who briefed Laura were so angry with Mateen, they wouldn’t even say his name. Calling him instead all manner of foul curses.
‘Today is the first time I’ve said his name in a very long time. I don’t want to say it.
‘I know nothing can bring Lewis back, but we were waiting for closure and real-world justice with this case.’
But Laura and Brandy both feel ‘it has slipped through our fingers.’
Part of Laura’s recovery has been letting ‘little grains of [survival] guilt’ go every day.
At the same time she is coming to terms with accepting homophobia did not primarily motivate this crime, even though it was attack on the LGBTI community.
And it was the FBI’s evidence that helped Laura come to this conclusion.
‘A lot of people are holding onto the fact that this was an attack on the LGBTI community. But this man was focused on the bad he was going to do. He was sick.’
Though, as the FBI said in Salman’s case, the fact it was an LGBTI venue may well have been a plus to Mateen. But at the same time, Laura believes his choice of target was about ‘impact.’ Salman’s court case reported the only reason he didn’t target Disney, was after he was spooked by police while on a planning trip to the resort.
Miami Beach Pride is lighting up the sky
Laura and Brandy this weekend are spearheading much of Miami Beach Pride’s festivities.
Taking part in crowded events playing on her mind, Laura does have a cautious sense of optimism.
At the beginning of the week, she flipped the switch to light up the cities skyline with rainbows.
Over 50 buildings are taking part in the Pride Lights the Night initiative, in tribute to Pulse victims.
‘When I agreed to speak, I kind of naively thought it would be me, Brandy and a couple of people.’
But a crowd of a couple of hundred came out to hear Laura speak. She remembered her friend Lewis and reflected on how happy he would be to know the legacy of the attack was inspiring a new found pride in being LGBTI in Miami.
The couple have noticed how many more businesses are displaying rainbows this year. Indeed, they feel safer than ever when holding hands in Miami.
Something they’ll be doing in the parade with other Pulse survivors at the event this weekend.
Shot twice, and still here
The duo re-evaluated their lives in the wake of the attack. They quit their office jobs and set up a dog walking business inspired by Laura’s dog therapy in the hospital.
And it’s clear Laura is still just beginning to come to terms with that night.
‘Sometimes I turn to Brandy and say “Can you believe I was shot twice and I’m still here?”’
At the launch gala for this weekend’s Pride, Laura was one of the guests of honor. But she tucked herself away in the corner.
It’s a perfect encapsulation of Laura. She was the star of the show. But in this overwhelmingly loud, bright and who’s who of town event, she was happy to watch it take place from the sidelines – with a sense of humility, but purpose.
Right now, her focus is on making Pulse’s legacy one of light, not dark. Something Miami Beach Pride has more than achieved this year.
Gay Star News is a media sponsor of Miami Beach Pride. Miami Beach Pride headline sponsor is Celebrity Cruises.