He seems a bit scattered, but determined. We have been texting and emailing for weeks, it is not easy to pin him down. He keeps very busy whether it’s for telling his story or working on projects or avoidance is unclear, but most likely a bit of all of those. You see Christopher Hansen was there that fateful night in June almost seven months ago when the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history occurred at a nightclub in Orlando, FL.
The name “Pulse” is known around the world now and the story has been solidified in LGBT history and mythology permanently. Here in this voice across a cell connection and thousands of miles lies the truth in this story, a human being within the tragedy.
“So much was happening all at once that night, I think there is still a part of me trying to piece it all together,” Christopher said. “It was all so quick. I have told the story so many times, but I always get choked up and each time seems for different reasons.”
“At first it was very challenging after the shooting happened,” he said. “I had to stop going on the news; I started to get hate messages on Facebook, people threatening my life. I was sent videos about the shooting being a hoax. Some people would yell at me and call me an actor. I finally had to get past that and accept that some people are trolls and don’t want to know the truth and just want to hate.”
I ask him if the interviews, the same questions month after month, get easier or harder. He pauses and seems to disappear for a second to a world I cannot reach. When I finally begin to wonder if our connection has been lost I hear a clearing of his throat.
“It depends on how I talk about it, the place they want me to go to when I start to tell the story,” he said. “Sometimes when I talk about it I will remember other details. I get distracted remembering bodies that I saw laying lifeless, I just want to find the officers from that night and ask if they made it or not. It all just went so fast, you quickly learn to just go to the ones you can hear, the ones you might be able to help.”
After countless stories about that night, it is the aftermath for the individuals there in those moments that we don’t seem to talk about. Christopher tells me in a broken voice how it still feels like it was just yesterday, how he still cries every day.
“Everything happened between two and five a.m. That was the most traumatic time of my life, so I can’t seem to sleep at night. I don’t feel safe. It’s challenging, my friends, my old life happens in the daylight, but I don’t feel secure,” he shared. “People tell me to just take medication to help me sleep, but I don’t want to be taken by surprise ever again. My Dad always says that the cockroaches come out at night.”
Christopher added, “I got to meet one of the survivors of 9/11, Nancy, she was one of the first responders. I remember she told me it took her a year before she began to deal with it. She just hugged me and told me I had to grieve at some point, but how do you grieve? How does one even begin to grieve this?”
There are still moments of light that he has been able to find. Christopher talks about the opportunities to do public speaking, to visit Washington D.C. or New York, his voice swells with pride as he shares moments when the LGBT community has greeted him and other survivors with standing ovations.
“We hide everything behind our smiles in those moments, but that moment is good,” he said.
Most recently, OUT Magazine named the survivors of the Pulse shootings as part of their OUT100 list. Christopher’s face appears with 14 other survivors in the pages of this sleek magazine. It’s a moving tribute to those who were there that night, but I can’t help but wonder if there is extra pressure put on those who are choosing to speak and be public.
“I’m wild and rambunctious, [and] there is pressure to be something else,” he said. “People tell me, ‘You’re in the spotlight now and you can’t do that kind of thing. You’re a public figure now.’ But I still need to be the same me. It’s a strange balance I’m still figuring out.”
His voice has found more and more strength the longer that we talk. The pain is still palpable under the surface of every word, but he seems to use it as a foundation for his voice. When I ask him how he keeps from letting this one tragic day in his life define him, he seems a bit perplexed.
“I can’t change it, I’ve learned to just embrace it,” he said. “I feel like it has shown my heart and told me where and what I need to do. It’s given me purpose and made me stronger. That night when I chose to stay and help and not run, it showed me who I was. I am not a victim, I am a victor. Everything I’ve done is what I am meant to do.”
He continued, “You asked me earlier how I cope? It is important that I help bring awareness. I try to stay vocal in the community, I try to volunteer, I do art therapy. I stay focused on the good and go moment to moment. I have learned that you must always speak of love, you never know when it is your last moment. I was a short chubby kid, I was made fun of for looking like a girl or acting feminine. I know what it is like to hurt and feel pain, but there is power together, in helping others. I’m learning to see into the future, to look for the love and the light.”
This has not been a typical interview for me. I like structure and order, this was messy and random. I like predictable, this was anything but. This was real. This was human. This was heart. Christopher is complicated and presents himself to you as he is. He’s a man who went through something horrific and is trying to make sense of it while helping as many as he can. The tragedy in Orlando is not a story we can click off of or a moment we can turn away from. It is living and breathing in this very time, it is in this man’s voice, in his tears, in his soul. Christopher lives in this moment every day, but chooses to reach out from within it. Maybe we can learn something.
Christopher leaves me with one last thought, a wish he has for 2017. A wish he holds for all of us.
“Unity. I hope it brings us closer together still,” he said. “That the message of love continues to be shared. I hope more groups will unite, the LGBT community will stop being divided and that we will see each other. That we will start to get to know the stranger in the grocery store or the ones that live next to us and we will help each other more.”
I can think of no better way to end this article, to end our conversation and to start anew than with this wish. May it find us all within the hope of a brand new year.