NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - As an LGBTQ rainbow flag rose up the flagpole at the Middlesex County Courthouse late last week, attendees remembered the 49 men and women murdered in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida last year during a terrifying and bloody mass shooting that targeted members of that community.
According to published reports, Omar Mateen entered the LGBTQ nightclub on June 12, 2016 and opened fire, perpetrating the deadliest mass shooting in American History.
But the terrorist, who wounded 53 others, was not remembered during this week's event.
The fear he hoped to create was replaced, instead, by support and a sense of unity here in Central New Jersey and downtown New Brunswick.
Local officials, including U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12, and about three dozen county residents attended the flag-raising event.
"This is the first time we have a (LGBTQ) flag-raising in Middlesex county - one of the most diverse in the country - and we hope to see it continue from now on," Michael Spadoro, chairperson of the Middlesex Democratic Organization's LGBT Caucus, said. "Events like these bring us one step closer to equality. It's great to know that our representatives have our back here in Middlesex County."
He then provided a brief history of Pride Month, which was celebrated for the 26th time in Asbury Park two weeks ago.
According to the Library of Congress, Pride Month started in 1994 to remember the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which were the "tipping point" of the LGBTQ movement.
It highlights the contributions of this community to our history.
Spadoro was then joined by Ruell Calvin Brown, a Democratic candidate for South River Town Council, in a recitation of the names of those killed in Orlando, to whom the event was dedicated.
Watson Coleman spoke to those assembled, describing her visit to the Pulse nightclub during the presidential campaign season last fall.
She noted that she was "inspired" by the messages of hope, love, and unity expressed by the visitors to the site.
Watson Coleman then went on to link the shooting with the recent gun assaults at the UPS facility near San Francisco and the attacks on Republican congressmen while they practiced for a charity baseball game on a field in Alexandria, Virginia.
"We have guns in the hands of the wrong people," she said. "The type of guns used in these attacks should not be available. We need common sense gun laws."
She said the attack in Orlando was carried out by a single shooter using a Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle and a Glock 17 9mm semi-automatic pistol, which were purchased legally. The attack on the congressmen during a baseball practice last week involved a single shooter with an SKS 7.62-millimeter caliber rifle, also purchased legally.
"We are pausing for America," Watson Coleman said. "We should celebrate diversity. We should take these moments to acknowledge the contributions of a diverse community. We are at our best when we bring our talents together."
In a reference to some current concerns of the LGBTQ community, Watson Coleman continued, "We must remember that we are a country of laws. We are working to ensure civil rights in public accommodations. We don't take inclusion lightly. Government has a distinct role in in protecting us and lifting us up. We want to lift hope, commitment, and solidarity for all people."
The vice-chair of the MCDO LGBTQ Caucus, Richard Green III, took the podium next.
"As a life-long resident of Middlesex County and a gay man, today means a lot to me," he said. "Yet, it reminds me that the hard work continues."
Green quoted the slain gay activist Harvey Milk, a San Francisco Councilman who was assassinated in 1978, saying, "We must show persistence, resistance, and commitment. Hope will never be silent."
Spadoro then invited everyone to exit the building to raise the flag in front of the courthouse.
"Let's go out and make some history," he said.
Freeholders Charles Kenny and Kenneth Armwood raised the rainbow banner, joined by Watson Coleman and State Assemblyman Joseph Danielson, D-17.