Benny Menaged visited the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this past weekend for the first time since 49 people were killed there June 12.
“Pulse was a place that so many cherished as a sanctuary to be themselves,” Menaged, a second-year law student at the University of Florida who’s openly gay, said Tuesday at the law school’s courtyard before the 100 or so people gathered there for a ceremony to recognize the university’s support for the LGBT community.
“For me personally, it was my first experience at a gay bar where I went to celebrate and accept who I was for the first time in my life.”
A focus of Tuesday’s event was to recognize the student scholarship the Florida Bar association gave to Menaged for his support of LGBT rights.
Menaged is the past president of OUTLaw, a group of UF law students composed of LGBT and straight members advocating for equal rights for individuals regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Orlando attorney Larry Smith picked Menaged for the scholarship.
Smith is the first openly gay lawyer to receive the Florida Bar’s 2016 G. Kirk Haas Award — which recognizes meritorious service to the legal profession — and as the recipient of that award, he got to pick the student scholarship recipient.
“Together, we will build a better America, where hatred and misunderstanding is replaced with love and pride,” Smith told those gathered. “We will return to our long and steady journey toward equality. … We will not forget [those who died in the shooting]. Our pulse is stronger than ever.”
The Florida Bar describes the recipient of the student scholarship as someone who demonstrates a high degree of integrity, ethics and concern for others.
“One thing that makes [UF] so deserving … of this award,” Menaged said, “is that we all treat each other with the utmost integrity and respect.”
At the event, members of OUTLaw and UF’s law school shared their sentiments about the school’s tolerance.
“Nobody should be made to feel like they are less just because of who they are, so it’s great to be in a community where you can always feel accepted,” said Caitlyn Shield, a UF law student and OUTLaw member.
Menaged said that UF has been accepting of him and his LGBT classmates, especially after the Pulse tragedy.
Law student and OUTLaw member Chris Johnson agreed.
“UF all came together to show that we are a united school,” Johnson said. “We want everyone to know that we united and stand together in this.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a UF law school alumnus, remembered the tragedy and how the city has come together in the aftermath.
“When hate attacked us, they attacked our LGBT community,” he said at the event. “They attacked our Hispanic community, and guess what the world saw? They saw a city living its values and a city defined by openness and tolerance.”