In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, I’ve had a wide range of feelings to say the least. I’ve read many articles, seen countless Facebook statuses, and watched closely as my friends, family, and acquaintances react to this horrific event. Orlando has an important place in many cheerleaders’ lives. Many LGBT cheerleaders and allies have been to Pulse, including myself.

What I thought was most interesting appeared in an article from Fusion where a man shared that Pulse nightclub was a “safe haven” for him and his friends. A safe haven. A safe place to dance and have fun.

Nightclubs have consistently been a place where LGBT individuals are allowed to fully express themselves. Free from the judgment of others who don’t accept them. Free from their own inhibitions. It’s almost incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t experienced the type of hate and bigotry that LGBT face to understand what it feels like to feel unsafe in public places. Pulse was an 18+ nightclub, so individuals young and old, of every sexuality were welcomed and celebrated. Until they weren’t.

As I sat and tried to unpack this horrific event, I reflected upon my own experiences as a member of the LGBT community, of which cheerleading has played an important role. My friends and I frequent bars and clubs like the one targeted in Orlando, Florida because of the way WE are. That’s a hard pill to swallow. And unfortunately, it’s a pill that members of the LGBT community have to swallow all the time.

Within the all-star cheerleading community, what I saw was an outpouring of love and prayers. The cheerleading community is unique for many reasons. When you look at the community, our community, you find the most accepting, open-minded people willing to fight for one another. It’s not often talked about because not many outside the community don’t see it the way we do. From the outside looking in, you see the bows and glitter, the loud music, and flamboyance. But, what they don’t see is a safe haven for countless members of the LGBT community.

Just as nightclubs and bars are a huge safe haven for the LGBT community, cheerleading, and all-star cheerleading, in particular, is a safe haven for many, many people. Cheerleading plays an important role in young people’s lives. Most cheerleaders are involved with cheer during a very delicate part of their lives, primarily in middle school and high school.

We often talk about how cheerleading teaches athletes about teamwork, resilience, and ambition, but, we forget to talk about acceptance. In my experience, all-star cheerleading is one of the most accepting communities I’ve ever come in contact with. When you walk into your gym or competition, you can rest easy knowing you won’t be judged for who or what you are. Kids and adults alike are allowed to let their true selves shine within the cheer community. And I think it’s so important to acknowledge that.

Young athletes who are coming to terms with their sexuality have the opportunity to be surrounded by those who went through and/or are going through the same type of experience. Athletes and adults alike are able to express themselves in a way that is seemingly impossible outside of cheerleading. And not only are they surrounded by other LGBT members, they’re  surrounded by countless allies of all ages.

In times like these, I feel blessed that I grew up within the cheer community. My cheer gym was the first place I felt that I could live without judgement for my sexuality and belong to a strong, vibrant, empowering community.

Today, and every day, I’m thankful that such a community exists in this world that teaches kids and adults alike to love everyone. I hope one day that the progressive nature of our community perpetuates the hatred of so many.

Thank you to all the athletics, coaches, gym owners, choreographers, music producers, event producers, and other members of the all-star cheerleading community for building something a community so strong and welcoming.

#LoveIsLove #LoveAlwaysWins #PrayForOrlando #OnePulse