Owner Barbara Poma opened Pulse in 2004 with partner Ron Legler, naming it in tribute to the heartbeat of her brother John, whom she lost to AIDS in 1991. As a straight teenager, Barbara had an early exposure to the vast thumping circuit of Ft. Lauderdale's gay bars under her brother's watch.
Orlando is a far cry (and a three-hour drive) from Ft. Lauderdale, but in opening Pulse, Poma's goal wasn't just to sell drinks to twinks, but to preserve John's spirit in a meaningful way -- the same way she watched it transform her own family dynamic, "from a culture of strict tradition to one of acceptance and love."
In theory and practice, Pulse offered the polar opposite of old-school gay-bar culture -- that stubborn, nearly unconscious tradition of sorting and separating ourselves into our bars by shape, size, sex, color, and type. More often than not, those old desire-driven ways of coming together just meant further isolation. For decades we've been united in acronym only.
Pulse's approach was an answer to this; a way of pulling "community" out of the abstract. The club was girl-friendly, boy-friendly, trans-friendly, and beyond. Unlike many places, the dancers didn't all have the same look. Straight people crammed into Latin night on Sundays just for the legit dancing. Its mishmash was its mission. Scan the faces of the victims, or the memorial on South Orange, or photos and clips that made it online, and you'll see a tribe unbound by race, age, gender, or body – but bound nonetheless. That was on purpose. "Pulse catered to anyone," Ryan Daugherty tells me. "It was the club that accepted everybody."
When former Pulse entertainment director Blue Star first moved to Orlando from NYC 16 years ago, there were two halfway decent gay bars, both of them institutions: the trusty Southern Nights, and the storied Parliament House. When word first spread about Pulse's opening, she recalls hearing excitement, but also grumbles of trepidation -- "Oh look, another straight person opening a gay bar."
"But once we understood where [Barbara] was coming from," Blue says, "it was embraced, and it was celebrated." Pulse was instantly popular, and seemingly open to everything. Blue herself threw multiple installments of her ongoing "Varietease" show there. She judged drag pageants and watched future stars of drag take their first steps in heels. She went to benefits, award ceremonies, community celebrations, burlesque nights, and theater performances at the club. And she credits it for giving her the shove into the spotlight that every performer needs.
"I have danced on that dance floor, I have put my feelings on that stage, I have spent many a night in that dressing room," says Blue. "Pulse was a playground. It was safe, and it was home -- to a lot of people."