Orlando Pulse Tragedy Hits Home As Sag Harbor Resident Plans Benefit

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Robert Kohnken, photographed in Marine Park in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo
The Reverend Karen Campbell stands by to offer assistance as parishioners each ring the church bell as the individual names of those killed in the Orlando shooting are read off following the morning mass at the Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday.
The Reverend Karen Campbell stands by to offer assistance as parishioners each ring the church bell as the individual names of those killed in the Orlando shooting are read off following the morning mass at the Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday. Michael Heller photo

By Emily J. Weitz

Twenty-eight year-old Robert Kohnken is a Sag Harbor boy, born and raised. He went to Sag Harbor Elementary and Pierson High School. He grew up in a loving family in a sheltered town. But when he moved to Orlando a decade ago, he felt like he was coming home in a whole new way. And he came home to a little club whose name has now been seared into the country’s consciousness: that club was called Pulse.

“The first time I walked in to Pulse is so hard to describe,” said Mr. Kohnken, tears in his eyes. “It was almost hypnotic. The lights and the music and the smells and the energy and the people – was something I had never experienced before in my life. Instantly, the moment I walked in, it felt like home.”

Pulse became home for Mr. Kohnken, as it did for many other young people, many of whom didn’t have another safe place to call home. Many kids who were kicked out of their homes for being gay or trans found refuge – and a sense of family – at Pulse.

“Everybody was accepted there,” said Mr. Kohnken. “A lot of people who frequent that place don’t experience love in the outside world.”

Mr. Kohnken, who always loved musical theater and was a regular participant in Stages Children Theater Workshop, saw his first drag show at Pulse, and it ignited something in him.

“This was an extension of musical theater and performing,” he said. “My jaw dropped and I was in awe.”

Mr. Kohnken had moved down to Orlando to go to school for massage therapy, but he was discovering a whole new passion that was beginning to consume him. He started going out, at first at Pulse and then at the other two major gay clubs in Orlando, and dressing in drag. He played with makeup, costumes, hair. And he started to get noticed.

One day, he was on his way to massage school when he got a phone call from one of the performers, asking if he’d be interested in hosting a weekly talent show at Pulse. Mr. Kohnken dropped everything and went to the club. He remembers walking in during the day, with no music or lights, and seeing the tiny, three room club in a new way. He was hired, along with a young man named Axel Andrews, who became like a brother to him.

“We grew up in that club,” he said.

Kaya Adonis was a major drag queen on the scene in Central Florida, and she took Mr. Kohnken under her wing. He refers to her as his “drag mother”.

“In a way, you have this family cultivating this new part of you,” he said.

Robert Kohnken, photographed in Marine Park in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo
Robert Kohnken, photographed in Marine Park in Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photo

Mr. Andrews and Mr. Kohnken hosted the weekly talent show, which had a devoted group of regulars, for five years. The day of the show, they’d spend hours getting ready in the small dressing room behind the stage.

“Those are some of my best memories,” said Mr. Kohnken. “Sitting in that dressing room with Axel and Kaya, talking and laughing. There was so much laughter and so much joy in that entire building, but especially in that dressing room.”

That dressing room has since become the place of nightmares.

At 2 am on Sunday, June 12, Axel Andrews was bartending. When heavily armed Omar Mateen entered the building and murdered 49 people, injuring 53 others, Andrews and a few other people hid in the dressing room. All this, Mr. Kohnken has only learned about through an interview Mr. Andrews did with Billboard after the shooting. Mr. Andrews spoke about the screaming, the sounds of shooting. People oscillated between terror and disbelief. There was crying, frantic phone calls to loved ones, vomiting, praying. Mr. Andrews spoke to police from the dressing room – the very room where he and Mr. Kohnken had built their drag personas and had so many carefree laughs – to map out how they could orchestrate a rescue. While the shooter was still wreaking terror in the club, Mr. Andrews and the others pushed an air conditioner unit out of the dressing room and managed to get out.

“I can’t imagine the trauma he feels,” said Mr. Kohnken. “When I got the news, I went right to Facebook, and started typing in the names of the people I was closest with. I saw the Axel was alive, thank God. The Pulse family, my Pulse family, was okay.”

But as the victims list started to generate, and faces started showing up on the news, Mr. Kohnken recognized regulars, acquaintances, faces that had been part of his life for all those years.

“Everyone that was there that night was there to have fun,” he said, “to be somewhere where they felt accepted and safe. Pulse was a sanctuary.”

That’s why Mr. Kohnken believes it’s so important that the club reopen.

“There needs to be a safe place for people to go where they’re accepted and they feel love,” he said. “This was an invasion – Pulse was a place of home and light and joy. To leave on that note would be like a defeat.”

Mr. Kohnken is a dozen states away from his friends at Pulse, experiencing this loss and shock and pain in a world where life can proceed more or less the same. He wants to help, and has organized a benefit here in Sag Harbor on Thursday, June 30. “One Pulse: The Hamptons Support Orlando” will feature beloved local musicians Inda Eaton, Nancy Atlas, and Mama Lee and Rose. After the music, Mr. Kohnken will dust off his drag chops.

“It’s been six years since the last time I put on the heels and the hair and made the transformation,” he said. “But that all changes the night of the 30th. We need to come together as a community. Not just the LGBTQ community but the community as a whole. Human to human, to support each other raise each other up and show love.”

One Pulse: The Hamptons Support Orlando will take place on Thursday, June 30 at Muse Restaurant in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $40 for the entire evening starting at 7pm, or $25 from 9:30 on for the drag show and DJ. All proceeds, except for the cash bar, benefit the Pulse Employee Recovery Fund LLC.

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