In June 2016, Gabriel Martinez began to think about how he wanted to change the world around him following his graduation with a master’s degree from the School of Social Work that August.
On June 12, the Pulse nightclub shooting changed the trajectory of his career path; his partner at the time, Christopher, was shot four times and survived. Martinez was supposed to have been at Pulse that night but changed his mind at the last minute. That decision changed his life.
“When you follow the network of the 49 people and all the lives they touched, Pulse impacted everyone,” Martinez said.
Even in the midst of tragedy, there was a silver lining for Martinez; he got connected with the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida during the immediate aftermath, where he volunteered with other community advocates until, following graduation, he was offered a job.
“I’m part of the LGBT community, but I never worked for the LGBT community,” he said. “It was a big responsibility and I was ready to take it on. I had graduated with my master’s degree and this was the chance to put my training and education to action.”
The opportunity also allowed Martinez to work with another community that was near to his heart; the HIV-impacted community. Martinez was diagnosed as HIV-positive at the center in spring 2014, a semester after he started his graduate program in social work.
His work at the center opened another door for him a year later as the coordinator of sexual wellness with Wellness and Health Promotion Services at UCF. One of his social work professors connected him to the then-director for an internship shortly after his HIV diagnosis.
“There is a purpose and I want to fulfill that purpose,” he said. “The School of Social Work and the Wellness and Health Promotion Services worked very closely with me to develop an internship site specifically for me, because I felt so strongly about working to make people more sexually educated after I was diagnosed.”
In this role, Martinez works with the faculty, staff and students at the Recreation and Wellness Center and across campus to raise sexual awareness, encourage sexual education and promote sexual understanding.
“He’s unapologetic about this role and this is what makes him such an asset to the university, students and the Orlando community,” said Tameca Harris-Jackson, coordinator for academic support and assessment for the online master’s degree program in social work.
Harris-Jackson worked closely with Martinez and his graduate assistant to host a “Safe Sex and the Senses” workshop and said that it was an honor to work closely with him on the event.
“It is clear that his passion for social justice and effective health information and access runs through everything he does,” she said.
The Pulse shooting left a mark on the Orlando community that is still felt, but also led to positive changes for Martinez, both professionally and personally. He has now had the opportunity to work as an agent for change and has advanced advocacy for two communities he cares about.
Martinez says the tragedy has fostered a stronger sense of community throughout Orlando and urges people to continue to build upon that foundation by paying attention to everyone and providing a listening ear to those who need it.
“I think when we listen to each other, we can understand everyone’s emotions better, we can take actions to strive forward,” he said. “I believe Orlando is better today than it was before Pulse.”