'We Have to Be Our Own Shield': SF's LGBTQ+ Community Honors Victims of the Pulse and Club Q Shootings in New Memorial

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a blurry figure approaches a metal shield-like sculpture which is mounted on a blue wall
A visitor at the SF LGBT Center passes by 'Aegis,' a new work by Brazil-born, SF-based sculptor Wilson Ferreira, which honors the 49 victims of the 2016 shooting at Pulse, a queer nightclub in Orlando, Florida. (Courtesy of the San Francisco LGBT Center)

As you step onto the second floor of San Francisco’s LGBT Center, a large metal sculpture meets your eye. Aegis is San Francisco artist Wilson Ferreira’s memorial to the 49 people who were killed in a shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, the most violent attack against the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history.

Aegis — which draws its name from a divine form of protection in Greek mythology — resembles a V-shaped shield, encasing a metal rainbow flag. The lower half of the shield is covered in dozens of small perforations, so you can see the colors of the rainbow through the holes. As you move around the piece, the shield seems to shift, the colors dancing on a fixed surface.

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Ferreira unveiled the sculpture on Dec. 7 at a reception hosted by the San Francisco LGBT Center and AGUILAS, an advocacy and resource group for LGBTQ+ Latinx people. It was a long time coming: Back in 2017, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors set aside $10,000 for a public memorial to honor the victims of the shooting. Four years later, Ferreira unveiled Aegis in a moment when violence against queer people is once again on the rise, only weeks after the shooting that killed nine people at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs.

Aegis is intended not just to honor those who lost their lives at Pulse, but also to protect the living who remain vulnerable to anti-LGBTQ+ violence, Ferreira says. “This shield cannot be destroyed because it protects you, me, all of us,” he says. “It gives us the protection to move forward, despite resistance.”

Ferreira, originally from Brazil, is the first gay Brazilian artist to create a public memorial in the city. He says that he’s experienced discrimination in both Brazil and the U.S., and he felt the tragedy at Pulse deeply. Many of those who lost their lives at Pulse were queer Latinx people who sought to create a space without queerphobic, racist or xenophobic aggression.

a young-looking, bald Latino man with a dark brown mustache and goatee, wearing a brown shirt and coat, smiles in front of a metal and rainbow-hued sculpture hanging on a blue interior wall. The sculpture is roughly a couple feet wide and 6 inches taller than a nearby doorframe.
Wilson Ferreira is the first gay Brazilian artist to create a public memorial in San Francisco. (sfaguilas/Instagram)

“As gay men, we know how much we are subjected to violence,” he says. “Our community, the LGBTQIA+ community, has suffered prejudice and violence every single day — unchecked homophobia, unchecked violence.”

The sculpture’s sleek, vertical design takes the eyes upward to the top of the shield, where the rainbow banner peeks out near the ceiling. Ferreira says he wanted the piece to link the terrestrial and celestial planes. The intention behind each subtle detail — the dozens of perforations that grow smaller and fade away as you move up the piece, for example — make it clear that we are now in a place to mourn and remember.

The San Francisco LGBT Center already is home to several significant works of art by LGBTQ+ artists, including Queeroes, the mural by artists Juan Manuel Carmona and Simón Malvaez on the building’s exterior that features key figures in the movement for queer liberation, like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.

Only a few days before the Aegis unveiling, Rita Wantings started their new job at the San Francisco LGBT Center as a services navigator. Originally from Colorado, Wantings came to San Francisco to find a place where they would be understood and not judged for their identity or experiences as a queer person of color.

A gold and rainbow-colored metal sculpture hanging on a blue wall.
'Aegis,' by Wilson Ferreira, draws its name from a divine form of protection in Greek mythology. (Courtesy of the SF LGBT Center)

Back in Colorado, Wantings says, they were judged and ridiculed for their pronouns. “Out here I don’t feel like that. I feel very protected out here,” they say. “I feel seen. I feel heard. I feel valid.”

And even though they have only been in the Bay for a short period of time, Wantings says they have already formed deep connections. “I don’t even want to call them friends. I call them my chosen family — people who see me, who identify in similar ways as what I identify,” they say.

That chosen family has become their shield, Wantings says, so Aegis reminds them of the care and protection they receive from the community. They point to their bag, which reads "Protect Black women."

Colorado will always be their home, Wantings says. But they add that the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs hit close to home — literally. They are still working through their grief.

“That’s actually somewhere I’ve been,” they say. “I’ve experienced that place. It was a beautiful place, I've seen drag shows there.” Throughout these difficult emotions, they’ve leaned on their new chosen family in the Bay Area.

“We have to be our own shield,” they say.

Correction (Dec. 19): The original version of this story incorrectly stated the year of the Pulse nightclub shooting as 2017. The event occurred June 12, 2016. The year has since been corrected.