ORLANDO — A transgender woman described Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen as being curious, searching, and uncomfortable when they met at a popular gay club late last year.
Daniele Tashner, 60, said she immediately recognized Mateen when he was identified as the gunman who killed 49 people and injured dozens more at the Pulse dance club in Orlando early Sunday morning.
“When they showed this guy on the news, my heart cringed and I almost broke out in tears. I saw this person about eight months ago. I actually realized that I spoke to this person for about 15 minutes sitting in a gazebo at the back of Parliament House,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Parliament House is another popular gay club in Orlando that is about a 10-minute drive northwest of Pulse.
Yahoo News spoke to Tashner during a Monday night vigil, which attracted thousands of people, outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. Tashner is not an employee at Parliament House, but said she takes care of plants at the club and that customers often feel comfortable talking to her.
According to Tashner, Mateen, 29, arrived at Parliament House with a friend and introduced himself but then kept to himself and observed people in conversation. When he spoke up, she said, he had questions and was, “reaching out.”
“He was really searching. He wanted to talk. He was curious and everything. But he was real uncomfortable,” she said.
The interview about her chance encounter with Mateen comes amid reports from several outlets that the gunman had frequented Pulse and may have used gay dating apps. CNN reports that the FBI is investigating the possibility that he made surveillance trips to Pulse and Walt Disney World to stake them out as possible attack targets. NBC published a similar report saying he tried to communicate with Pulse customers on the Grindr dating app before the massacre.
Tashner said she is of Cherokee descent and identifies as “two-spirited,” which is a general term for gender nonconformists within Native American communities. Tashner was biologically male at birth but identified strongly with femininity and embraced this side of her gender identity as she grew older. She said she has known her gender identity since she was 10, but did not fully come out of the closet until age 47. Since then, she has lived “this way 24/7.”
“You need to know both of your spirits. Who is inside of you. What you are. I counsel too many people that are afraid of themselves,” she said.
Tashner said she thinks misunderstanding and ignorance too often lead to violence because anger is a natural reaction to fear and said she now wishes she could have helped educate Mateen in hopes that he might not have resorted to violence.
“I tried talking to him and I tried sharing with him. I probably didn’t get enough time to probably get the right questions that he wanted answered,” she said.
A worker at Parliament House named Christian, who asked to have his last name withheld, told Yahoo News that the Orlando LGBT community is close-knit and that many Parliament House employees and patrons are deeply hurt after Sunday’s loss of life.
“All I can say is it’s horrible what happened,” he said. “There are a lot of people that work here that have friends who were there.”