Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the first place where UF law student Benjamin “Benny” Menaged was able to celebrate his sexuality.
On Tuesday, Larry D. Smith, the recipient of the G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award and an Orlando attorney, stood in front of a crowd of about 250 people at the UF Levin College of Law to recognize the college and Menaged for increasing diversity and inclusivity. As a recipient of the Haas award, Smith chose one Florida law school and one student from that school to honor.
He chose Menaged, who received a scholarship of about $3,000 and became the first openly gay man to accept it. The ceremony also acted as a tribute to the 49 victims who died in the Orlando shooting.
Orlando Mayor John Hugh “Buddy” Dyer said he appreciated people supporting the UF student organization OUTLaw, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community.
“I was expecting a sea of orange and blue, but I’m loving this grey,” he said, referring to the shirts students wore with a Gator holding a rainbow flag.
Although Menaged wasn’t there the night of the shooting, he said he felt its devastation.
“You hear about all these huge tragedies and shootings all over the world,” the 25-year-old said, “but when it happened in Orlando, for me and so many in Gainesville, it really hit close to home.”
As the former president of Outlaw, Menaged said his goal was to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community on campus and make it possible for students to feel accepted.
“I just wanted to make gay people in the law school, and in the LGBTQ+ community, feel more at home here,” he said.
Smith gave Menaged a framed quote from Deuteronomy, a book in the Bible, that reads “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to encourage Menaged and other law students to continue their fight for justice.
“As important as it is to be the first, it’s more important to be the next,” Smith said.
He likened work as a lawyer to contributing to a retirement account: The earlier you start and the more you invest, the greater the reward at the end of your career.
Although he is not a UF alumnus, he was proud to recognize the school and Menaged, knowing UF graduates will be able to greatly impact their communities in their lifetimes.
Smith told the crowd to build a better America where hatred and misunderstanding no longer exist.
Fighting to build a better nation will ensure the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting are properly honored, he said.
“They did not die alone, they did not die in vain,” Smith said. “We will not forget them. Our pulse is stronger than ever.”