I don’t think of myself as the protagonist in my own story. That distinction belongs to my best friends, Drew and Juan. Even five years after their murders, they continue to write our collective story.
When I met Christopher "Drew" Leinonen I couldn’t have imagined who he would become in my life. Though, to be fair, I did try. We started off on a blind date. Like a true millennial, I Instagram-stalked him before, quietly poring over his photos, studying for the inevitable first-date small talk. And though I had carefully crafted my answers to the basic date questions, I wasn’t prepared for his opener – “What are your thoughts on for-profit health care?”
That’s who Drew was. Ever full of surprises, he was curious and unafraid to challenge the status quo. He was queer, a person of color, and defiantly proud of himself – to live his life as only he could. He was the first person to teach me to love myself and that I was enough. He quickly became my best friend and when he met his partner Juan Guerrero, I knew they were a perfect match. Their energies were synchronous, two beautiful souls intertwined in a world that seemed determined to make us believe we didn’t deserve love.
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The last night of my friends’ lives
Five years ago today, the three of us walked arm-in-arm into one of the few safe spaces our community has been able to carve out for ourselves. Churches are often painful and the homes we grow up in frequently toss us aside, but the dance floor of our favorite club provided safety, belonging - and freedom.
Moments later, the first shots rang out at Pulse.
Gunshots – endless gunshots – filled my ears. I crouched in a dark corner of the bathroom. The smell of blood and smoke singed my nose. Finally, I made a break for the door. I didn’t look right; I didn’t look left. I just ran. When I dialed Drew’s number over and over, no one picked up.
Drew and Juan were two of the 49 people who were shot and killed that night. And I became one of the countless new gun violence survivors.
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After the shooting, I wanted to run away. I had lost the anchor in my life and I didn’t know how to survive without my best friends. Becoming a full-time advocate never even crossed my mind. But that changed as I sat in a friend’s apartment watching cable news for the first time. The panel of heterosexual white men seemed to me to talk about everything except what really mattered – the lives that were stolen, the difficulty of undocumented family members to receive victim resources, the pain of being a gay man, unable to donate blood to help the wounded, the hole ripped in a community that faces violence and hate every day.
At that moment, I dedicated my life to making sure my friends wouldn’t just be two of 49, to fighting for a country that values and protects everyone.
My community is under attack
Now I work for Equality Florida – the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in the state. My job is to defend our community against violence and hate in every form it takes. It’s a constant reminder that the shooting at Pulse wasn’t an aberration. LGBTQ people are still under attack, whether it’s from individuals fueled by hate and armed by lax gun laws, those who target Black trans women, or lawmakers who have decided to use trans kids as their latest political football.
If you tune into the annual remembrances, you might think our wounds have healed. But the truth is, nothing can take away the pain of that night and the pain of every day without Drew and Juan. A pain that is all too common in our country.
According to a 2017 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average of about 10,300 violent hate crimes involving firearms happen in our country every year. Further, an average of 100 people are shot and killed in the U.S. every day, 60 percent of whom die by suicide. And an Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of federal data found that more than 200 were shot and wounded every day in 2017, the most recent year available. That includes people who attempted to die by suicide.
Gun violence is so frequent, the national media can hardly keep up. That’s unacceptable – and a crushing reminder that our collective wounds are still raw and our work is more critical now than ever.
This year, Equality Florida joined The Coalition for Pulse: 5 Years Later, a new coalition to honor survivors and remember the shooting at Pulse Nightclub. Our work will culminate in a panel discussion on June 12 at 5 p.m. EST followed by a national moment of silence for 49 seconds representing each one of those lives stolen that night five years ago. The goal is simple: reflect on why we do this work and recommit to the fight ahead.
The last five years have been a journey. I won’t lie – many days are hard, many nights sleepless. But whenever I feel despair, I think back to the day of Drew’s funeral. I was asked to be a pallbearer that day. As I helped guide Drew’s casket down the aisle, I caught myself holding onto the side as tightly as I could. I didn’t want to let go of my best friend until I’d found the right words to say goodbye. When I did, I promised him that I would never stop fighting for a world he’d be proud of.
We haven’t achieved that world yet. So this year, five years after he was stolen from me, I’m recommitting to fight like hell for a world that Drew and Juan would be proud of. To honor them with action.
Brandon Wolf is the development officer and media relations manager at Equality Florida in Orlando. He is a gun violence survivor, co-founder of the Dru Project, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, and a member of the Coalition for Pulse: 5 Years Later and the Everytown Survivor Network.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pulse nightclub five-year anniversary: I'm a mass shooting survivor