Brandon Wolf is one of a group of survivors who made it out of Pulse nightclub alive in the early hours of June 12, 2016. His best friend, Christopher Leinonen, did not ― and Wolf has spent the two years since the massacre fighting to honor Leinonen through his advocacy.
And he has also become a proponent of gun law reform in America, having spoken at the March for our Lives rally earlier this year.
“I personally am not anti-gun,” Wolf told HuffPost. “I think our Second Amendment is uniquely American, and I understand people’s passion around it. What I will say is the laws in this country don’t work.”
“Our legislators inherited a system that worked. They inherited an economy that worked. They totally bankrupted it I think, both economically and morally,” Wolf added. “There is no better representation of that than our obsession with firearms and how much we value them over human life.”
In this interview with HuffPost, Wolf talked about his dedication to the reform of American gun laws, the Parkland students and how the Pulse massacre shaped him as both an activist and human being.
Thinking about your work surrounding gun control in this country, can you talk to me a bit about why the anti-gun movement is such a personal thing for you?
I personally am not anti-gun. I think our Second Amendment is uniquely American, and I understand people’s passion around it. What I will say is the laws in this country don’t work.
And the reason it’s so personal to me is obviously I was at Pulse nightclub in 2016. I lost my two very best friends. I would call them brothers. I’ve seen first hand where the law and our legal system have failed us.
Our legislators inherited a system that worked. They inherited an economy that worked. They totally bankrupted it I think both economically and morally. There is no better representation of that than our obsession with firearms and how much we value them over human life.
It is personal to me. I guess I would just... the only thing I would take issue with is that people who believe that we need to do something different are not anti-gun. They’re pro-people.
How do you see the movement surrounding gun laws in this country and the LGBTQ rights movement as intersecting?
Well, I think it’s obvious to those of us in the community that LGBTQ people, specifically LGBTQ people of color, are exponentially more at risk to be harmed, to be humiliated, to be bullied, to be harassed based on who we are. You ask trans women of color what it feels like to be in America today, and it’s a scary place.
I think the two movements really are uniquely intertwined, because if we create a world where everyone is safer, if we create a world where only the right people have their hands on weapons, then we create a world where LGBTQ people are safer. We have for generations, for centuries really, been targeted for who we are.
We have a unique responsibility to lead the charge to protect not only ourselves but everyone really from that kind of violence.
I think so often ... I honestly think we are, more than any other community, well equipped to be able to lead a movement. We know uniquely what it’s like to fight for our survival. We know uniquely what it’s like to resist a legal system that’s broken; laws that need to be changed. I think we, again, we don’t have to be followers in this. We don’t have to wait and see. We can actually be leaders because we are equipped to do that.
What do you most want people to know about how the events of that night at Pulse nightclub have shaped you, both as an activist and on a human level?
Well, in a personal sense, I will never be the same person that I was the night before Pulse. I think, kind of like the Parkland students have felt, it was a little bit of a loss of innocence. I guess I would say it’s a loss of blissful joy.
I don’t really have that anymore. I mean, I lost the people that gave that to me every single day. I feel like everything I do is clouded by that experience. In a very personal way, it’s kind of sad. It is a little sad. But in an activist way, in an advocate way, I think it’s also given me new purpose. Part of what happens after a traumatic event like that is you wonder why you’re still here.
You wonder why you weren’t one of the victims. And you can feel a little purposeless. But in my mind what justification looks like, what justice looks like for my friends, is a world that they could be proud of, a world that would be safer for everybody.
I was really complacent before Pulse happened to be quite honest with you. I was that millennial that was more worried about avocado toast than who was running for president. What I hope for everyone is that my experience, my getting fired up about things, can leave some runway for other people to get involved before it’s too late, before something horrific happens.
My hope is I can inspire and energize others.
Since Pulse happened, and we obviously continue to have these incidents of high-scale violence tied to mass shootings and guns, when something like that happens now, do you even have time to process it? Or do you feel like being a professional activist is kind of a way of processing that for you? What is that experience like for you now?
Well, each experience is still different. Which is interesting, because I don’t know if people realize that. I think when you become an activist, when you start to speak out, people almost see you... They expect you to react first. They’re looking for your insight. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What should we be doing?
But I still experience every single act of mass violence in a very personal and unique way.
The shooting in Parkland was really painful for me. I don’t know that I’ve felt that level of pain since Pulse, mainly because it was kids. And I could not wrap my head around how children would have to be going through what I’ve gone through over the last now almost two years.
The idea of them waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, the idea of them having nightmares about the people that they lost, the idea of them not being able to go into crowded rooms anymore without looking for the exit ― that is terrifying to me.
And it felt really personal. So in a personal way, I feel those events every single time. What I do like about being able to use my voice, about being able to speak out, is that words have always been very cathartic for me.
So it’s very healing for me to talk about things. It’s healing for me to share my opinions and to generate insight into what’s happening. Again, I’m a very forward-thinking person. As soon as something happens, yes I’m processing it on a personal level. But I’m also thinking about what can we do differently to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people. I think in many ways that’s how I end up processing my emotional response is by remaining forward thinking and wondering what can I do to make the world better? What can I do to stop other people from going through this?
What advice do you have for young queer people, or I guess young people in general, who kind of may feel powerless during social and political moments like the one we’re currently in? How can they channel those feelings into tangible action?
I think the Parkland students have shown us what’s possible. In 2018, Generation Z is unstoppable.
And that should be really inspirational to young people to know that more than ever before your voice is being heard. That’s largely because young people know how to leverage social media. They know how to leverage their networks from a very young age, to be able to share their opinions and group together and demand actions. I think more than ever before, young people have a voice. They are at the megaphone. I think this country has done a great service to young people by telling them, “You can be anything you want to be.” Right? The American Dream is that you can grow up in this country and believe, truly believe, that you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it.
That is a powerful tool in our arsenal to create change in this country. My encouragement would be no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, young people all over this country should feel more powerful than ever when they are taking on some of the most powerful and corrupt organizations that have totally morally bankrupted our political system. And they’re taking them on head-on. They’re challenging them. And they’re winning these battles.
The fact that five teenagers can go on social media and dwarf the NRA in a matter of 30 days is impressive, and it should remind young people that there is no greater power than the people.
Let’s talk about the Parkland students a little more briefly. They really, I think, provide the symbolic hope for a lot of American people that things might actually kind of tangibly change when it comes to gun laws in this country. Moving forward, what do you hope we kind of see in terms of tangible change in this country from this moment surrounding the Parkland students?
The first thing I hope to see is young people more engaged in the political process. We’re talking about young people voting in a mid-term like we’ve never talked about before. I think that’s really, really important. I hope that young people feel empowered more now than ever to get involved, to understand the political process, to have an impact, not just on a presidential level, but all the way down to local politics. Because that’s where change is really made is local, state and then congressional races.
I hope that’s a big change that comes out of this. I also hope that people remember the impact that they can have individually on the direction of our country. We’ve gone through a few decades now where that didn’t necessarily feel feasible. A handful of really wealthy, really powerful, corrupt people dictated what happened from beginning to end. What you’ve seen all across the country is a populist movement. It’s a movement that says, “Hey, don’t forget. We’re the ones who employ you at the end of the day.” I think what the Parkland students have done so well, and I hope what translates to change further down the road, is really this idea that we voted you in, and we’re happy to vote you out if you don’t adhere to the things that we find important as people.
Not the values that you necessarily brought in personally, not the dollars that you brought in in your campaign coffers, but the value that we as American people hold.
Then the very last thing that I hope comes out of this is that young people, and especially young queer people of color, run for office, because we still do not have nearly enough representation of all of the beautiful diversity in this country in both state legislatures and in Congress. It’s high time for young people, this generation, to get in the mindset that they’re gonna have to run for office and do it themselves.
What does Pride mean to you in 2018?
I think now, more than ever, Pride needs to be a rallying call. I think it needs to be a call to action that yes, we can throw parties and be confetti in the streets, and that’s important for our future. But what’s also important is that we turn that into engagement and we turn that into action. I’m hopeful that Pride across the country this year really speaks to our need to be involved, our need to be in the forefront, leading the charge, not following behind.
The theme for HuffPost’s Pride coverage this year is #TheFutureIsQueer. I’d love to hear you reflect on that and talk about what a queer and inclusive future looks and feels like to you?
Well, what a beautiful future that sounds like, because I can’t imagine a better world than one where everybody is free to identify however they like, and we all just really love each other for that.
My best friend that I lost that night, his name was Drew. One of the things that I loved most about Drew is that he was unashamed in his unconditional love for everyone. I didn’t have that when I met Drew. I brought with me I think a lot of baggage from my childhood. I was kind of judgmental. I wasn’t open minded. I wasn’t inclusive. The years that we spent together, he challenged me every single day to be more inclusive, to be more loving, to be more kind. And, in fact, the last conversation we had, he told me that I needed to tell people I love them more often.
I could not think of a better mantra, a better motto to live by. So when I think about a queer future, right? An inclusive future? That’s what I think of is more people with their arms around each other saying, “You know what? We might be different, but I love you just the same,” rather than fighting about what makes us different.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the Pulse massacre was July 12, 2016, instead of June 12, 2016.
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.