Monday, June 24, 2024

Friend of Pulse Orlando Shooting Victim on Gun Violence

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My birthday is May 31, but I have barely celebrated in eight years. Drew’s birthday is June 1. Drew had just turned 32 when he was shot and killed in the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, which killed 49 people and wounded 53 more on June 12, 2016.

Drew was my best friend and had a special love for hosting parties. He would craft elaborate invitations for our frequent joint birthday celebrations — they always had a specific theme, like Trashy Reality TV, Dirty Disney, or “How Many Dru Parties Have You Attended?” And yes, Drew would always go all out both for the decorations and the costumes.

I now manage the event planning at the Dru Project, a nonprofit organization created in his honor, dedicated to expanding gay-straight alliances in Florida and where I turn my anguish into action. This June 1 would have been Drew’s 40th birthday. We’re going all out with a full balloon wall, tons of photo opportunities, and specialty themed-drinks — just the way he would have wanted.

Drew was a twin flame of mine. We were frequently referred to as the “mayors” of our friend group. Both being queer, we felt truly seen for the first time after meeting the other in September 2003 at the first gay-straight alliance meeting at our college. I only learned after his death just how important this representation and visibility was for others. After Drew’s funeral — which more than 1,000 people attended, with many overflowing into the streets — I was flooded with messages from college friends not only providing their condolences but offering up vulnerable truths I had never heard before. Several people told me that Drew and I were the reason they felt the courage and safety to come out.

It was too late for him to hear that, but I took it very seriously. I wanted to continue paying forward that kindness, friendship, and acceptance, of which the world consistently needs more. I keep him alive every day with that authenticity, honesty, and inclusion.

I will always continue to honor not only him, but all those we lost at Pulse, at Club Q in 2022, and in all the shootings that disproportionately affect queer people that never even make the news. As a queer person, every hateful act of gun violence directed at my community produces a similar feeling — a weird combination of shock, numbness, and an urge to fix it so that others don’t have to experience the pain that I have. I know how it feels to be worried if your friends are dead on the dance floor.

“As a queer individual, I don’t have the privilege to stay quiet — even when it’s hard to speak.”

We are turning into a nation of survivors. I fear that soon, everyone will know someone who has been impacted by gun violence. Those who were taken from us are not just numbers. They’re seats missing at tables during birthday parties, people who won’t show up to our weddings one day, people we don’t get to tell about a new song being released. I only hope my story helps people find relief in the fact that they aren’t alone.

I have found solace and comfort in the queer community and the Everytown Survivor Network. Being able to lean on people who understand my experience not only as a survivor, but as a queer survivor, has been uniquely healing. But I still have hard days. Sometimes, I find it hard to do daily tasks when I am inundated by news of mass shootings or hate crimes. Sometimes I have to stick to the bare basics of my daily routine and “just start again tomorrow.” Sometimes I feel numb.

However, as a queer individual, I don’t have the privilege to stay quiet — even when it’s hard to speak. In the face of consistent anti-LGBTQ+ political attacks and extremism, hateful rhetoric carries real-life and violent consequences for our community. Nearly one in three LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation. And when that kind of hate is paired with unfettered access to firearms, the outcomes become even more deadly.

I will always speak up, because we’re living a nightmare. I do not want queer people to suffer over and over again. Lawmakers’ rhetoric is emboldening people to go after our community, convincing them that they have the right to decide whether we should be dead or alive. More than 570 anti-trans bills have been filed in states across the country this year alone. In an average year, more than 25,000 hate crimes in the US involve a firearm — 69 a day.

This is why I vote. Because without a doubt, hate is far more deadly when armed with a gun. We need lawmakers who will continue to protect us, advocate for us, and validate who we are. Pride is a time for celebration and commemoration of the progress we have made in the queer community, but we need representation year-round. We need lawmakers to defend us 365 days a year, and allyship is important now more than ever. We need everyone to join in the fight to protect queer people — it’s a matter of life and death.

At Drew’s funeral, we made a promise to continue creating a world that he would be proud of. Although it’s very difficult to do in the face of extremism, we continue to fight for him and the entire queer community.

So as we celebrate Drew’s birthday, as we honor the lives of those taken from us on June 12, 2016, and as we advocate for our safety and right to live — join us. Uplift the stories of those around you, commit to allyship, and do exactly what Drew did best: making everyone feel seen and loved for who they are.

Sara Grossman (she/her) is a Moms Demand Action volunteer in Denver and a senior fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network. Sara’s friend Drew Leinonen was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016. Sara now serves as the secretary for The Dru Project, an organization founded in Drew’s honor.

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