Its hard to believe that today, June 12th, marks four years since the tragic events that occurred at Orlando nightclub Pulse. Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and injured 53 more during a three-hour standoff that is considered to be the deadliest attack against the LGBTQ community in the United States.
Some of the survivors from that night have gone above and beyond to see that there is permanent change in our country so that situations like this hopefully become a thing of the past. Brandon Wolf is one of those people.
Today, over 3 years after the tragedy, I became the first Pulse survivor to testify before Congress.
And I will KEEP fighting until we get some change. pic.twitter.com/GfICsOEAd4
— Brandon Wolf (@bjoewolf) September 19, 2019
The Oregon native has been a powerful voice for the voiceless over the past four years. Brandon was the first survivor to testify before Congress where he went into detail about what happened during that horrific evening so that it would open eyes for people to make a better change for the community.
He has also worked tirelessly at Equality Florida, whose mission is to secure the rights for full equality for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community and The Dru Project, an LGBTQ advocacy organization launched in memory of his friend Christopher (Drew) Leinonen who was one of the 49 that passed that evening.
Brandon chatted with us exclusively about life now for him, if he’s been able to find happiness or contentment, what we’ve failed and succeeded in since then and so much more.
How surreal is it that it’s been 4 years since that tragic evening?
It’s hard to believe that four years has passed. In truth, the convergence of crises the world is facing has made it even harder to digest how quickly June 12 came up on us.
Has the memory of what happened that night faded or are things still pretty lucid for you all this time later?
I think many parts of that night are lost for me behind a haze of trauma and grief. But other parts are crystal clear. Perhaps the most vivid and lasting memory I have from that night is my best friend’s arm draped over my shoulder for the last time reminding me that “we should say ‘I love you’ more often”.
What have we succeeded and failed at the most in terms of gun control in our country since then?
Our country has made incredible progress in the wake of shootings like Pulse and Parkland. Florida passed its first gun safety legislation in decades in 2018. And that same year, a wave of candidates across America won their races with unashamed support for common sense gun safety reform. Much of the same can be said for LGBTQ civil rights, as we’ve made incredible progress over the last decade. However, we have immense amounts of work left to do. The reality remains that in America, far too many dangerous individuals have unfettered access to firearms and the LGBTQ community lacks the basic protections that others enjoy. We need universal background checks, a bill that has been left to rot on Mitch McConnell’s desk. We need extreme risk protection orders. We need a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. And for the LGBTQ community, we need to codify nondiscrimination into law. That I could legally get married today but fired next week for putting a wedding picture on my desk is evidence that we still have work to do.
What about mental health? Where do you think we are lacking and how can we improve on that?
Gaps in support for mental health are a huge part of what holds our country back today. Leaders on every level of government have gutted mental health funding and continue to demonize those living with mental illness while providing no helpful solutions. It is beyond time to treat mental health with the same intensity that we treat physical health. And that means ensuring all Americans are afforded healthcare as a human right. Beyond that, we must stop pouring money into systems that only seek to lock people and reinvest our resources into mental health resources that work to lift people up.
Have you been able to find contentment or even happiness in the months since?
Contentment is hard to come by. I find myself restless at the thought of continual injustice in our world. I find myself restless at the notion that someday, another community will have to live through the hell I have endured. But I do find joy in seeing young voices shift our national dialogues. My best friend was passionate about creating spaces for LGBTQ youth to be all of themselves and I am honored that his work continues in communities across the country. Young leaders give me hope!
Do you keep in touch with the survivors and the loved ones of the people who died that night?
I have maintained solid relationships with many in the community. It is impossible to go through something as traumatic as Pulse and not walk away with a newfound respect and love for those who experienced it with you. I am always grateful for the families of victims, my fellow survivors, and all those in the community who have offered a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough. We are a family through and through.
What are your ultimate hopes for the world amid the protests going on right now?
A few days after the shooting, we held a funeral for my best friend Drew. I had the honor of helping guide his casket down the aisle of the church. I gripped the bar so tight I thought my fingers might fall off. In truth, I didn’t want to let go until I’d found the words to say goodbye. When we got to the front, I looked down and promised never to stop fighting for a world he would have been proud of. That’s my hope for all of us today. That we manifest that world – one where everyone, regardless of who they are, is treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.