“On one hand, I was lucky,” Brandon Wolf tells a packed gym of teenagers. “I had survived the worst mass shooting in modern US history by hiding [next to] a urinal. On the other hand, I was just feet from where my friends kissed each other goodbye.”
A survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, Brandon Wolf is delivering a motivational speech to students at Canby High School (CHS), where he and I became close friends roughly 13 years ago. This past February, two CHS students took their lives within a week of each other. The school continues to grieve, and as part of his presentation, Brandon shares how he found purpose in the wake of a massive tragedy.
As a former CHS student body president—and now a Pulse survivor and sometimes gun control advocate—Brandon agreed to fly to his home state of Oregon to speak at the assembly, offer students support, and talk about his newest work, promoting LGBTQ equality and ending gun violence. It’s his first visit to Oregon in eight years.
“Wow, a lot has changed since the last time I was here,” Brandon says to the students, “and I’m not just talking about the 25 pounds I’ve gained or my obvious need for Botox.”
A couple dozen uncomfortable chuckles.
“I grew up here in Canby, just over on Birch Street,” he says. “But there was a lot about it that never quite felt like home. When I graduated in 2006, there were 1,800 students here... only 11 of us were Black. In many ways, not seeing people like me meant growing up not knowing who I was. Or where I fit in. People made fun of me for the way I looked, the way I talked, the way I walked. I spent my entire childhood being told I wasn’t quite Black enough. Not quite white enough. And obviously not straight enough.”
Even before Brandon talks about the events at Pulse on June 12, 2016, you could hear a pin drop in the massive gym of ordinarily restless teenagers. They were locked in.
“The last time I helped host an assembly in this room,” he says, “it was Diversity Week 2006.”
As two of only 11 African American students at CHS (who also happened to be navigating our queer identities), there was no way Brandon and I wouldn’t be friends. Black people always find each other. We served on student council together. Brandon played Lumière in our senior-year musical production of Beauty and the Beast, while I took on the important role of the Spoon. We were each other’s homecoming and prom dates—though only Brandon would be voted Prom King. Brandon was also a standout member of the speech and debate team, and became known for his moving, presidential speeches that would later inspire comparisons to then-Senator Barack Obama. We were both members of concert choir, and officers of Urban Voice—a pro-diversity club we helped launch in 2004 to increase awareness of other cultures and social issues not being discussed in our classrooms. We were both involved in various extracurricular activities, but Brandon always managed to squeeze more on his plate than seemed humanly possible—while still holding a part-time job at Starbucks and keeping close to a 4.0 GPA.
Brandon and I have fond memories of being hyper-involved teens with rebellious sides. On weekends our tight-knit group of relatively diverse friends would sneak away to downtown Portland, so we could visit the now-shuttered all-ages Escape night club, watch amateur drag (including future RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon), and dance the night away—intoxicated by the mind-blowing concept of “safe spaces” meant for queers to be comfortably, fabulously queer. No one was going to judge or hurt us at that hole-in-the-wall club. At Escape, we could express a side of ourselves that was impossible in everyday life.
While our high school experiences were positive overall, our senior year was punctuated by demonstrations of widespread homophobia during Diversity Week, which clearly divided our school into three groups: those who demanded tolerance and acceptance, those who thought inclusivity for the LGBTQ community meant a threat to their “straight pride,” and those who watched it all play out.
The controversy: a handmade poster indicating that same-sex love exists alongside heterosexual love. It was meant as a message of inclusion for LGBTQ students, or those with same-sex parents. While various signs promoting cultural diversity and acceptance were left completely untouched, the LGBTQ-inclusive sign was ripped up within a couple of hours. We quickly replaced it with a larger sign touting the same message, but that was ripped up as well. The poster designer then made one of the most massive banners I had ever seen, and hung it out of reach on a balcony in the cafeteria. The sign was glorious, but some students were not there for our relentless message of inclusion. A male classmate stacked cafeteria tables so he could reach and destroy it once more.
Following the poster controversy, Pat Johnson, CHS’ principal at the time, suggested we have an eight-on-eight roundtable discussion, including our peers who argued we were “pushing the gay agenda” and, in their eyes, exposing children to an unacceptable lifestyle choice. Johnson wanted us to find a compromise. For lack of a better option, we agreed to talk about it... but while it may have been a nice thought, it did not go well. We ended up missing a day’s worth of classes so we could “hear out” all the Biblical reasons why it was unreasonable for us to ask for school-wide tolerance. Needless to say, there was lots of frustration, tears, and anger, and some relationships were ruined.
The day of the Diversity Week assembly was a time of intense, emotional chaos. I remember wishing I’d brought my camera so I could document the parents and students picketing outside the gym with signs that read, “It’s Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.” I wanted documentation that they were on the wrong side of history. And in contrast to our bright, multi-colored T-shirts with screen-printed words like “Tolerance” and “Love,” a significant number of students wore white shirts with “Straight Pride” written in ugly black Sharpie. In perhaps the most All-Lives-Matter thing I’ve ever witnessed, some students also covered their mouths with duct tape to signify how our inclusivity was “silencing” them.
Still, we held our heads high; we looked past the front row to see the much larger proportion of people in the gym audience who wore the colors of the rainbow, standing in solidarity with us before we even had the language for it; we introduced our first performer, and carried on with our diversity programming. Luckily, our class of 2006 graduated a couple of months later, and we vowed to never return. Still, I’ll never forget how visually divided my senior class was that day. So listening to Brandon tell this story today to a new group of CHS kids is beyond surreal.
“Despite our best efforts, our week of celebration devolved into bickering and anger,” Brandon explains. “The usual bullies reared their ugly heads and refused to see the beauty in our diversity. They cornered me outside, yelling things I can’t repeat, and told me I didn’t belong.” There were also riots near the front office on the morning of the assembly, with one female student—believed to be queer—getting assaulted. The bathroom was vandalized with sentiments like “God hates fags.”
Today, Canby High School does not appear to be the same institution I remember. Immediately after setting foot on campus, I get the vibe that no one on staff wants to say anything negative about the previous administration, but that many have plenty to say. One parent even apologizes to Brandon and me on behalf of all the adults, for not standing up and saying something when shit hit the fan over a decade ago.
From an early age, I watched Brandon grow personally and professionally—but more recently I’ve viewed him from a distance. After graduation Brandon and I (and the majority of our friend group) moved to the slightly more diverse (and definitely more LGBT-friendly) Eugene to attend college. As Brandon explains to hundreds of CHS students, he soon decided to pack up his life, leave his political science program at the University of Oregon, and see what else this country had to offer. More specifically, he sought a location offering ample sunshine and a career playing dancing characters at Disney World. What he found in Orlando was diversity, community, and a new place to call home.
I was damn sure my friend would be famous for something someday, but I never would’ve predicted “the worst mass shooting in modern US history” would be the catalyst.
I remember staying up late and scrolling my news feed on June 12, 2016, when I saw that Brandon had tweeted, “Omg. Shooting at Pulse. We hid in the bathroom. And we can’t find our friends.” As I read his words, my first hopeful (and selfish) thought was that surely this was a gang-related shooting, and no one was interested in hurting my friend. Over the next several hours I learned, along with the rest of the country, that one man armed with an automatic assault rifle was responsible for killing 49 people and injuring 53.
Brandon escaped death at Pulse by mere luck—he and Eric, his estranged ex-boyfriend at the time, had been in the hip-hop dance room when the shots broke out, and then hid in the bathroom with roughly a dozen others. After the first round, they went out of the bathroom—which the gunman would later shower with bullets—and ran toward the nearest exit.
As Brandon explains in Active Shooter, a Showtime documentary that unpacks mass shootings in America, friends Drew and Juan went to Pulse as a buffer for Brandon, who was trying to maintain a friendship with his ex.
“Eric and I were in a rocky place and I was hoping a few shots of vodka would cure that,” Brandon cheekily says to the crowd of underage students. “We got to Pulse Nightclub around midnight. It was busy, and there we were: four friends, all different, laughing, dancing, telling stupid jokes. It was something I never imagined to be possible: We were Black, white, gay, Latino, Asian, and full of love for each other.”
Ever since Brandon started using his voice for activism, the concepts of love and treating others with respect have been his most trusty talking points.
“In fact, our last conversation of the night was exactly that,” he explains in his speech. “On the patio, Drew gathered us in a circle and threw his arm around me. ‘You know what we never say enough? That we love each other. So I’m going to say it... I love you guys.’
“It was just a few minutes later that I was crouched in a bathroom stall as gunshots rang out,” Brandon goes on. “The smell of blood and smoke burned my nose while a dozen of us huddled in the corner. BANG BANG BANG BANG.”
I look across the gym and notice multiple students leaning on each other, while others sit completely still, letting the weight of Brandon’s words sink in.
“We weren’t sure if we should go or stay,” he says. “When the second round started, Eric and I made a run for the door. The club was smoky and I didn’t look right or left. I just stared at the exit sign praying for a way out. The gun used that night shot off 45 rounds in one minute. Fourteen of those rounds killed Drew and Juan.” Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero, who were deeply in love, were among the first to be shot, and were on the main dance floor when the gunman started wreaking havoc. Drew died on that floor, where his partner Juan was initially injured. Juan later crawled out the front door to be taken to the ER. He did not make it.
Drew Leinonen, 32, was a clinical psychologist, UCF grad, Lady Gaga fan, and loved by all who knew him. Brandon describes Drew and Juan as the “ideal couple.” Ever since the Pulse Massacre, Brandon has made it his mission to share his best friend’s warm and loving spirit. Every time he speaks about him, I regret that I only visited him in Orlando once in 2013, and never had the pleasure of knowing Drew.
“[He was] the best,” Brandon tells me. “For some reason he found it easy [to be] best friends with everybody.... That was the warmth he had with people. So I do whatever I can to emulate that and help other people feel that. Because I was not like that before Pulse.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Brandon teamed with Drew’s mother, Christine Leinonen, and Shawn Chaudhry to launch the Dru Project, an organization that seeks to start Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in American schools, raise funds for grants to send LGBTQ students to college, and create a curriculum for LGBTQ education. “Our future vision is one where all schools nationally have functioning Gay Straight Alliance programs, and future leaders in the community have the resources they need to go to college,” Brandon tells me, adding that their student-led curriculum has been their “pride and joy,” covering LGBTQ history, coming out, Pride, and health and wellness topics through group discussion. Brandon tells me pieces of the curriculum contain Drew’s actual words.
Just two days after Pulse, Brandon and others were asked to participate in an interview on CNN.
“It was impossible,” Brandon tells me, adding that he tries to avoid watching that video altogether. “I can just see it on my face; the pure anguish and agony is so real. And I walked away from that interview thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I can talk about it, I don’t know if I want to.’”
CNN had Brandon scheduled for an individual interview the next morning, and sent a car to pick him up. He skipped it, and Brandon tells me they were very mad.
“I remember them saying, ‘We have people waiting on you, and once we build a segment around you, you’re on.’ And I said, ‘I can’t, I can’t do it.’”
The next day CNN tried again.
“That’s when [the interviewer] asked me about Trump,” Brandon explains. “And I left feeling really disgusted... because I didn’t understand why people were talking about presidential candidates and a campaign when we needed help.”
As explained in Active Shooter, there were additional issues at Pulse that morning, including getting injured people and the dead evacuated in a timely manner. Some bled to death on the bathroom floor while the police had a stand-off with the shooter.
“You know, it took over 24 hours to find out Drew was dead,” he says. “There were two dozen people that were dead on the floor of that club for almost 48 hours before their bodies were recovered and identified. And their parents were sitting in a room with the FBI, waiting for any information we had, wondering if maybe their kid was somewhere on an operating table, too far gone to be able to identify their face.”
“And I just remember being so angry in that moment,” he explains, “listening to [CNN] ask me about Donald Trump, when we didn’t know where we were gonna have Drew’s funeral service. That’s what I was thinking about.”
Brandon tells me that over the next couple of days, as he was writing Drew’s funeral speech, he kept replaying those thoughts over and over in his head.
“[Thoughts] like, to be quite frank, nobody gave a shit what was happening,” he says. “Nobody gave a shit about us, or what we were feeling. They just wanted a story.”
On the day of Drew’s funeral service, Brandon talked with his friends.
“We said, ‘If we don’t do something, other people are gonna be the story.’ Drew won’t be the story. So we have to do something... say something. And I knew then that if I didn’t, nobody would.”
In the weeks following the Pulse Massacre, Brandon appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention with Drew’s mother and fellow Pulse victim Jose Arriagada. He continues to make appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and pens editorials for various other news outlets. And after the more recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Brandon showed up in support of students at a #NeverAgain rally in Tallahassee to deliver his “Not a Damn Thing” speech, criticizing lawmakers’ lack of action to reduce gun-related deaths.
He says it’s no longer hard for him to talk about the Pulse shooting.
“When you talk about it so much, you find the topics that are easy to talk about,” he tells me. “You find the things that you can talk about regularly without feeling so emotionally attached. However, there are moments when that doesn’t work. Most recently I was speaking at a March for Our Lives rally, and right before we went on stage they played a video of the victims—and I didn’t know they were gonna do that. So of course right before I walk out there, there are pictures and videos of Drew and Juan. So that speech—it didn’t matter what I was talking about—I was crying between every line.”
Brandon’s learned there are lots of added stressors when you get into activist work, and he’s still realizing the importance of self-care.
Recently Brandon and other LGBTQ advocates participated in a roundtable interview on homophobia led by MSNBC’s Joy Reid. During the discussion, Brandon commented that Vice President Mike Pence would put LGBTQ people in “concentration camps, hoping to pray the gay away.” He clarified on Twitter that he meant to say “conversion camps.” However, days later, after the interview was picked up by right-wing outlets like the Blaze, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller, while Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson discussed Brandon’s comments with gay-journalist-turned-conservative Chadwick Moore. The two suggested Brandon was “not actually a real activist,” and “just working on behalf of MSNBC and the Democratic Party.” During his trip to Oregon, Brandon began receiving death threats and hideous messages from Carlson’s viewers on social media.
“This week, when I made comments that enraged the alt-right, and people were sending me death threats and profanity-laced insults—none of it bothered me,” he tells me. “Because it doesn’t even come close to what [Pulse] felt like. So people are asking, ‘Are you dealing with it okay?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, of course I’m okay. I’m alive.’ So call me anything you want to.”
Ever since stepping into his activist role—calling for common-sense gun laws and LGBTQ equality while rejecting post-Pulse Islamophobia—Brandon’s politically-focused social media presence has given him lots of opportunities to exercise a muscle I hardly ever use: having conversations with people he disagrees with, and doing it with compassion. During the CHS assembly, Brandon encourages the students to step outside their comfort zones and get to know people who are different from them: Ask questions and listen to their perspectives. Whenever he says this, I can’t help but think he’s talking about me. Later, I bring up why I feel burdened and hesitant to interact with certain family members who, in my opinion, have dangerously problematic views.
“Listen, I’m not there. I’m not even close,” he says. “I’m still working on avoiding stepping into situations with an air of superiority. Because from my perspective, being progressive and being understanding, open, and accepting of people is superior to being closed-minded and rejecting people who are different from me. So it’s easy for me to enter into a scenario where I know somebody doesn’t share my views and immediately feel superior and think, ‘Well, I need to enlighten or educate this person,’ or ‘They’re ignorant and I’m the smart one and I’m now charged with the responsibility of bringing them on this journey.’ But the reality is something I’ve learned over time: We’re both ignorant.”
“And the more that I can admit that to myself,” he continues, “that I’m still ignorant, that I still have much to learn—and I put myself on a level playing field with people—it takes some of that burden off my shoulders. I don’t feel like I have to be the shepherd. ’Cause it’s not my role. My role is to learn with them.”
And to facilitate learning, he asks a lot of questions.
“I wanna understand what it’s like to be someone other than me,” he says. “I wanna understand what it’s like to have experienced something other than what I have. And sometimes I’m surprised at what I learn.”
It’s April 27, and Brandon and I are in Portland, leaving the Democratic Party of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Gala dinner, in which Brandon was briefly recognized for his activist work. We pass the Escape nightclub’s former location, and share regrets that we can’t go back. A man passing us tells Brandon he looks just like Obama in his gray suit. In that moment I realize, that while Brandon seems somewhat aged by his experiences, he’s still the same person I grew up with.
“The way I connect emotion to things is very different than it used to be,” he explains. “A lot of me emotionally died at Pulse. For the last two years it’s been really difficult to see things in an emotional way, to let emotions resonate. Everything almost feels task-oriented—like there’s a big task to be accomplished... to make the world a better place. And everything is militant around those tasks. You go, you speak, you connect, and you gather information so you can go and speak the next time in a different way, and give the presenting organization the information it needs so it can do what it needs to do—and it feels very structured. But what’s missing is the emotional connection that used to be there.”
After the CHS assembly, Brandon hosts a meet-up with students and anyone else who wants to talk about making the school a safer, more inclusive place for all. Led by new Principal Greg Dinse, students and staff are eager to have the productive conversations that our class tried to start more than 10 years ago. I watch in awe as students, teachers, parents, and school district employees genuinely thank (and even hug) Brandon—sometimes through tears—for his words which they hope will inspire change on a local and national level.
“How do you find the strength to stand up to bullies?” one student asks. Another girl says, “That was the most motivational speech I’ve ever heard in my life.” So many students are interested in thanking and talking with Brandon that he has to tell them that he needs to sit down and eat his long-awaited Burgerville meal as they talk.
Some things haven’t changed much at all since high school. For instance, Brandon still works for Starbucks—now he’s a district manager instead of a barista. The position allows him the flexibility to continue his activist work, speaking engagements, interviews, and trips like this to his former home. Brandon tells me the recent work he’s done with the students from Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has reinvigorated his fight for change. The Parkland kids have also helped remind Brandon to feel anger. Brandon’s “Not a Damn Thing” speech was inspired by watching the teen activists speak out.
“I was watching them right before I left my house on TV and I was like, ‘You know what, I am pissed off.’ I’m pissed off that these students had to go through what I went through; I’m pissed off that nobody gave a shit when I said something about it the first time. I’m pissed off that it’s been decades that we’ve been talking about this and we’re still saying that there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“The work with the students from Parkland has shifted my perspective, as well as what I think is possible for the future,” he tells me. “Our current crop of lawmakers has served us really well in the past. They’ve got a long history of making change and passing laws—but I sincerely believe they’ve aged out, that they simply lack the will to move us forward. And in talking with these students, I’ve been reinvigorated and re-inspired into thinking that change can come... it just has to come from a new generation of change-makers.”
After the Pulse attack, then-President Barack Obama went to Orlando to meet with some of the victims.
“Meeting President Obama was exactly as moving and humbling as you might imagine.”
“Meeting President Obama was exactly as moving and humbling as you might imagine,” Brandon tells me. “He is a man of few words, and he carries himself with poise and grace. But what was most striking about that day was his deep anger and sadness that our country had not solved this issue. He spoke candidly about having led through far too many mass shootings, and lamented the fact that our current crop of legislators seemed powerless (or less than willing) to stop it. I’ll never forget his huge embrace and reminder that, ‘Everything will be okay.’”
Brandon says his goal for his return to Oregon was “to connect with students, hear what they need to amplify this message of change, and then return to Florida to tell my student friends what I’m hearing.” And, of course, to ask, “How can I help?”
Brandon tells me that while he doesn’t plan on moving back to the Portland area, he’ll be visiting much more often.
“I could stay [in Florida] forever, and be happy there,” he says. “But who knows what the next adventure will hold? I also really like DC.”
Brandon feels that his life—like much of the country—is on the brink of an epic change.
“I just feel like something really big is going to happen and I don’t know what it is,” Brandon says. “Some monumental shift in my life is gonna happen, and everything will be different.”
Brandon mentions that a run for some kind of office in Florida is “not off the table.” If his life were a movie, it’s a career move that would make narrative sense, and really bring his story full circle. But politics as a career clearly isn’t for everybody.
When asked if his career goals have changed or stayed in alignment, Brandon says, “Before Pulse... I was really focused on what I wanted to do and what job title I wanted to have. That’s very normal... a very natural place for people to live and exist. What’s changed is that I no longer really care about job titles—I care a lot more about the impact I have. So when people ask, ‘What do you wanna do with your life?’ I tell them it doesn’t really matter, so long as I’ve had a positive impact on other people.
“So if that means staying an advocate and an activist forever, great. If that means going into the nonprofit world full-time, great.... But the end result has to be making this world a little bit better.”