It has been nearly two years since the worst night of my life. On June 12, 2016, a gunman entered Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, just a few yards from the bathroom where I stood, and opened fire. What at first sounded like a music malfunction turned out to be gunshots. Armed with an assault rifle and countless rounds of ammunition, the shooter killed 49 people, including my best friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero.
For the past 20 months, I have committed myself to saving this country from gun violence. At first, my involvement felt like a coincidence. I instantly became an unwitting voice for other survivors and victims of mass shootings across America. But as the weeks went on, my voice and message steadied. I railed angrily on a broken political system that would cast aside mass violence as a pop culture phenomenon. I called out lawmakers that leveraged Orlando’s pain to get a leg up on the campaign competition. And I begged for legislation that would stop these things from happening again. I felt an obligation, a responsibility to keep those 49 Pulse victims from dying in vain. I felt challenged to ensure that Drew’s voice didn’t die on the dance floor with him.
That’s why the news of a shooting in Parkland, Fla., felt like a gut punch. In one instant, all the pain and trauma of Pulse came flooding back and I wondered if I had failed those students. I considered the hours spent fighting for change and wondered if it had all been in vain. I wondered if I had let Drew down once again.
Then a miraculous thing happened: the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School opened my eyes. The first time I met these students, I was saddled with my sense of failure and regret. I stood with half a dozen of them and tried to think of words of encouragement to share. But I was speechless. How could I possibly have anything to share when, after 18 months of work, I had come up empty? How could I look them in the eyes when I had failed them, just like so many others before me? And just when my silence turned to discomfort, that incredible group of students locked themselves in a hug around me and told me that things would be alright.
That is why March For Our Lives is so important. And it’s the reason I will be in Washington, D.C. marching alongside the incredible students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. They have gathered around the people of this country, wrapped in a big group hug, and reminded us that the future is still bright. In one month, these teenagers have taken on one of the most polarizing issues in our nation’s history, amassed a social media army, and threatened the very existence of the gun lobby that currently cripples our political system. But they cannot win this battle alone. Where I once grappled with grief and regret, I am now filled with hope and determination. When this new community of survivors takes to the streets to demand justice, we must all be there to lift them up, clear their path, and protect them from the pitfalls ahead.
The LGBTQ community has seen more than its share of horror and pain. All too often, we are the targets of violence and hatred. But what the Pulse shooting taught me is that we are not victims, we are warriors. And just like so often before, it is our duty to take to the front lines of progress and fight for the change this country deserves; this time with new allies by our side. See you on March 24 when we March For Our Lives.
Brandon Wolf is vice president of TheDruProject. Reach him via thedruproject.org.