Brandon Wolf was at the Orlando club when a gunman opened fire. His community knew another tragedy was coming
The news started to filter through: five dead, many more injured. I called friends in the area to make sure they were OK. Immediately, my heart was broken, and I was transported back to the worst night of my life.
I often refer to 11 June 2016, as my “last normal day”. I was a totally different person then. I worked at Starbucks. I was content to enjoy the sliver of happiness I found in the world. My best friends Juan and Drew were also my chosen family. I lost them that night. Nothing will ever be the same for me. It’s a weight I will carry for the rest of my life.
When I was young, I didn’t know the term “safe space”. But I knew how gay bars made me feel. There was a bar where I grew up in Portland called the Escape where I felt like I could be myself for the first time. But I was living at home back then, and going to a gay bar still felt like a dirty secret that I had to hide.
Then I moved to Orlando. Pulse was the first place I can remember holding hands with someone I liked without looking over my shoulder first. I dared to wear a real pair of skinny jeans in public without having to worry about what people would say. I came of age in that bar. It was a place where you can exhale and dare to imagine a better future for yourself.
I dabbled in music production for a time and Pulse was the first place I heard one of my songs play. I ran from one corner to another saying: “That’s me!”
It’s impossible to think about Pulse without remembering the horrible events of 12 June 2016. But Pulse was also a home. Obviously the night that the tragedy happened is emblazoned in my memory for ever, but it’s the beautiful, joyful times that stick with me.
Just over six years later, I’m filled with rage. My community has been under assault. We’re angry because we’ve been worried this type of thing was coming. We’ve spent months listening to hateful, vile, disgusting rhetoric spewed by rightwing figures like my own governor, Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis and Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, have been caught in a pissing match over who can treat the LGBTQ+ community worse. They are supported in the media by a slew of rightwing talking heads who make money when they say shocking things: Christopher Rufo, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro. Their hate trickles up to Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity, through conferences like CPAC and to wealthy figures like Stephen Miller, who spent millions running anti-trans ads through the midterms.
My community knew a tragedy like what happened at Club Q was coming. We kept sounding the alarm when armed protesters showed up at drag shows, when white supremacists were arrested outside of Pride festival after threatening violence, when a donut shop was firebombed because they dared to host an art show featuring drag queens. We begged those on the right to turn the temperature down, to stop assaulting an already marginalized community. They wouldn’t listen.
A recent Trevor Project poll found that 66% of LGBTQ+ young people said the current political climate had an impact on their physical and mental health. It breaks my heart that a place like Club Q, and especially the trans people who were there, had to pay the ultimate price of the hateful rhetoric of politicians trying to win votes.
I’ve seen a lot of people in my circle on social media saying: we’re all we’ve got. And that feels so relevant right now. I know that in this hostile political environment, it’s my community that has my back. It’s the drag performers, who have their reputations shattered by politicians every day but still show up on Saturday to entertain us with their artistry. It’s the Black trans women, who have been under assault not just for the past months, but decades. And as we saw with the trans woman who helped take down the Club Q shooter with her high heel, they’re willing to put their bodies on the line to defend us. The challenge for the rest of us is simple: are we willing to do the same for them?
When you’ve been touched by hate violence, you become part of this unfortunate club. There’s a look in someone’s eyes when they’ve seen the same things I’ve seen. There’s a dim to their shine, as if the innocence and naivety has been ripped from them. I remember seeing this very vividly when I first met the Parkland kids. I feel it with every survivor I meet. I would tell the survivors in Colorado to please lean on the rest of us. The cameras will go away when the next crisis breaks out, but we know what you’re going through. Most of all: be good to each other. Do what you need to do to feel well and whole and don’t feel guilty about waking up tomorrow. You belong here.
I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year. Drew and Juan should be there. If they were, they’d cook, because I sure don’t. After we lost them, some of their friends, from all different points in their lives, came together. We’re bonded by trauma, and a fierce love for our friends. We’ll spend the day drinking lots of wine, playing video games and looking through old photos. We honor our friends with the joy of being together. And when we go home, we’ll take our rage and try to use it to change the world.