On Nov. 15th, Brandon Wolf, LGBTQ+ civil rights advocate and Pulse nightclub survivor, spoke about the importance of self-care at UC Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Multicultural Center (MCC).
Wolf spoke to an audience at the MCC as part of the “Resilient Love” series. The event is co-sponsored by the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (RCSGD), with the intention of inviting students to listen to presentations by notable LGBTQ+ speakers.
Wolf joined the fight against gun violence after witnessing first-hand one of the deadliest acts of violence against LGBTQ+ people in the United States.
In the early hours of June 12, 2016, Wolf and two of his closest friends went to Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, to let loose and enjoy good company. What was meant to be a normal and fun night, however, ended in a tragedy when an armed gunman fired 110 rounds onto the nightclub’s patrons.
It was that fateful night, Wolf said, that changed his outlook on life.
As a young child, Wolf struggled to find people he could relate to, making it difficult for him to feel like he belonged. So, Wolf moved from his childhood home in Portland, Oregon, and made his way to Orlando, Florida in hopes of finding community.
In 2016, Wolf was just beginning his life, working his salaried job at Starbucks and living in his first apartment. It was a time of excitement and anticipation but also fear.
Wolf shared, “I don’t know what I imagined it would be like, but I had to hope that it would be different than the world I grew up in, that there would be space for people like me that I could honestly finally exhale, that I would get an opportunity to be myself, perhaps, for the first time.”
During this time, Wolf met Christopher Andrew Leinonen, one of his closest friends and one of the many individuals whose lives were suddenly taken in the nightclub tragedy.
Wolf described Leionen as a confident person, who didn’t care what other people thought about him and who didn’t try to “mask who he was.”
Leionen taught Wolf to be uniquely himself, something he will always admire him for.
Wolf was especially stricken by Leonen’s death. After the nightclub incident, Wolf said that he questioned whether life was even worth living. Eventually, things changed when Wolf decided to channel his passion over his best friend’s death into a campaign to honor Leinonen and the shooting victims. Wolf said the campaign gave him “a new lease on life.”
The Dru Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Gay Straight Alliances (GSA), student organizations found in middle, high school, colleges and universities, across the United States for the purpose of providing members of the LGBTQ+ community a safe space.
The project touched souls near and far, and united people from all walks of life. It was, and continues to be, a beautiful testament to people’s resilience and their commitment to fighting for what is right.
Wolf was at a marked time in his life. He had just lost one of his closest friends in a national tragedy, and was on the front lines advocating for increased protection against members of the LGBTQ+ community. Wolf said that grieving Leinonen’s passing while raising awareness for a cause he deeply carried about levied a heavy toll on his well-being.
He said, “…People wanted me to relive my trauma a lot […] And in that moment, [I felt] the pressure of wanting to say yes to everything and be everywhere and do every interview. Me saying no, I can’t do that because it’s too painful.”
Wolf said that the time and effort he dedicated to rectifying Leinonen’s life was too much, and he eventually fell under the pressure. By constantly working, Wolf said he put himself on the back burner. He failed to acknowledge the weight of the pressure he was under. As a result, Wolf realized that it was time to focus his energy inwardly by taking care of himself.
In his presentation at the MCC, Wolf explained the importance of taking care of oneself in a world that preaches relentlessness and competition by taking care of yourself the way that works best for you, trying to be consistent, and leaning on others for support.
While Wolf’s message applies to everyone, he recognizes that specific populations of people are more vulnerable than others.
“Young LGBTQ+ people are at far higher risk of depression, anxiety of bullying, and homelessness, because they’ve been kicked out of their houses,” he said.
At the same time, young LGBTQ+ people “grapple with how they go about being the best version of themselves.”
Wolf made the argument that taking care of yourself does not delay the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights. Instead, taking care of yourself is an act of protest in and of itself.
“Part of how we continue to build a sustainable movement is to tell people that we’re in it for the long haul,” he shared with UCSB students, “and that means that you have to build in a plan to care for yourself, to make yourself whole along the way.”
In addition to serving on the board of The Dru Project, Wolf also serves as the press secretary for Equality Florida, an organization that advocates for civil rights and protections for queer Floridians. He is also part of the advisory board of the National Organization for the Victims Advocates, and volunteers regularly.
Today, violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States continues to happen. Recently, the shooting at the Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this past November sparked similar memories of the tragedy at Pulse
The club is the only LGBTQ+ nightclub in its city and, for many, Club Q serves as a safe space for its community members to get to know one another.
Wolf shared how he wants to help others who have also been through similar experiences as him, and left with some advice for students.
“Be good to yourself,” he said. “The world is heavy right now. There’s a lot going on, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a young person in this environment.”
Like the communities that come together to mourn the loss of loved ones and bring awareness to protect LGBTQ+ lives, more work needs to be done to make sure that the well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals is being taken care of.