LGBTQ activists reflect on the Pulse Orlando shooting 4 years later: 'The hardest day of the year'

·Senior Editor
Mourners viewed the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2019. This year marks the four-year anniversary of the tragic event that killed 49 victims, many Hispanic and LGBTQ. (Photo: Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Mourners viewed the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2019. This year marks the four-year anniversary of the tragic event that killed 49 victims, many Hispanic and LGBTQ. (Photo: Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

It’s been four years since the Pulse LGBTQ nightclub massacre, when 49 people were gunned down while partying the night away at the beloved Orlando club.

The somber anniversary of the event — which was, at the time, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history (until the 2017 open-fire attack on Las Vegas concertgoers) — is being met with planned memorials and social media posts, as well as remembrances from survivors, with a continued commitment to activism during what is now a permanent dark spot in LGBTQ Pride Month

Brandon Wolf, who survived the nightclub shooting but lost his best friends, partners Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerroro, in the attack, has become a full-time activist in the years since — giving up his job as a retail manager to work for Equality Florida and also focus his efforts on the foundation launched in honor of his friends, the Dru Project.

“Pulse changed everything,” he tells Yahoo Life.

Pulse nightclub massacre survivor Brandon Wolf, left, at a press conference held by central Florida legislators and gun safety advocates inn 2019. (Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Pulse nightclub massacre survivor Brandon Wolf, left, at a press conference held by central Florida legislators and gun safety advocates inn 2019. (Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

This week, he announced both the launch of a major voter outreach project and a new milestone in awarding over $50,000 in college scholarships through the Dru Project.

“I would be lying if I told you that the last four years have not been extra challenging, that every day is hard, that every day is painful, that June 12 is the hardest day of the year, and that I miss my friends a lot,” Wolf, who testified before Congress last year in favor of stricter gun laws, shares. What keeps him hopeful is the promise he made at Leinonen’s funeral, when he was a pallbearer.

“I remember holding onto to the sides of the casket so tightly I thought my fingers would break off. I didn’t want to let go until I found the right words to say goodbye,” he recalls. “I whispered, ‘I’m never going to stop fighting for a world that you would be proud of.’ The idea that the legacy of my best friend can be the world that deserves him is what keeps me going.”

Wolf understands that many have trouble remaining positive when goals have not been achieved, noting, “I hear a lot of frustration… over gun violence prevention, LGBTQ civil rights… systemic racism,” he says. “I take solace in the fact that we are making progress. And I look to 2018 as example.” That’s when the Parkland shooting occurred, not all that far from Pulse, and Wolf formed a bond with the young activists who became mobilized to create the March for Our Lives and an ongoing movement as a result of the tragedy.

“That group has totally changed the national dialogue,” he says.

Those young activists were among the many others, from George Takei and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Pulse Orlando itself, that remembered the Pulse shooting on social media.

Some, including Gays Against Guns in New York City and Pulse Orlando, announced live streaming vigils that will take place on Friday evening.

Wolf says that the ways in which he marks this day each year are to find both comfort and purpose.

“I always start June 12th by eating ice cream for breakfast,” he says, noting that it’s been a source of comfort ever since he lost his mother at a young age. He also chills a bottle of champagne and drinks some, as he would have with his friends, and takes some time to reflect in his grief.

“I look at old pictures and I remember why I continue to do this work,” he says. “On days like today, it feels difficult to keep moving forward. But when I reflect on the ones I love… I know I can’t quit.”

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