I have had a gun pointed at me when I was homeless, on the streets, but what really hurts me the most is losing two good friends in the Orlando nightclub shooting. They both were lovers, and I will never forget the first day we met. I was living in Orlando. I was a shy person, and we started talking and we clicked. The anniversary is next week: Four years. I miss him so much. I don’t want to lose any more friends, and i will not give up on this fight. Too many people and kids have died.
Much of my experience is as a mother and wife. I married young, had three children and brought them up to be good human beings, helped my husband start our own business and make it a success, helped my parents through old age – I was looking forward to enjoying the years of doing something for me – a hobby, time for my friends, traveling, finding my next chapter. All that changed on June 12, 2016. My middle child, my son Jerry, a sweet and loving son whom I adored, was mowed down in a rain of bullets and hate by a man wielding a military-style weapon. He was killed along with 48 other people out for a Saturday night of dancing.
Holidays are now times of grief instead of celebration, family occasions — the birth of a child, a wedding, a graduation — are bittersweet reminders of all our son is missing. The hole in our heart is permanent. Now I spend my days trying to stop this madness, this uniquely American problem that destroys families and rips communities apart. My second chapter was written by the massacre of my son, but I am committed to doing all I can to stem the bleeding and reduce gun violence.
My life has changed in a bevy of ways since losing my friend Christopher Andrew Leinonen at the Pulse shooting. Instead of folding inward, like a lot of our friends did, I pushed myself to turn my anguish into action and work hard to honor his memory. Some friends and I launched The Dru Project — a nonprofit dedicated to expanding gay-straight alliances in Florida. I started working at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to fully immerse myself in protecting the country’s most vulnerable people from hate. And, of course, I became a fellow for Everytown.
While this work has been eye-opening and healing in so many ways, sitting in the trenches of secondhand trauma day in and day out has taken a toll on my mental health. I am finally taking a step back to try to work through some of my own pain from Pulse. While I don’t like calling myself a survivor because I have friends who literally survived the shooting, I know the ripple effect that is launched from shootings like Pulse. People are affected each and every day in ways that they sometimes don’t even realize. We are turning into a nation of secondhand pain because pretty soon, everyone will know someone who was shot. I only hope my story helps people find relief in the fact that they aren’t alone and motivates them to become involved.