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Pulse survivor links ‘sinister’ anti-LGBTQ political climate with Colorado

"It's no coincidence," says LGBTQ activist Brandon Wolf in Attitude's exclusive interview.

By Stephen Dobie

Brandon Wolf
Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf is speaking out after the Colorado Springs shooting (all pictures: Provided)

The global queer community is reeling from the horrific shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs on November 19. It saw five people killed and 25 injured in a space designed to be safe. 

Among the mourning for the victims – Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump and Raymond Green Vance – there has been admiration for those who stymied their attacker. 

Without such heroism the death toll could have been closer to that of the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando.

Some 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in the Pulse massacre.

The senselessness of these attacks is one thing, but it’s their apparent inevitability that’s the sucker punch. Brandon Wolf [below] survived Pulse, but lost his best friends that night. 

He’s a vocal activist for queer rights in his home state of Florida. There, the rising stock of Republican governor Ron DeSantis – perhaps a future president – is creating an even darker cloud on our horizon.

“It is no coincidence that yet another community refuge, and the safety it provides, has been shattered. This amidst a political climate supercharged with anti-LGBTQ hate by powerful leaders and right-wing extremists,” Wolf tells Attitude. 

“For years, we’ve warned that this unmitigated hate would have deadly consequences. Now, the community of Colorado Springs has paid the price for that cynical, sinister hatred. Thanksgiving tables had empty chairs last week. Holidays will have missing faces. These are the costs of hate violence — costs my community knows all too well.”

Are these attacks the natural result of the US’s increasingly hostile political landscape?

“This community in Orlando has experienced what it looks like when you let hatred go unchecked and become militarised. Don’t forget that while this country debates the humanity of LGBTQ people, it also believes people should be able to waltz into a grocery store and buy an assault weapon one aisle from apples and oranges. The convergence of those two things means we have hatred that is not only emboldened by the rhetoric of politicians such as DeSantis, but also militarised by our easy access to guns. And when you merge those things you get what happened at Pulse and Club Q. 

“We as a community have been a canary in the coal mine to show that if you don’t challenge this bigoted way of thinking, attacks like these are the end result. Violent hatred exploding across the country and targeting marginalised groups. You get caskets, you get crosses, you get headstones.”

How does it feel as a queer person on the ground in the US?

“We just had a mid-term election and – in large parts – the United States rejected extremism and chose pragmatism. But at a time when the country chose the more central path forward, Florida seemed to drift further toward the far-right. DeSantis won his election in 2018 by 30,000 votes – he won it by several million this time around. He has leaned in hard on the far-right approach of outrage-baiting and crisis-manufacturing. It is really difficult to be on the ground right now as an LGBTQ person in Florida. As the governor seems to have staked his political future on rolling back civil rights for us. I know that people are quite scared.”

Are Floridians tangibly feeling the effects of ‘Don’t Say Gay’?

“It’s had a lot of the impacts we said it would. It’s resulted in books with LGBTQ characters being banned, teachers having to take family photos down from their desks, schools refusing to celebrate LGBTQ history month because they thought it would violate the law. It feels like the most hostile environment toward LGBTQ people we’ve had in a really long time. 

“If you’re the parent of a queer kid, you’re worried about sending your child to school. If you’re LGBTQ parents who’ve fought hard to have your rights recognised, you’re worried about whether your kids can reference their family make-up in school. These things are weighing heavily on people’s minds. It’s tragic, and perhaps to be expected that a backlash would be coming to the incredible progress that queer people have made across the world.”

Should we fear DeSantis even more than Trump?

“I fundamentally do not think DeSantis believes the things coming out of his mouth; I don’t believe he has a personally vested interest in the outcome for trans children. I think he sees it as a purely political avenue to achieve his career ambitions and that he’s willing to inflame any hatred or ignorance he needs to inflame to get what he wants. He’ll inflame and embolden whatever he needs to for short-term political gains with no thought for what the long-term consequences will be. He may be more dangerous than Trump because he knows what he’s doing, he knows how government works, he’s been a politician for a long time. He knows how to pull the levers.”

Your continued energy to fight this is admirable. How do you keep it up?

“Everybody gets tired in the fight. But when it’s your wellbeing and livelihood, you don’t have a choice. People will say ‘you’re an activist’ or ‘you’re an advocate’, but I’m just trying to live my life. I just want to be left alone. And the government to not be telling people whether I belong on TV screens or in books. We keep fighting because it’s our lives and our community we’re fighting for.”

Does it get any easier talking about Pulse?

“I’ve found ways to share my journey that maybe shield me from the hardest parts of it. You find ways to let people in just enough so that they understand the gravity of the situation while also protecting yourself. But it’s always hard. [The Pulse anniversary] is not just a dark day for me as a survivor. It’s the day I lost my best friends and my chosen family. I grieve them and miss them every day – the holidays are especially challenging without them – so while I don’t know if it gets any easier to live through the story, I do find ways to tell it in a way that helps people understand why it matters. I’m not the protagonist in my story – my best friends were.”

Finally, we need some good news. Tell us about your work with Equality Florida.

“It’s Florida’s LGBTQ civil rights organisation. We’ve been around for 25 years and I’ve been on staff for four. Our largest area is the Safe and Healthy Schools Project which feels really relevant in this moment as our battleground is shipped into schools. Our goal is to give teaching staff the personal tools to lead their own inclusive programming. 

“My job as press secretary is to make sure queer stories are part of everything that’s told in Florida – that our lived experiences are centred, that misinformation is combated, that we’re talking about queer Floridians not just when they’re trying to erase us, but that our stories are included everywhere. When you’re talking about Florida’s lack of affordable housing or healthcare, you’re talking about how that affects queer people as well.

“We have to celebrate, too. Our Transgender Awareness Week was showing trans people within families, as business owners, as students. That queer people are your neighbours, your family members, your friends.”