On June 12, 2016, Brandon J. Wolf was at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, crouched in a bathroom as a gunman opened fire. The gunman ended up killing 49 people including Wolf’s best friends Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero.
In Wolf’s new book, A Place For Us, he not only writes how the Pulse Nightclub shooting impacted his life but also tells us his journey from a young outsider to a game-changing LGBTQ activist and a proponent of gun safety reform.
Wolf is excited to tell his story in full because usually in a speech or interview he shares just a sliver of his story and sometimes people think they know him based on that. “This book really gave me an opportunity to talk about the things it took to get me to where I am today,” he tells GLAAD’s Anthony Allen Ramos. “I talk about being a young Black queer person in this country and about growing up in a conservative majority white town and what that felt like. I talk about a struggle to find a place to belong. I talk about the power of chosen family and community.”
Despite some of the book’s subject matter, Wolf leans into leaving things on a hopeful note and he says the book is, for him, a story about forgiveness. “It rounds out with a story of finding that deep sense of safety and belonging in the communities that we choose,” Wolf explained. “I feel like that’s a message that will resonate with people right now, especially as we’re in such a divided time.”
From the beginning, Wolf has been very passionate about making the world a better place and creating spaces where people could belong. While working at Starbucks, he did exactly that. He tried to create belonging in the stores he managed.
“I knew that in my work with Starbucks that we were a beacon for queer people in general who were looking for workplaces that could see all of them. We were certainly a beacon for trans people because we had a health care policy that was inclusive of gender affirming care, and so while I maybe wasn’t the fiercest of activists on the political stage, I have always been really passionate about trying to create spaces for people to be authentically themselves.”
He likes to surround himself with others who like to do the same. Part of A Place For Us shows how deeply and personally his friends have created spaces for him to be proud of himself for the first time.
Wolf talks about grief in his book a lot, not only when it comes to Pulse, but also the loss of his mother at a young age. He realized he never articulated the ties between the loss of his mother and the loss of his best friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero.
“I’d never really talked about what losing her felt like and how that drove me to leave Portland, Oregon and move to Orlando, Florida in 2008,” he says. “I’d never really articulated those things. I knew them internally but hadn’t really put words to those emotions before and so I took a pause and I wrote a couple of sentences just saying, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever really put all these pieces together before.’ And so you’re getting a glimpse into what it’s like for me to process these things in real time. It was really hard to do that.”
He continues, “What’s beautiful for me about this story is that it is about redemption. It’s about, all of the trials and tribulations that I had at a young age; coming full circle and shaping me into the person I am today. Those stories were tough to tell… but [they] are important to tell and I think helps to set the stage for where I am, the person I am today.”
Wolf continues to do the work with activism and advocacy but still manages to keep a sense of balance. It’s important for him to not overwork himself and practice self-care – something he encourages. But he is human and he does get exhausted in a movement that won’t make progress overnight.
When he feels down on his luck he looks to young queer leaders like Zander Moricz, Javier Gomez and Will Larkins who are also doing amazing work defying the status quo because they understand the world they deserve. “They give me a lot of hope and optimism,” he says. “So when I’m not celebrating my self-care, when I’m deep in the weeds of the work, they are what gives me the energy to keep going.”
A Place For Us is available July 1.