7 Questions with Brandon Wolf

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

Brandon Wolf

7 Questions with Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a nationally recognized gun safety and LGBTQ+ civil rights advocate and public speaker. Brandon is a survivor of the 2016 shooting at Orlando's Pulse Nightclub. After losing two of his best friends that night, Brandon set out to honor their and the other 47 victims’ legacies with action. Brandon is a co-founder of The Dru Project, a non-profit organization that helps fund higher education to empower youth and future leaders in the LGBTQ+ community. Brandon works alongside March for Our Lives, Everytown, Giffords, and other organizations as an outspoken activist in the gun violence prevention movement. As a powerful public speaker, Brandon has been recognized by HuffPost as one of “30 modern-day LGBTQ pioneers'' and Business Equality Magazine as one of “40 LGBTQ Leaders Under 40.” Brandon just released his first book, A Place for Us, a memoir that shares his transformative journey from young outsider to an inspiring activist. He served as the Press Secretary for Equality Florida and is now the National Press Secretary for Human Rights Campaign. We asked Brandon 7 questions about his experience and career path.

You’ve committed to honoring the victims’ legacies through action. What keeps you motivated in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights and gun safety?  

I’ll give you a preview of the book. Six days after the shooting, we had a funeral service for my best friend Drew. To date, it’s one of the hardest days of my entire life. I didn’t want to let go of my best friend until I’d found the right words to say goodbye. And so, we got to the front of the church that day, and I looked down at the casket and I made him a promise. I promised him that I would never stop fighting for a world that he would be proud of. And a world that Drew would’ve been proud of is one we can all be proud of. It’s one where freedom means something. It’s a value. It’s unconditional and worth defending for all people. And so that’s the thing that keeps me going even in the darkest moments, is this understanding that my purpose is greater than me. It’s about more than just the day-to-day struggle. It’s about the kind of world we can create if we stay relentless, if we stay positive, and if we stay focused. I find hope in these moments of strength in other people. I find a lot of hope in the strength of trans people, specifically Black trans women who've been fighting this fight a lot longer than I have, who continue to find joy and celebration in this world that tries to suppress them all the time. I find a lot of hope in young people because they remind me that we've been in these places in the past, and that we young people at the head of the movement have succeeded and will succeed again.

You were the first survivor of the tragedy to testify before Congress. Can you tell us a little bit about this experience and what inspired you to testify?

I’ve had the opportunity now twice to testify before Congress. The first time, I got a call from Giffords, which is a gun violence prevention organization, started by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. And at first, I thought maybe it was a prank! Then, it settled in that it was real, and they really wanted me to be part of this committee conversation. In working with their team and working with my personal board of directors, I put together a powerful testimony. My goal was to humanize the issue of gun violence. When you empower and embolden hate, when you give it a blank check and force the American taxpayer to subsidize it, we pay not just the financial price but the human cost when violence inevitably explodes. I wanted to be there to give my community an opportunity to sit at the table because we never had that before. During the second hearing, I had an opportunity to speak in front of the House Oversight Committee in December of 2022. This was in the wake of the Club Q shooting, amidst an election cycle that was rife with anti-LGBTQ hysteria and bigotry, and I wanted to sit at the table again, to give a voice to the human cost of hate, to put a face to the Orlando community, but also to speak as a representative of Floridians who are sick and tired of a government that intervenes in every aspect of their lives. They’re sick and tired of politicians who fuel hate – the real people of Florida who love their neighbors. I wanted to give them a voice in that space, and it was an incredible honor to sit at that table and bring voice to these issues.

The Dru Project was founded in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub tragedy. Why did you choose funding youth LGBTQ+ higher education as a way to honor the victims’ legacies?

We launched the Dru Project sitting around Drew’s old kitchen island. We asked ourselves, what would keep the best parts of Drew alive? When you lose someone, you love that much, you go through a range of emotions. Grief and, also, joy, but there was a lot of fear for me. I was afraid I’d forget him. I was afraid that people would never get to know him the way I knew him. They would never get to know the beauty that he provided to the world. We asked ourselves, what would Drew be doing if he was still here? And the answer was really quite simple. He dedicated his life to the health and well-being of others. He was a Master of Clinical Psychology. He was passionate about mental health resources. He started his high school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance student club because he was passionate about creating safe spaces for young people to be themselves. So, it was very obvious to us what Drew would be doing if he was still here. We launched the Dru Project, which, to date, has given almost $200,000 in college scholarships. We have a debt relief program that gives scholarships to those who’ve graduated or accrued student loan debt over the years. We authored the country’s most comprehensive guidebook for Gay-Straight Alliance clubs so they can find value in their time together. All of this is aimed at helping to build a pipeline of incredible talent, with people who are changing the world at a young age. We’re helping to clear the obstacles in their paths so they can go out and change the world. 

How do you maintain and prioritize your mental health and self-care through all of this?

Thank you for centering health and well-being. It’s paramount. This movement is not sustainable if people are running themselves into the ground. When you’re working in spaces like we do, the honest truth is that a lot of us come into that work with trauma. Every day we’re moving in those spaces, we’re carrying that trauma with us. And that means caring for ourselves is even more important. Number one is recognizing the importance of self-care. Number two is that it’s the point of this work. What is the point of fighting for liberation if you never get to experience joy throughout that fight? That’s the whole purpose of our work. It’s to create space for us to be happy and healthy and whole human beings. How do I get there? I try not to celebrate overwork. Audrey Lorde has my favorite quote of all time: “Caring for myself is not selfish. It’s self-preservation. And that in itself is an act of political warfare.” I believe that to my core. In a world that tells you you’re only as valuable as what you can produce, finding joy, celebrating community, creating art, those things are acts of political resistance. I celebrate and center these things in what I share with the world. And self-care is not an individual activity. It’s a team sport. It really is community care. So I’ve learned to get really good at asking what I need for people and advocating for the space I need in order to take care of myself. I really try to find balance and ask for what I need from the community around me. We really can’t take care of ourselves on our own. We have to lean on each other.

How can readers best get involved with the Dru Project and support the gun prevention movement?

We’d love to have your support in whatever way that makes sense, all of it helps. We want to send a very clear message to LGBTQ young people in this country that they’re perfect exactly as they are. They have every tool at their disposal to be great, that they’re already changing the world simply by existing unapologetically, and that we are here to support them and give them resources. That’s part of why I wrote the book that way; A Place for Us is about helping young people understand there is a place for them in the world. You can go to the druproject.org, you can make a donation, you can download our free curriculum guide for GSA. You can share online and spread the message. In terms of the gun violence prevention movement, my encouragement would be to find a space that makes the most sense to you. There are organizations like Moms Demand Action that are really geared towards families worried about their kids’ futures. If you’re a student who wants to create a safer college campus, there are organizations like March for Our Lives and Everytown and Students Demand Action. For me, it’s about finding what drives your passion in the work. What is it that gets you excited to volunteer? Maybe it’s a candidate or an organization. You gotta find the thing that ignites your passion for making the world a safer place, and then figure out the organization, the candidate, the movement that’s building around that and just go pour yourself in it.

Congrats on the release of your memoir A Place for Us! Can you tell our listeners a bit about this book and the writing process?

A Place for Us really captures exactly what I wanted the book to be about and who I wanted it to be for. The process of getting to a place where I could write a book was honestly very challenging because there’s a lot of imposter syndrome that comes with being a person of color deciding to write down a story. There are already comments from people like, are you even old enough to have a memoir? Everyone’s old enough to have life experiences and stories to share with others! There was that first hurdle of, should I even write a book? Am I someone whose story matters? The summer of 2020 propelled me, like a lot of people, to take new steps in my advocacy journey. And when George Floyd was murdered, I felt this intense pain at the intersection of being not just a person, but also a Black person in America. I went through this reflection process and realized just how often I had been severed from my community, from my identity as a young person growing up in a very conservative majority white community. I had lost contact with a lot of who I was. And I felt like this book was an opportunity to explore that. It was an opportunity to tell that story to those who may be experiencing the same thing. So I feel really honored to have been able to tell what I think is a powerful story of a Black person in America, navigating the intersections of his identities, finding belonging, finding community, experiencing tragedy and trauma, and then finding purpose in the wake of that. I hope that it speaks to people not just who have my same or similar lived experiences, but also people who might never have heard a story like mine before. Because we all know what it feels like to struggle to belong sometimes. We all know what it feels like to have to find community. We all know what it feels like to lose people we love. I think this book is not just for the people that I hope to see their stories reflected back at them, but also others who may not have imagined that we have so much in common.

So where can folks find the book?

You can find it anywhere you like to buy books. Barnes and Noble online, Amazon. People like bookshop.org because it sends it through your local, small bookstore. You can find it on my website, brandonwolf.us. You'll find a link there to buy a copy of A Place for Us. My only request is the same to everyone: if you get a copy and you read it, I'd love to know what you thought of it.

So, what’s next for you? Any exciting ventures coming up?

Everything excites me. I think the future is exciting. I think the possibilities are endless at this moment. And that feels kind of maybe pollyannaish to say because things are really dark and we've gone through so much as marginalized communities. It's rough to be just you unapologetically. It feels weird to say that I see endless possibilities, but it's because that's the truth. Part of the right-wing strategy to push back so hard is built from a place of understanding that they already lost the culture war, that we live in a more Brown America than ever before. And they're doing everything they can to try to peel that back. But there's no putting that genie back in the bottle. There's no world where TikTok, Instagram, and Youtube don’t exist, where young people can't look out into a world that looks far more like them than they imagined. That isn't going anywhere. That idea of a world that is so much bigger and freer and more inclusive is really exciting to me. And I'm excited about the work that's gonna be required to get us there. I'm excited about ensuring that our stories are at the table every time we're being discussed. I'm excited to ensure that we're centering those who live at the intersections of identity. I've always said I don't care much about titles or what pin is on my lapel. I want to be where I'm needed, where I can have the greatest impact. So I am really excited to just have as much impact as I can.

What is your favorite podcast, book, movie, or TV show right now?

I am kind of a nerd, so I like books on economic theory and historical books on figures. I’m midway through You Never Forget Your First, which is one of the first biographies of George Washington written by a woman, so it’s a fascinating book. I also read a book on modern monetary theory. I also like memoirs written by Black authors; Saeed Jones’ How We Fight for Our Lives is one of my favorites. For movies and TV, I’m open to suggestions!

How can folks follow you on social media?

You can find me everywhere. I’m on Twitter at BJoeWolf. I’m on Instagram as Brandon J. Wolf. I’m on Facebook. I have a TikTok. I’m not very good at that, but I’m an elder millennial, so I do my best, but if you wanna follow me on TikTok, I'm there as well, BJoeWolf.

Thank you Brandon Wolf for answering our 7 questions!

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