When you grow up being “different,” which is what I often felt as a young gay man in Florida, you can feel out of place in your family of origin. You may feel you have nothing in common with the people with whom you are forced to spend time at school, and that you may only seek refuge in certain spaces. For me, taking refuge is like sneaking into the guest room at my parents’ house to see But I’m a cheerleader with my other unreleased gay friends, sitting at LGBTQ+ cafes for hours and sitting with the Diversity Awareness Club for lunch on Wednesdays. My Florida high school technically doesn’t allow us to have a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, so we’re a club with a different name—but everyone know. The Diversity Awareness Club consisted of me and my fun group of yet-to-be openly bisexual friends, a few allies who practiced Wicca, and a kid or two in the theater.
We are diverse enough. More important? We selected together.
When I entered college, I was able to really spread my wings as a young LGBTQ+ and create a family of choice. I went to gay bars that held weekly college nights for the underage among us, and I joined the GSA.
This is where I met Drew. The first day of our first GSA meeting at the University of Central Florida, he and his roommate came up to me, introduced themselves, and then just said, “We should be friends.” It’s a suggestion, not a request.
Yes, we should.
Knowing Drew is knowing joy. Drew introduced me to pop culture tidbits that I had never known before—Dance Dance Revolution, the annual Eurovision Song Contest, little-known YouTube videos that I still watch to this day. He included me in his list of diverse friends that he made in different stages of his life, but never removed.
He will walk with a bounce. He will hum”mmm” while hugging you, as if he was using his extra senses to express his love. He will dance like a madman no matter how he looks before anyone else. He will blow up his friends because to him, friendship is romantic. To know Drew is to know authenticity and love to the greatest extent possible.
Unfortunately, I lost Drew, along with 48 others on the night of June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Reclaiming strange joy after tragedy
Pulse has been a safe space for so many of us. It’s a real offshoot of our education, with drag shows including the likes of Detox, Ginger Minj and Roxxxy Andrews—all former RuPaul’s Drag Race was a mainstream hit.
But in an instant, a madman with enough ammo to take down an entire army entered the club and shot round after round. Drew’s boyfriend Juan gets to the hospital only because Drew covers him on the dance floor and takes nine bullets himself. However, we lost both of those nights.
Days after this news caused me to lose my memory. In shock. Like a part of me was taken away. I don’t know who I will be in the inevitable next phase of my life. I felt as if my strange joy had been extinguished and could not be returned.
I was wrong, though.
Had it not been for my grief to be turned into a positive change, I would still have been lying in bed mourning the loss of a friend.
Shortly after returning home from Drew’s funeral, I teamed up with some of his friends in Orlando and founded the Dru Project—an organization in his honor, named after his online moniker. his. To date, we’ve awarded nearly $200,000 in college scholarships to gay youth and given $15,000 in grants to help people form the Gay Coalition—close and intimate work for the opposite sex. Drew’s heart. We also helped distribute the most comprehensive Gay-Straight Alliance guide in the world (co-written by Drew himself, thanks to some notes he saved on his computer) to help schools establish schools. their own group.
In many ways, this job saved my life. Had it not been for my grief to be turned into a positive change, I would still have been lying in bed mourning the loss of a friend. I have found purpose from this job, starting with Project Dru, to my volunteering with Everytown for Gun Safety to help new gun violence survivors tell their stories, to the work that I’m honored to do for the Matthew Shepard Foundation for three years, to work with gay artists. And relying on my identity, despite the violence and hate that people like me face every day, is a form of joy in itself.
In many ways, this work has also expanded the family I have chosen. I am proud to call some of the Dru Project scholars my friends. In fact, I just helped one of them move to Colorado (where I currently live) from Florida to get rid of the anaerobic state this state just passed. I always update the work that our other scholars are doing with their own backing and can proudly say that they are changing the political discourse in this country. And who should I thank for bringing all these incredible people into my life? Drew. That is the lens I choose to see my life through. Just like when he was alive, he continued to connect people.
Focus on the eerie joy in pride (and beyond)
This month, in addition to honoring my friend and the people we lost at Pulse, I’m sure to be fun-centric, because that’s what Drew is going to do. I always celebrate a little more by lifting the spirits of my chosen family of talented friends—all wonderful LGBTQ+ people who are making society better through activism , their work and their art.
I put on Grace DeVine’s “Glistening”—a song I helped write about the gender-neutral experience and feeling gay. I recommend everyone to read my friend Brandon Wolf’s book, A place for us, tells of his experience learning to love himself at every intersection of his personality, thanks to our mutual friend Drew. (I only met Brandon after Drew passed away, and I appreciate how we were able to keep his pieces alive together.)
In a world where hundreds of laws seek to push our communities back into the dark, I find that our strange joy is resistance. It is light.
I support local drag performers, such as my friend Jessica L’Whor, who has been a drag player for a decade and continues to shine in the face of adversity while supporting initiatives community. And I try to amplify the voices of people like Sarah Todd, who are creating a space for quirky musicians to promote their music commercially and who recently put a song for Apple in Pride Month (and was announced by the company’s openly gay CEO).
This chosen family of mine continues to raise the voices of the underprivileged while creating their own buzz. Our success is shared as a community and I am proud to be able to revel in the achievements I have seen these amazing people achieve.
In a world where hundreds of laws seek to push our communities back into the dark, I find that our strange joy is resistance. It is light. I see that our community is brave, strong, and resilient. The space we create for each other is safe and sacred. I greet the friends I’ve made since my youth, and everyone I met this weekend at Denver’s Pridefest with open arms, just as Drew greeted me in his previous years. I appreciate that you are a part of my journey and I can’t wait to cheer on yours too.
The arc of justice is still long. I know that we, as a community, are in the middle of our thick battle, but in this case, I see the arc as a rainbow. How can I not?
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