In June 2016, I survived the mass shooting that took 49 lives at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Less than two years later, I met with the amazing Parkland students who have created a growing national movement to defeat gun violence by saying #neveragain. Marches are planned around the country on March 24, and I will be there to stand with them in Washington, DC.
My most vivid memory of my time meeting these survivors was huddling together with them at a candlelight vigil, locked in a hug and shaking with tears. They had just been through the unthinkable, and people were begging me to tell them what I know, given that I have some understanding of their experience.
I imagined I was supposed to be trying to console them, sharing my wisdom, helping them to see there was hope. But what happened in that moment was something else. We were not leader and followers. Or adults and students. We were all survivors. The same. No words needed to be spoken; no advice needed to be shared.
Instead, I managed five words: I am proud of you. And I am proud. Not just of their bravery and strength, but of their willingness to swallow their trauma and take on the powerful. I am proud of the Parkland students for finally demanding a response to the senselessness and lack of accountability for what pass as gun laws in this country.
I know more about this than I would wish on anyone. I hid in a bathroom stall of the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 as 49 of my friends, family, and community were murdered in the deadliest violent attack against LGBTQ people in US history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. It was unimaginable, and we all thought “it can never be worse than this.” We were wrong. A year later, the Las Vegas shooting left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.
America is living a nightmare of gun violence, one that repeats and repeats and has played out as politicians send “thoughts and prayers” and then do nothing. Nothing. Ban assault weapons? More stringent background checks? Look at the root causes and research gun violence to work to prevent these nightmares from continuing? An overwhelming majority of Americans support all these things. But still nothing happens.
There’s a simple reason why: the NRA and the gun industry’s vise grip on politicians and the American political process.
But the past few weeks feel different. These students are inspiring a resolve for accountability like none I have yet seen.
I spoke recently at a powerful rally in Tallahassee where thousands made it very clear they will hold the Florida legislature and leadership accountable for their continued inaction.
Last month, in less than three days, over a dozen major corporations broke their ties to the NRA. Some Republican governors and members of Congress are finally standing up to the NRA as well, with new supporters coming out in favor of everything from an assault weapons ban to universal background checks and raising the age limit on gun purchases.
In the past few days, the President met with a bipartisan group of members of Congress and made a LOT of promises, saying he was not afraid of the NRA. But Trump also said that the Pulse shooting could have been prevented if there had been an armed officer or security there (actually there was security, just no match for an automatic weapon). His grasp of the issues and lack of understanding of the political dynamics is unnerving and we must remain vigilant.
Whether or not Congress can deliver is a huge question mark — but all I know is that if they don’t, there will be a backlash at the midterm elections like they have never seen.
A huge part of the challenge, one often overlooked, is this: the politicians may be puppets for the NRA, but the NRA is a puppet for the nearly $40 billion American gun industry. I am working with the #noNRAMoney campaign to focus on a critical piece of this, asking politicians to pledge that they will refuse to take donations from the NRA and, because so much of the NRA’s power comes from voter mobilization, will also let constituents know they reject the NRA’s positions. Many have already signed on and the momentum is only growing.
“When nothing less than freedom is at stake, we fight” is the NRA’s tagline. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — and the millions of American standing behind them — are teaching the NRA exactly what those words really mean. Not the freedom to buy military grade weapons. Not the freedom to profit off the murder of innocent people. The freedom to walk our streets, school hallways, enjoy a concert, go to church. Freedom is the bedrock of American values. It’s time for us to do whatever we have to do to change the broken system. It’s time to fight back.