For many progressives, Democrats and much of the LGBT community in Florida, the recently completed 2021 legislative session in Tallahassee was a hard pill to swallow.
Brandon Wolf, who follows politics for Equality Florida (EQFL), said it was the first time he felt really dialed into the session.
“It was an adventure,” he said. “I picked a good one.”
He wasn’t giving lawmakers a good review. Wolf noted the slew of legal challenges in work concerning controversial legislation passed by Republicans — like banning transgender girls from women’s and girls’ sports, punishing tech companies for a perceived conservative bias, restrictions on voting and a so-called “anti-rioting” law.
“It’s really frustrating because as taxpayers we have to pay for these unconstitutional bills to be challenged in court, just so these red-meat issues can be thrown to the ultra-conservative base,” Wolf said. “Think about the last year we had — all the things we’ve been through. If you made a top priority list for lawmakers, where would these land?”
Wolf, 32, is in his second year as the development officer and media relations manager for EQFL.
He said Florida’s residents would have been better served if the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis had focused on the state’s pitiful unemployment compensation system, its ongoing economic challenges, Medicaid expansion, education and climate change.
“But they didn’t do any of that. They focused on ultra-partisan, far-right issues. It’s really disappointing,” he said.
Wolf said seeing the state tip to Donald Trump in 2020 also felt like a black eye. But he’s optimistic, too.
“The cohesion of House and Senate Democrats around LGBTQ issues gave me a lot of hope,” he said.
Wolf said the transgender sports ban is a good example. Democrats expectedly pushed back, but he said there was such a strong and coherent rebuttal to it that other states have been looking to Florida to emulate its strategy, which has shifted the national tone on the issue.
“The offices of lawmakers and the governor were flooded with phone calls,” Wolf said. “The community response has injected us with hope and optimism. The community is on fire and passionate for issues of equality.”
In the initial interview with Wolf he noted some positive developments like the legislature's approval of funds for Orlando's Zebra Coalition to build a housing facility for LGBT homeless youth.
Then days before the Pulse anniversary, DeSantis on June 2 vetoed the $150,000 budgeted for a Pulse survivors' mental health program at The LGBT+ Center in Orlando.
"The Pulse funding, first of all, was 0.00015% of the budget. But in totality, he vetoed all funding for LGBTQ programming. the message is clear. And PUlse survivors are just a part of that — of using the LGBTQ community as a political football," Wolf said. "He vetoed that same line item last year, when they asked for $45,000 and he told them it was because of COVID. But this year's budget has a $9 million surplus, so what's the excuse?"
DeSantis also cut the $750,000 budgeted for the Orlando-area Zebra Coalition.
Wolf also said there are “incredible champions in Tallahassee” — out, queer members of the legislature.
Voters recently elected the state’s first out LGBT state senator, Shevrin Jones; and Rep. Michele Rayner is the first Black queer woman to win a seat in the legislature. Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith had previously become the first openly LGBT Latin person elected to the legislature.
“The headlines in 2020 were that homophobia has no place here,” Wolf said.
He said EQFL played a role in flipping the Senate through the runoff elections in Georgia. Equality Georgia consulted with the group on strategies to increase pro-equality voter turnout and fundraising.
Pulse ‘Remembrance Week’
Wolf was one of about 320 people inside the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016, when a shooter opened fire killing 49 and wounding 53. He was there with two of his closest friends — Andrew “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero — who were both killed.
Wolf escaped through one of the club’s doors with others who had been hiding in a bathroom. He’s been in the spotlight ever since.
The experience marked the start of a journey that would propel him into social and political activism on LGBT and gun reform issues, and eventually to his position at EQFL.
Wolf said he stays connected with developments in the design and construction of the Pulse Memorial and Museum, which is expected to open over the next two years. Pulse “Remembrance Week” events from June 5 through June 12 will mark five years since the tragedy.
“When I reflect on five years and the 49 people stolen by us, the families, survivors and first responders — to soon be able to say this community has built the largest LGBTQ+ museum in the history of the country — I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
For the first time, Wolf will be one of the speakers at the June 12 remembrance ceremony. On the same day, the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety will host a national discussion on the Pulse tragedy, streaming on Facebook at 5 p.m. EST.
Wolf is involved in Everytown — a coalition of organizations that includes EQFL. It’s designed to spur a national discussion on the issues that emerged from the Pulse tragedy.
Wolf also recently signed a book deal to write about his experiences and the lessons he’s learned from the Pulse tragedy. He said the working title is “Safe Space.”
“Some things feel right and that title is the one I’ve had from the beginning,” he said.
Even though the term is made fun of and distorted in some social media posts, Wolf said for marginalized communities, safe spaces are lifelines. He said the book is an exploration of what the term really means.
“I needed to write a book because there’s so much that happened before Pulse that explains why Pulse meant so much to so many people,” Wolf said. “I talk about my best friends, what it means to be a queer person of color in this country, recovering from trauma, bridging the divides that are tearing us apart at the seams. In the darkest hours, this community saved our lives.”
Wolf was set to embark on a five-week leave of absence from EQFL to finish the book, which doesn’t yet have a publish date.
For more information on “Remembrance Week” activities, go to onepulsefoundation.org.