Brandon Wolf was wrapping up a phone call with Florida State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith before his Mirror interview in early fall.
“When he calls, the world is on fire,” Wolf said jokingly after the call ended.
Smith represents House District 49 in east Orlando. Like Wolf, he is a community activist.
Smith is a Democrat and was the first openly gay Latino to serve in the Florida Legislature.
“He was elected right after Pulse,” Wolf said.
Pulse, of course, is the Pulse Nightclub – the site in Orlando where a horrific mass shooting took place on June 12, 2016. It’s where a shooter killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.
Orlando law enforcement shot and killed the man after a three-hour standoff.
Wolf was one of about 320 people inside the LGBT venue that evening on “Latin Night,” along with two of his closest friends, Andrew “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero.
Leinonen and Guerrero were both killed. Wolf escaped through one of the club’s doors with others who had been hiding in a bathroom.
His life not only changed in an instant, but would also start to travel down an unplanned path. Wolf was thrust into the spotlight and into a role he didn’t seek. Since Pulse, he’s been sought after for comment and analysis by every kind of media and has been interviewed on national TV on LGBTQ issues, and gun reform.
It’s all catapulted him into a career of activism and advocacy. Earlier this year, Wolf was named the development officer and media relations manager for Equality Florida.
Brandon Wolf (right) with Drew Leinonen (left) and Juan Guerro.
The 31-year-old was recently an invited guest at CNN’s Democratic presidential town hall in Los Angeles that focused exclusively on LGBT issues.
“The candidates actually had a significant amount of time [to speak],” he said. “A majority of the candidates agree on the meat of the [LGBTQ] issues. All of them are leaps and bounds beyond what we have today.”
Wolf said he’s worked with Julián Castro and that the campaigns of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have reached out to him for input. He said all three have “pretty comprehensive plans” on things that matter to him and much of the LGBT community.
One of those issues is gun reform.
Soon after the Parkland shooting, the Florida Legislature passed, and former Gov. Rick Scott signed, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The act tightens gun control, school security and school safety.
It banned bump stocks and raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, among other restrictions.
It also allowed teachers who receive training to be armed.
“It was a double-edged sword,” Wolf said. “You don’t want schools to be a prison, but reinforcing schools is important. Good things came out of it, but most troublesome has been the arming of teachers.”
Wolf said the state gave schools the power to arm teachers, or not. As a result, almost none opted in through the first year.
“We dodged a bullet because the schools did the right thing, but in the second year the state has put incentives in place for school districts to take part. If they want extra funding, they have to have armed teachers,” Wolf said.
The situation now, as he describes, is that to receive a measure of financial stabilization, schools in underprivileged areas essentially have to arm their teachers.
“Put all of that in the melting pot and we’re ripe for a very bad situation for schools in Florida,” Wolf said. “Think, for example, of a white teacher in majority-black school who feels threatened.”
Wolf said that while certain politicians did a good job of selling armed teachers as an answer to the problem after Parkland – it is a wholly untested theory.
“We’re skipping right to human trials,” Wolf said. “There is no evidence that arming teachers in schools makes them safer. But we’re going to test the theory around live children?”
As part of his work at Equality Florida, Wolf does grassroots organizing to push back on the idea and get it changed.
“People connect with Brandon because he is real and vulnerable and authentic and he makes the most of any opportunity to deliver a vision of a world free of discrimination and normalized gun violence,” said Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida. “He is willing to speak truth to power, whether on national TV or a private meeting with politicians. And he is just as relentless working tirelessly behind the scenes and out of the spotlight to make a real and lasting change as well.”
Wolf grew up in Portland. He left for Orlando when he was 19 to be a part of the Disney College Program.
While he intended to move back to Oregon after a short time, it only took about nine months before he would fall in love with the city, with Florida, and with himself and his identity.
Wolf came out in Portland during his senior year in high school.
“I had a small group of friends – the experience was not one where there was a huge community or networks of people to talk to,” he said. “Portland is a beautiful place, but it’s homogenous. As a mixed-race LGBTQ person I didn’t get to explore much of my identity when I was there.”
For example, he said, in his high school of about 2,000 students, 11 were black or mixed race. He was one of four mixed-race or black teens in his graduating class.
By contrast, Florida is a melting pot, especially Orlando, Wolf said.
“Folks are visiting all the time, Spanish, Portuguese. I’m a huge foodie, too. It was a transformative experience,” he said.
After the college program, he signed a full-time contract with Disney for five years – being cast in parades, shows and doing various forms of entertainment.
In high school, he’d worked for Starbucks and he’d do that in Orlando as well, especially after he felt his run with Disney was coming to an end.
“I’m a person who needs to feel connected to other people. At Disney, I’d see guests for a moment and then they’re gone. Starbucks afforded me the opportunity to get to know people,” Wolf said.
Road to equality
In 2012, Wolf was promoted into Starbucks management, first as a store manager and then opening a new store in Orlando’s Lake Nona community.
It was during that time that the Pulse shooting happened.
After a recovery period, he was promoted as a Starbucks district manager eventually overseeing 16 stores, including in Tallahassee, where Equality Florida has a strong presence, especially during the Legislative sessions.
“Before Pulse, I didn’t know who Equality Florida was,” Wolf said. “But immediately after Pulse, Nadine reached out to me.”
Smith is an LGBT activist and has led Equality Florida since it was founded in 1997.
“We met at a Starbucks and she asked me what it was I wanted to be doing with my life – how did I want to impact other people? Did I want to be an advocate and activist all the time?” Wolf said.
Over time the relationship grew and was nurtured. Wolf got on Equality Florida’s steering committee and volunteered. He operated largely behind the scenes doing his own personal advocacy.
“Especially after Parkland, I got to a place where it felt like activism and advocacy were mingling. Nadine said there was the right position, and it was the right timing,” he said.
Smith added: “One of the things I love most about my job is the amazing and talented people I get to work with. Brandon has a clarity of purpose, a fearless resolve to do what is needed and the humility to know success is always a team effort. That powerful combination has made him a force for LGBTQ equality and in the crucial work of breaking the lethal grip of the gun lobby.”
‘You go through these moments’
Wolf’s work at Equality Florida is all-encompassing, but he continues to assist his nonprofit – the Dru Project.
The project began about a month after the shooting when Wolf launched a GoFundMe page to help subsidize funeral costs for Leinonen’s mother and Guerrero’s parents.
He set a goal to raise $10,000, but almost $100,000 came in.
Leinonen’s mother wanted to use some of the funds to create a legacy for her son.
“He was proudest that he created the gay-straight alliance at Seminole High School,” Wolf said. “He was passionate about LGBTQ issues and young people.”
The Dru Project provides scholarships to LGBTQ individuals and supports gay-straight alliance groups in schools.
Wolf’s capacity to help lead the group has tapered a bit since taking on his role at Equality Florida, but he still stays connected.
Meanwhile, the Pulse Memorial and Museum, commemorating the victims, is set to open in 2022.
Wolf said he didn’t really know what to expect when he recently searched for the designs online.
“I am floored by how truly stunning those designs are,” he said. “It’s on the size and scale of the African American History Museum [in Washington, D.C.].”
The museum will not only honor the Pulse victims, but will also be a tribute to the struggles of the LGBTQ community at large for equality.
The site of Pulse will be preserved as a permanent memorial while the museum and education center will be located a third of a mile away.
“When you lose someone, the thing that keeps you up at night and fear the most is that you’ll forget them,” Wolf said. “You go through these moments. You desperately search for video so you can hear them, for pictures so you can see them.”
Brandon Wolf (right) with Drew Leinonen
Wolf still visits the Pulse site sometimes. He lives three blocks away.
“I usually do it when I know people won’t be there,” he said.
[Editor’s note: This story is a reprint from November 2019. Brandon Wolf was also named SFGN’s Local Person of the Year for 2019]
More information is at onepulsefoundation.org, thedruproject.org and eqfl.org.