Oregon might be known for its progressive ideology, but growing up queer and Black in the town of Canby — population 18,000 — wasn’t exactly a wealth of diversity for Brandon Wolf.
During a virtual conversation with Stonewall National Museum & Archives on July 25, he shared how moving to Florida in 2008 completely opened his world.
“Oregon is not very demographically diverse,” he said. “Moving to Florida felt like just total culture shock. It was a world that was so much bigger than I ever could have imagined.”
However, as Tallahassee rolls back equality for the LGBTQ people, he says that the Florida he moved to 15 years ago is a very different place now. Wolf, who serves as the press secretary for Equality Florida and also survived the Pulse shooting in 2016, talks about growing up a minority within a minority, chosen family, overcoming trauma, and standing up for equality in his new memoir, “A Place For Us.”
The conversation was led by Robert Kesten, the executive director of Stonewall, and the two discussed elements of the book as well as the changing tide in Florida. When Wolf left Canby in 2008, Barack Obama had won the hearts of Democrats and “hope” stickers were plastered all over cars and windows. Wolf remembers finally being seen as a man of mixed race, and even having people ask him if he was related to Obama.
“It was not just this new beginning for me because I’m in a new place with more diversity and I’m around LGBTQ people more than I ever have been before, but there’s someone who looks like me and has a really similar family makeup to me who’s now president of the United States,” Wolf said. “It marked this new beginning for me as an adult, as a Black queer man in America.”
The book also covers tough topics, such as the death of Wolf’s mother, being sexually assaulted, and losing his two best friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, at Pulse nightclub. Not only did he lose his confidantes, but he lost people that had pushed him to not be ashamed of who he was. He has a chapter dedicated to them, titled “Drew.”
“I didn’t believe in myself in any number of factions and Drew unlocked that for me,” he shared. “So much of who I had become as an adult was tied to the confidence they gave me to live authentically and fully as myself. In their presence, I could be fully me.”
Afraid that they would be known by how they died and not how they lived, Wolf shares anecdotes about the couple, from Leinonen going from one bad boyfriend to the next until he found Guerrero.
“You could tell they loved each other from the moment you saw them together,” Wolf said.
While he’s openly out, the book’s release put him in a vulnerable place. He had not formally come out to one of his grandmothers, and intimate stories like his sexual assault had not been shared. Thankfully, when his family read the memoir, they responded with love.
His father apologized that Wolf didn’t feel he could go to him first after the assault. His sister thanked him for writing about his experiences. His grandmother said she has always loved him and still does. And when his stepmother flew to Orlando, he promptly took her to her first drag show, which he says moved her to tears.
“There’s just so much love in this space!” he remembered her saying.
You can purchase “A Place For Us” at brandonwolf.us/a-place-for-us