Throughout the month of July, we will be sharing the inspiring essays from our Spirit of Dru Scholarship recipients. Please enjoy Courtney Ring's - she will be attending the University of Central Florida (UCF) this fall.
Over the past four years, I’ve been very involved as an activist in the LGBT+ community. I created a panel of LGBT+ guests to speak and preform at my public library in an event called “The ABC’s of the LGBT” and when the library pushed back, I petitioned to continue the event, and was successful. I then suggested we read an LGBT book for our summer book club. We chose If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, a book written and featuring a trans girl. At my school, I founded a Gay-Straight Alliance, which was disbanded three years before. I held the position of president, and lead participation in the Orlando Come Out with Pride Parade, our school’s Homecoming parade, a spirit night fundraiser that raised $700 for the club, Ally Week at the school, and an educational Family Night. The Family Night, which included LGBT+ information for families, food, decorations made by the club, and a panel of guests from PFLAG and the Zebra Coalition was the first event of its kind in the Seminole County School System. While President of GSA I also represented the club at the Human Rights Campaign Time to Thrive Conference, where I met the leaders of the Central Florida GSA Network. Soon after, the club was inducted into the Network. I myself am now the Network Editor and leader for District 4 in the Central Florida GSA Network and will continue to work closely with the Zebra Coalition in the future.
I’m very proud of my work at my school, which I have seen bring people together, show young queer kids that they have allies in their schools, and spread awareness of acceptance within the school system. Though I’m graduating this year, I’ve worked with my club to plan future activities, including a co-created Open Prom, a dance dedicated to LGBT+ students in the community to have a safe prom experience, with a GSA at our sister high school, as well as a book drive over the summer and into the next academic year to find diverse books for elementary schools, middle schools, and the city’s public library.
I’m so happy I’ve gotten the chance to do impactful work in my community. Creating public events for allies to learn about the LGBT community are very important, and I would like to continue those events in the future. I have also seen my work effect those who struggle as an LGBT+ individual, whether from bullying, hate messages, or acceptance at home. Working with an organization like the Zebra Coalition allows me to reach out to other areas and LGBT+ kids who need support.
Throughout the month of July, we will be sharing the inspiring essays from our Spirit of Dru Scholarship recipients. Please enjoy James van Kuilenburg's - he will be attending Dickenson College this fall.
My leadership and service have brought a new visibility to young LGBTQ+ people in my town and school.
I've been involved in my community since I came out as transgender at 12 years old. I was fortunate to come out to an accepting family, but school was the opposite. I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom or even participate in gym class. I was bullied by students and teachers and eventually had to leave. After the horrible experience of losing my friends and struggling in school, I have been a community organizer and activist.
At school, I am the founder and president of my GSA, which has over 100 members. In the past, I have led projects for the club like creating affirming posters for the hallway, and organized dozens of events, like picnics and vigils, with hundreds of participants. My club is now the most popular club in the school, and the fastest growing in the county. I’ve helped students at three other high schools and four middle schools start similar clubs.
On a national level, I was part of a panel of trans students who spoke to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2015 and helped the creation of the trans-inclusive Title IX guidance released in 2016. In 2016, I spoke at the Bullying Prevention Summit at the White House and the Department of Education.
As an individual, I have written and hosted three professional development training for teachers, “Gender and Sexuality 101”, and “How To Be An Ally”. This has helped both teachers and students to create safe environments to learn. I also speak to the public about my personal story as a young trans person and have held my local community accountable to its promise of including all.
I'm the founder of a grassroots advocacy group called Support Frederick County Public School Trans Students, made up of trans students, family, teachers, and community members. I was the lead organizer of the first trans rights rally in my county of Frederick County, Maryland, and led a campaign to create a school policy welcoming and affirming trans students. I led email writing efforts, rallies, and hours of public comment. The policy, now called Policy 443, was passed in June of 2017, almost unanimously, thanks to the work of trans students and their allies.
Following this success, I organized a social media campaign titled #IAmFrederick. I encouraged people to take pictures of themselves and write a reason they support trans youth using the hashtag. The campaign was part of an effort to normalize trans people in my town. Our participants have ranged from friends, community members, state and local politicians, and representatives from national organizations.
My achievements have had local and national impacts. Overall, I have helped make my school system a safer place for everybody; where everyone is encouraged to be themselves and able to pursue their education without any boundaries. My goal is to stop what happened to me from happening to anyone else.
Throughout the month of July, we will be sharing the inspiring essays from our Spirit of Dru Scholarship recipients. Please enjoy Kristin Moorehead's - she will be attending the University of Florida this fall.
I never knew Drew. He was the founder of my school’s GSA, and his legacy impacted me in ways I don’t think he could have ever imagined, but I never knew him. And for that, I am truly sorry.
When the Pulse nightclub massacre happened, I didn’t hear about it until a few days after. My grandparents had taken me on a graduation trip to London, so I didn’t have Internet access. I remember sitting in a boat on the Thames, wondering why I saw a rainbow flag at half-mast. I was oblivious.
But I found out. And I found out that one of the 49 was none other than Drew, the man who had given me something I could now never thank him for: a place where there were some people who were just like me, and some who weren’t. It was a place where I could figure out who I was.
This place gave me a second family, and now, as president of the organization, I can give that to others. I wanted to be president to give back to the place that gave me so much. If I can make a difference in even one person’s life, if I can give them information or encouragement, or simply an ear to listen, then I will know I have succeeded. I joined GSA to find out who I was; I stayed because I felt a genuine connection to the people, and to the ideals that Drew set in place.
Through the GSA, I have met so many amazing people with so many amazing stories. Some of them are funny, others not so much. But we all share that connection to each other, and to our community. I have learned so much about the LBGTQ+ culture through GSA, and now I can pass that information on to future members. Knowing that I am participating in a legacy that has withstood so much hardship is a humbling experience, and I cherish it every time I walk through the door.
Because of Drew, I have been able to accomplish so many things that I never would have thought were possible. I helped fundraise over a thousand dollars to build a memorial dedicated to Drew and his gift to my school. I have helped lead numerous leadership conferences and cultural awareness meetings in Pinellas County. I have become more confident in who I am, and I hope that I inspire others to find that confidence in themselves.
Throughout the month of July, we will be sharing the inspiring essays from our Spirit of Dru Scholarship recipients. Please enjoy Alyssa Sileo's - she will be attending Drew University(!!!) this fall.
It has never been a want to advocate that has driven all of my actionsーit has been a need. My creative and coming out journeys ran parallel courses, and this was no coincidence. Ever since I realized my own queerness I have made sure my pride is always more than a statement. Instead, I make it a project.
My mantra is that artists must be the caretakers of equality. Forwarding unity and inclusion through arts is the perfect way to look past differences, because any person can add to a story. I believe the stage is the perfect place to get messages across, with the honesty and vulnerability required by the creators.
I’m the founder of "The Laramie Project" Project (LPP), an international theatre advocacy initiative that fights for the end of discriminatory violence by honoring hate crime victims with worldwide performances of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play that chronicles the Matthew Shepard story.
The LPP educates audiences and casts on a turning point of LGBTQ+ history while clarifying that hate crimes are still ravaging marginalized communities. By honoring the Pulse victims and sharing the stories of the incidents that are associated with the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act (heavily under-reported in the media), we are calling on LPPers to hold institutions accountable. The compelling message of Laramie drives a person to rethink their perceptions about the supposed safety of the queer community, whereas the truth is that there’s a long way to go.
To date, there are 67 registered events from 23 states and 4 other countries, representing Thespian Troupes and GSAs, colleges, theatre companies, and community groups.
Phase 3 of the LPP is an effort to advocate for The Dru Project by connecting 32 Laramies to honor Drew’s 32 years of life. We are mobilizing high schools from many states (especially those with active GSAs) to fight for their Florida student peers with fundraising and awareness, since the future of queer liberation lies in the safety and empowerment of youth.
A latent function of the LPP is to inspire people in the audience or cast who has a project inside them but doesn’t know where to start. I make the story of my LPP journey as available as I can so others can know how quickly and wildly this all happenedーhow impulsive but thoughtful activism must be.
I remember how seeing productions with queer representation, like Rent and Fun Home, right around the time that I was coming out, were the experiences that locked-in my own pride and drove me to put this on the stage for others who need this affirmation.
Drew Leinonen’s compassion, humor, and advocacy manifests in any person who works to make a space safe for someone else. I believe in the power of friendship, camaraderie, and legacy. I believe in the life-saving work of The Dru Project and the surge of GSA presence and programming, and I pledge my commitment to availability for the youth of the queer community.
Many thanks to Joey Gemelli for producing and editing this video!
Contact: Sara Grossman
Tel. (727) 560-6476
THE DRU PROJECT'S SECOND ANNUAL MEMORIAL PARTY AND FUNDRAISER WILL BE JUNE 10, 2018
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Orlando, FL — The Dru Project will be celebrating its second year as an organization on June 10, 2018.
Founded in 2016 after the Pulse shooting, The Dru Project has seen a lot of success in two short years. They have spoken to LGBTQ+ youth and gun violence prevention advocates in 10 states, reaching nearly 350,000 people. They have also raised nearly $100,000 to help empower LGBTQ+ youth.
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, known to friends as Drew, was one of the 49 victims on June 12, 2016. Shortly after his funeral, Drew’s friends banded together to help launch The Dru Project, named after his online persona. This year, they are giving away $15,000 in scholarships to LGBTQ+ youth, have already given away $5,000 in grants to 10 different gay-straight alliances, and will be launching and distributing their official gay-straight alliance curriculum for Florida high schools.
“We have so much to be proud of this year. We know that we are doing this work for the right reasons: to keep the spirit of Drew alive. The scholarships, curriculum, and coming together to celebrate once again does just that,” said Shawn Chaudhry, co-founder and president of the board.
“Our goal is to be able to help send as many future LGBTQ+ leaders to school as possible. Right now, the youth are leading the way, and we need to make sure they have the tools available to do that,” said Brandon Wolf, The Dru Project’s vice-president.
This year’s event takes place at The Abbey (100 S Eola Dr #100, Orlando, FL 32801) from 6 until 10pm. The Dru Project has celebrity friends flying in from around the country, too: Jonathan Bennett of Mean Girls fame and his partner Jaymes Vaughan will be hosting the event. Jai Rodriguez, who played Angel in RENT on Broadway and starred in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy will be flying in for the party to perform a few songs. The Dru Project is also excited to welcome renowned poet Azure Antoinette to Orlando to perform poems about Pulse, as well.
The Dru Project is an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization on a mission to spread love across the nation and promote gay straight alliances. They are doing this by creating a curriculum for high school GSAs to use, should they wish to adopt our program. They are also offering scholarships to students who truly exemplify Drew's spirit for inclusion and unity.
We are so excited to announce the winners of our GSA grants! $500 will go to 10 different schools in Florida to help their gay-straight alliances thrive.
This pilot program was created and seen through by our President, Shawn Chaudhry, who has begun meeting with the schools' gay-straight alliances.
As you may know, Drew created the first GSA at Seminole High School and went on to win the Holocaust Museum's Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for his work. Schools with GSAs see a major drop in teen suicides. When there is a safe space for acceptance, students have more of a chance to succeed.
The least we can do is continue the good work that Drew did as a teen through his short adult life. We are pleased to announce our ten winners:
Lake Highland Prep
Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Mt. Dora HS
Join us in congratulating them!
Over the last week, you may have seen The Dru Project's Vice President Brandon Wolf on the news.
If not, here is his SAVAGE takedown of the NRA, President Trump, and the rest of the politicians who have continually accepted money instead of protecting us. What have they done in the wakes of these tragedies and carnage? #NotADamnThing.
The Dru Project has announced its second annual Pulse memorial party. It will take place at The Abbey in Downtown Orlando, Florida.
At the event, The Dru Project will be giving away its 3 annual college scholarships, as well as show off its gay-straight alliance curriculum, which will be displayed and used in four different Central Florida counties. We also will be talking about our new mini-grant initiative for gay-straight alliances. Our pilot program will be giving 10 grants of $500 to schools in order to help them launch or continue to thrive.
The scholarship application period will run from February 1 - May 1 and winners will be decided by May 15. Click here to learn more about attending or sponsoring The Dru Project's annual party.
HERE IS ONE OF OUR FINALIST ESSAYS. WE HOPE YOU ENJOY READING IT AS MUCH AS WE DID!
When I was a junior in high school, I remember the bliss I felt when my high school GSA wore temporary rainbow heart tattoos to bring awareness about the Defense of Marriage Act and the struggles LGBT youth face mostly in silence. I remember when my classmates threw the word “fag” like it was “hey” or “today.” I remember the tears in my eyes when I watched the anchor on MSNBC announce that love is love, but even more, when riding a float in New York City pride the next week seeing a young boy jumping for joy on the sidewalk with a flower crown on his head. I remember my tears and trembling fingers as I watched the coverage of the shooting at Pulse. For the first time, I felt helpless. That I couldn’t do something, anything.
When I started my first year at college, I learned the GSA had been inactive for two years. By stroke of luck, I learned of two other people who wanted to revive it as well. With that first meeting of us three in October with half a dozen interested people GLOW UP (Gay, Lesbian, or Whatever U Prefer) was reborn. Mercy College is a small college, which fuels an instinct to conform and blend in. As part of GLOW UP, immediately, I with my group members and now best friends started organizing events and fundraisers. We organized a dance, which despite a school official having it printed in the events calendar as “Queer Dance,” it was a success for it was inclusive of everyone. I’m proud to have been part of fundraisers for groups like GLSEN and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and representing our group at Gay Men of African Descent’s HIV+/AIDS Heroes Celebration. I think of the friendships past and current members have made feeling free to be themselves in meetings and outside: inviting them to have dinner after class and join us at RA events.
My group members and I joke that no matter how tired we are events and fundraisers are easy. The activism is the tougher part. We successfully pushed for more LGBT resources on the college website and established a relationship with the campus therapist’s office. This past academic year, the GLOW UP President and I petitioned and suggested to our Student Life ways to make the housing selection easier for trans students and pushed for mixed gender housing so LGBT students could have any option of who they desire to live with. I’m saddened to say we have lost members and gained some haters for standing up for trans and bisexual inclusivity on campus, but it has always been worth it to place unity and community support first.
Sometimes, you have to get creative or be open to working in more complex areas. Despite, more acceptance of LGBT people by younger generations there are still many in the closet. I used social media and dating apps to be able to reach those living in the closet and who fear being outed by attending our meetings or events. I remember a couple nights sitting outside in the dark talking with a male student who had not even told his closest friends he was bi and was afraid to tell his parents his liked guys. I think at the core of activism and community, we all want a person we can talk to and who understands their struggles and feelings.
The relationship between the LGBT community and religion has intrigued me over the past couple years. I am not religious, but attend almost regularly during my college academic year South Presbyterian Church, a member of the More Light Faction. A group of Presbyterian churches that supports LGBT rights. I started attending with my own suspicions as a person raised Catholic, but I wanted to extend an open mind and love even when I was out of my comfort zone. My freshman year, I was a volunteer at the church’s food pantry and was honored to be elected to serve a three year term as Deacon assisting congregants and the church’s social work programs.
Many of my friends, especially those LGBT, carry suspicions or disdain for religion due the actions of the churches they grew up in or the church’s disapproval of LGBT rights. Though, I am one person I am happy my experience at South Presbyterian Church has made them more comfortable in church settings. Two of GLOW UP’s strongest supporters are The LOFT and Maranatha Ministries, LGBT religious & social work organizations. A long-term dream of mine is to see LGBT people be welcomed and feel comfortable in all settings, especially settings historically unwelcoming to LGBT people, to assist in a greater goal of healing and unity.
As I prepare to enter my senior year of college and have begun interning at different companies, a new focus of mine is workplace inclusion and safety. I do not think of myself as an activist, but as one person of a collective movement and community seeking inclusion, acceptance of what makes us individuals and alike, and treated with dignity as any other person.
As I rode the float down Fifth Avenue during New York City pride, I saw three young children with bright smiles. In that moment, I hoped my actions and those of hundreds of thousands before me have made an easier and safer country for the future generations of LGBT people and Allies to grow up in. The saddest part of our community’s history is the number of people who have been bullied, fired, beaten, and killed for the radical idea of living our truth. I dream and hope of a day that we can end this chapter of our history.
“Hope Will Never Be Silent” – Harvey Milk
Here is one of our finalist essays. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did!
The Jewish principle of tikkun olam, which states that it is every individual’s responsibility to help repair the world for the next generation, has guided my college career. At Lafayette College, I have worked to repair our campus by making it safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students.
With this goal in mind, I attended a Safe Zone training my freshman year of college, hoping to get more involved with the LGBTQ+ community on campus. The Safe Zone program was sponsored by the Gender & Sexuality office and peer-led, with the goal of teaching students about LGBTQ+ issues and allyhood. During the three-hour training that night, though, I was increasingly disappointed. The content was dry and lacked organization; it relied too much on heavy, academic language that made the issues seem abstract and inaccessible, when in reality they were still relevant to our campus. As someone who was struggling to come out at Lafayette, I knew there was a heteronormative campus culture, but Safe Zone wasn’t tackling those issues. Worst of all, Safe Zone trainings were only reaching students who were already interested in social justice issues, not the students who actually needed to learn about allyhood.
Despite the Safe Zone program’s weaknesses, I learned that night that I could be an employee in the Office of Gender & Sexuality. I sent an email to the Dean immediately, thrilled that I could work in an office that was providing resources to feminist and LGBTQ+ activism on campus. Within a week, I was hired and assigned to work as a Safe Zone coordinator.
In my first semester as a coordinator, I set out to overhaul the program. This meant that I had to first rewrite the curriculum; it had to be engaging, so I took gender and sexuality theory and put it into plain language. I also made the material interactive so that students were actively working with LGBTQ issues through quizzes, dialogues, and role play throughout the trainings. Through these exercises, students began to see how heteronormative systems affected their lives and how they could fight those systems. Most importantly, I made the training intersectional- I showed how sexuality is shaped by other systems of oppression, and challenged my peers to think outside of the binary.
Lastly, I began to conduct outreach to groups who weren’t actively searching for the Safe Zone program- the people who were most likely to benefit from such a training. My main focus was Greek Life, an institution on Lafayette’s campus which was still entrenched in homophobia and the gender binary. In order to make Safe Zone more appealing, I created a separate training specifically for Greek Life and provided concrete steps fraternities and sororities could take to make their organizations more inclusive and welcoming.
By the end of the semester, I had trained hundreds of students and the Safe Zone program had expanded. The number of students and Greek Life organizations which were requesting trainings for the following semester had grown so dramatically that the Office of Gender & Sexuality had to double the size of the trainings- even then, we still weren’t able to meet the demand.
Ultimately, after a year and a half of directing the Safe Zone program, I chose to take a leave-of-absence in the Fall 2016 semester to work for the Clinton campaign. While my activist work on campus was deeply important to me, I felt I could do the most good by working for a candidate who had pledged to protect and expand LGBTQ+ rights. Before I left, however, I was able to hire and train five new Safe Zone coordinators who have continued to grow the program with their creativity and passion. This is the epitome of tikkun olam- these coordinators will give the next classes guidance and continue to expand a program which is actively improving Lafayette’s campus. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do my part to make Lafayette a more loving home and to have gained skills which will undoubtedly aid my activism in the future.
A big congratulations to Finnian Spencer for taking home the very first "Spirit of Drew" first place scholarship! Even cooler–he brought his whole (very supportive) family with him! We were very lucky to have such amazing sponsors in the Aetna Foundation & Starbucks Foundation. Because of their generosity, we were able to give out THREE scholarships, totaling $7000!
Our second place winner was Matthew Reich of Mercy College and third place went to Sara Hayet of Lafayette College!
Check out Finnian's winning essay below:
When the Gay/Straight Alliance at my school was founded this year, I knew I had to get involved. I am a transgender, pansexual student at MDHS and I wanted to offer the younger people of my school guidance. Coming to terms with sexuality and gender is no simple task. As an underclassman, I really would have benefitted from being in a GSA, and I wanted to offer my peers the voice that I didn’t have. I was voted into the position of Vice President, and was thrilled for the opportunity to guide my peers through this trying time of adolescence.
At the beginning of the year, the GSA leadership were given the chance to talk about ourselves to the group. I wanted to be a safe place. I wanted to be someone that everyone could come when they needed guidance. I wanted to lead. Standing in front of the class, telling my story, I believe that I achieved just that. I told my GSA family things about my journey to self-acceptance that I thought I’d take to the grave; in doing so I made myself approachable. I’ve had more and more friends come to me looking for advice and a person to vent to.
Going into this experience of leadership in my school, I set goals for myself, the biggest and most important one being to help people. Before I started writing this essay, I did a lot of reflection on the part I played in GSA this year. I thought a lot about whether or not I achieved my goal. I can honestly say that I believe to have achieved my goal and so much more. I have met so many people from so many different walks of life who are all a part of this resilient community. I have learned so much about what it means to be a leader and how to harness those skills in order to help people get through an obstacle that many could never imagine. I think I achieved my goal. I think I helped make my school a happier place for the LGBT students in it.
I remember what it was like to be uncomfortable with myself. I remember feeling out of place and different from everyone. Growing up, I had always heard the people around me say bad things about my community; misconceptions and ignorance can lead to these hurtful comments that pollute young minds. Because of this pollution, I grew up thinking something was wrong with me. Everyone needs a community, and for such a long time, I didn’t think I had one. I needed a GSA at my school. Having that strong and unshakable foundation to grow up with would have saved me and many others a lot of hardship. I got through those times and I got through them all on my own- I wanted to extend my experiences into the leadership I offered to my GSA peers. In making myself friendly and approachable to them, I did just that.
Through this involvement in GSA, I’ve learned so much about how to include everyone. GSA isn’t just about giving a safe space to LGBT youth, it’s about education. Education breaks the barrier of hate, maliciously built up from ignorance. As a leader in my school community, I had to (and always will have to) answer questions. People are curious. They want to know what our community is all about. If everyone was educated on the matter, the world would be a more accepting place. I am always happy to tell my peers all about who I am, who we are, and where we are going. The world needs to be educated, and they need to be educated one person at a time. The individual plays an important role in the advancement of my community, and cannot be ignored. The ultimate goal of the LGBT community is to shape the world into and accepting and accommodating place; we all have to take part in influencing this future. I firmly believe that I’m doing my part.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Sara Grossman
THE DRU PROJECT’S LAUNCH PARTY IS SET FOR JUNE 11TH
A Year After the Pulse Shooting, a Victim’s Friends Reflect & Celebrate
ORLANDO, FL–Almost a year ago, 49 innocent lives were taken by a madman with a military-style machine gun. He entered Pulse Nightclub and killed 49 and also injured 53 more. The ripple effects of the nation’s largest mass shooting have reached far and wide and in some cases–across the globe.
On June 11, 2017 from 6-midnight, The Dru Project (www.thedruproject.org) will host its official launch party and memorial to honor Pulse victim Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen. The party will take place in Orlando, Florida at The Abbey. It is also listed as an official event with the City of Orlando. Their program will take place 7pm-9pm, and the rest of the time is allocated for mingling or for folks to just stop by to show their support.
“We are doing everything we can to honor Drew, and this is only the beginning,” Vice President Brandon Wolf said. The Dru Project is a 501c3 in the state of Florida, looking to create curriculum for GSAs (gay-straight alliances) in high schools across the state. They’re also raising funds for scholarships. At the party, the organization will take time to reflect on the all-too-brief life of their friend Drew, as well as give out the first “Spirit of Drew” scholarship for $1000 to one of over 20 applicants. The scholarship will go to a student who “exemplifies the spirit" of Drew: desire for unity, inclusion, and love.
Event: The Dru Project Launch Party & Memorial
When: Sunday, June 11, 2017 | 6pm-midnight (Program 7pm-9pm)
Where: The Abbey, 100 S Eola Dr #100, Orlando, FL 32801
About The Dru Project: The Dru Project is an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization on a mission to spread love across the nation and promote gay straight alliances. We are doing this by creating a curriculum for high school GSAs to use, should they wish to adopt our program. We are also offering scholarships to students who truly exemplify Drew's spirit for inclusion and unity. To learn more, please visit www.thedruproject.org.
Join us in Orlando on June 11th to honor the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting, learn more about The Dru Project's initiatives, and share stories–remembering Drew.
Watch our Facebook page for updates as we have them.
If you are interested in sponsoring or donating goods/services to our silent auction, please contact Sara to receive the sponsorship package!
“I see the killing as a hate crime, multiplied in severity because of our nonexistent gun restrictions. Sure hatred was high, and sure there was a thinly veiled ISIL rationale, but he grew up in America where there’s easy access to weapons.”
Andrea Bernardo was one of Drew's best friends. The two met in undergrad at UCF. Below is her story.
A month ago yesterday I attended the funeral of one of my closest friends, Drew Leinonen. A decade ago, I buried my father, a man I spent hours discussing and analyzing (and even comparing) with Dru. They were both psychologists, and Daddy Issues are always titillating conversation. When I saw The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat on Dru’s bookshelf years ago, and broke down in tears because my father had known the author, Dru let me borrow the book and never asked for it back.
It’s surreal to look at an embalmed corpse and every bit as painful as you think it is if you’ve never had the opportunity. Maybe if I squinted, and stood just close enough to see the spikes of his hair poking above the casket sides, it could pass for my friend. All you want to do is apologize, feeling guilty for still living while someone you loved died and you did nothing to intervene, your friend murdered while you were asleep. The people I love always seem to leave me when I’m sleeping.
Dru literally brought music into my life. Before my month long trip to Europe, he helped me buy my first iPod and we scrolled through his music library together, letting me select what would become the sound track of my life for the better part of a decade. He called my music “Dru’s iPodlite.” He introduced me to The Last Five Years, and Brown’s lyrics now are reverberating in my head, with new meaning attached.
One month to the day after the shooting, I woke up at 4am to the sound of a gunshot. Adrenaline pumping, I confirmed with Phil it was a dream. After an hour, my pulse slowed and I fell back asleep, dreaming I was in Winter Park, meeting up with Dru and Juan. In my dream, I thought I must’ve time-traveled, and here was my chance to save them! I began sobbing, begging Dru not to go to Pulse the next day, pleading with him please, please don’t go. He smiled at me, wrapped me in one of his notorious too-tight, pinching hugs, and promised me he wouldn’t go to the club. When I woke up in the morning, I was annoyed at myself for believing time travel might happen outside of the movies. Coincidentally, Dru’s Marty impression, complete with red cap, was my favorite.
We met in college. Technically, a few days before. The first night of moving into the dorms at UCF, I saw Dru on a picnic table, already surrounded by friends. It unfolded like a movie scene: our eyes locked, picking up each other’s’ scent –Faghag meets Boi. Fruit Fly meets Twink. We would laugh at these pejorative labels (and how much I hate labels) for the rest of his life. It was instantaneous, and like everyone else I met my freshman year, we were obnoxious and curious and passionate, feeding on drama and Steak N’ Shake.
After the first year of college, I’d put on the Freshmen 500 and clocked in at 300lbs on my 5’6 frame. I was large, boisterous and all around insufferable at times; shock value was my costume, and I stitched and displayed it large enough to cloak my hulking frame. I was determined for people to comment on what came out of my mouth, for my words and actions to define me, not my body (besides, it was easier to talk about eating a human fetus than actually eating a salad). Dru loved me anyway. He loved me in part BECAUSE of this. Sometimes, we would have sleepovers at his dorm or apartment. We would strip down to our underwear and watch Y Tu Mama Tambien and eat baked brie and homemade chocolate truffles. Dru would invite me into his bed to sleep and we would cuddle. Me, a giant, wildebeest of a girl cuddling with a boy a third her size, not because there was underlying sexual attraction, but because Dru truly loved and accepted me exactly as I was. For the depth that I was disgusted with myself, he wanted to be physically and emotionally close to me. That is a spiritual love that few people are capable of feeling or brave enough to express; Dru danced in it.
Brittany Ann's eulogy spoke of losing hours at Dru’s apartment. A glow emanated from everywhere he lived; every dorm or apartment was indeed a safe haven, a sanctuary. I told him his place always reminded me of Nate Fisher’s father’s secret apartment from Six Feet Under. How poignant to think of that comparison now. Warmly lit, snug, and filled in every corner and wall space with art, movies, and collectibles of everything that brought him joy. I’ve realized that similar to the indie DVDs, action figures, Star Wars memorabilia, and animal skulls, Dru collected and cherished his friends the same way: we all inhabited Dru’s Land of Misfit Toys. We were each a unique curio in his treasured collection of friends.
On the last day I saw Dru, he and Juan toured me around The Center, surprised I’d never been. Two weeks later, The Center would be on international news, staff weeping for its lost community members. My last words to Dru were over text, Saturday, June 11th. He wouldn’t read the next text I sent to him Sunday morning.
I’m still grieving the loss of my friend. I’m not ready to “focus on the good times” or accept that “he is in a better place.” Dru “living on in my heart” doesn’t hold me while we watch movies, or sassily call me out on my bullshit, or provide a unique stance that never occurred to me. I wanted to write about Dru to honor him, but all I’ve managed to do is talk about how I was able to feel when we were together. I miss my friend, and selfishly, I miss how I felt in Dru’s light.
“Jaime is over and Jaime is gone…and I’m still hurting.”
While in Orlando in June, Comcast Newsmakers interviewed our Communications Director, Sara Grossman about her friendship with Drew.
This was before The Dru Project was founded, but they graciously worked with us on creating a mini documentary about our organization and why we are doing what we are doing.
Join us during Orlando Pride weekend for Sunday Surrender at Ember!
There will be a raffle (prizes to be announced in the coming week), drink specials, The Dru Project shirts for sale, and Drew's favorite hangover cure: their thick cut fries!
RSVP, tag a friend to come with, and see us during Pride weekend!
Today, another board member sent me a photo of Drew from 2008.
In the photo, he was laying in front of a car and the caption said something about it being a "hate crime in progress." I immediately felt the blood start to drain from my face.
She said, "Do you think he always knew he would die because of a hate crime?"
By that point, I knew my face was completely white.
No, I do not think that Drew always felt like he would die from a hate crime. In fact, he was one of the few people who would openly make fun of himself and our community about it. That was one of our things. We somehow felt like we were above hate. Above hate crimes. We wanted to believe that we were in this post-hate crime world. It wasn't the 90s. We lived in a post-Ellen generation.
We were wrong, though.
The truth of the matter is that since 1998 when Matthew Shepard was tortured and beaten for being gay, all of us were probably on high alert about the fact that yes -- any of us could have been Matt. Maybe we used humor to shirk the thought. Maybe we got involved in our GSAs to feel like we had a community. Maybe we started the GSAs to create the community.
There were a litany of reasons. Any or all of them valid.
And as time progressed, we had progress. DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell were overturned. State groups were formed to help schools. But as time progressed, violence also progressed. Instead of being worried about being dragged from a bar and killed, we now have to worry about people entering our bars and killing us. En masse.
What can we do about it? How can we continue the work that The Matthew Shepard Foundation and countless other LGBT advocacy organizations have worked tirelessly to accomplish? How is it that in 2016, we have neither jet packs nor peace of mind?
I don't have the answers. Drew didn't either. But we did what we were always taught to do: love. And that is something all of us need a bit more of in a landscape that is so entrenched in hatred.