Brandon J. Wolf, A PLACE FOR US: A Memoir

Brandon J. Wolf, A PLACE FOR US: A Memoir

Brandon J. Wolf, a passionate LGBTQ+ activist and survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting, speaks to Zibby about his raw, daring, and breathtakingly honest debut, A Place for Us: A Memoir. Brandon shares his story, from being a queer, mixed-race kid in a conservative town and losing his mother to finding community in Florida and experiencing the 2016 tragedy that killed his friends. He also shares what community and safe space means to him, the difficulty of revisiting his worst memories, his family’s response to his story, and his new role as an activist.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brandon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss, A Place for Us: A Memoir, which, oh, my gosh, is so moving and so good. Oh, my goodness, I’m reeling from it having just finished.

Brandon J. Wolf: Thank you. I’m immensely grateful for the time. When you put your first work into the world, you’re not sure how people are going to respond to it. I’m thrilled to hear that you loved it.

Zibby: I’m sure I’m not the only one. I know I’m not the only one. Your story — maybe you should start. Why don’t you tell listeners what your memoir is about and the incredible loss and resilience that has gone into your story and then writing about all these painful experiences?

Brandon: For folks who may not be familiar with me, my name is Brandon Wolf, he/him pronouns. I’m Zooming in from Orlando, Florida, where I’ve lived for the last, on and off, about fifteen years. I think folks are most familiar with the part of my story where on one June night in 2016, I went to Pulse nightclub with my best friends. I was lucky to make it out with my life. They unfortunately were not. That part of the story has been the public-facing part. Again, most people, if they’re familiar with me, they’re familiar with that part of it. When we were talking about writing a book — you sell the idea to a publisher. You get a proposal together. You talk them through what you want to write about. The publisher asked me, “Is this a book about Pulse? Is it a book about your experience that night? If so, why is it not an article? Why is it not an essay? Why does it need to be two hundred full pages for a story that you’ve told many times?” My response was that it’s kind of a book about Pulse but that you can’t understand why Pulse, the event, mattered to so many people if you don’t understand why Pulse, the space, matters to so many people, why spaces like that are so necessary.

I went back to the beginning. I talked about what it felt like growing up at the intersections of being a queer kid and also a mixed-race kid in a majority white, conservative town in rural Oregon. I talked about what it felt like to basically run away from home to find chosen family, to find a community here in Florida that felt a little different, that looked more like me, that loved more like me. Then I talked about what it felt like on June 12th of 2016 to have that ripped away and then how I’ve navigated since then. At the end of the day, we’ve been through a lot as a globe over the last couple of years, immense loss, a terrifying pandemic that shattered all the ways we think about the world, exposed fractures in our systems that left people falling through the cracks. We’re at a time where things are more divided than ever. I wanted to write a book that not only memorialized my best friends, that not only told the story of why queer spaces are so important, that not only put humanity behind the idea of intersectionality, but also began to talk about the hope and optimism that can come from building a community together.

Zibby: Wow. First of all, you are so articulate.

Brandon: Thank you.

Zibby: You start off the book where you talk about the tragic loss of your mom and what it was like being left behind with your stepfather and your half-siblings and how you always sort of felt out of place at that table. You felt out of place at school. The scene with the principal with white supremacists, I just kept reading it, I’m like, oh, my gosh, how could this school district not be doing more stuff? All of your advocacy — you think about people who have a tough time in high school. This is other-worldly, what you had to live through and to have, really, no support at home. You wrote about that so well. The reader can’t help but just feel their heart breaking as if we were in your shoes with your loneliness having been really abandoned, essentially. My heart also really went out to your mom because, of course, that’s the last thing she would’ve wanted for you. Obviously, nobody means to have to leave your children. It’s a parent’s worst fear. Even reading this as a mom, the fact that you were there — it’s on every level. When you look back even on the high school years and getting through and just getting yourself to college where you can have that awkward — even the scene with your dad saying goodbye, oh, my gosh. How, when you look back, did you get through it with sanity intact? There are a lot of ways you could’ve gone. Putting a lot of people in those shoes, you might not have made it to be here. What do you think that was all about?

Brandon: First of all, somebody asked me a really poignant question yesterday. My mom left me with some very simple tasks, to make sure I take care of my sister, to be patient with my dad, and never forget how special I am. They said, that really feels like it’s encapsulated who you are. You do those things even to this day. You’re patient with people who disagree. You try to take care of those people that you love. You always stay zeroed in on the value that you can bring to a conversation. In response to that poignant observation, I said that the best parts of me are my mother. They’re just exactly who she was when she was on planet earth. She taught me how to be me, even though I didn’t have the words for that at the time. I didn’t really understand that’s what was happening. I would say first, it’s just the strength of my mom that allowed me to carry on and find a little bit of my way. It obviously took me a while to figure out where I was going. Throughout it all, I think I found bits and pieces of my identity and my way.

The other thing that I mention a lot in the book is this power of community. When we started taking the proposal and fleshing it out, giving it some meat on the bones, one of the things that was most important to me was to capture this idea that safety, that safe spaces, that places for us to belong are not simply physical places. They’re not just places like Pulse. They’re not just places like college. They’re community spaces. They’re the relationships we build with each other. I think sincerely that community probably got me through all of that. It got me through my high school years. I had a group of friends that we would sneak off to the local gay bar. That was my community that got me through high school. When I got to college, I talk a little bit about my hallmate who would sing musicals with me. He actually posted that he got a copy of the book, so I’m excited to hear what he thinks. He’s an English teacher. I’m excited to hear what he thinks. It was those moments of community that created the opportunity for me to find myself in all of that.

Zibby: Wait, what happened to your roommate? You said he left school. Are you in touch? Do you know what happened to him?

Brandon: I have never been in touch with him after that. That breaks my heart. There are some stories that I’ve told a lot. The Pulse story is one I’ve told a lot, and so I know how to tell it in a way that sort of guards my emotional well-being. There are other stories that were really difficult to write about. Many of them I had not talked about publicly before. My relationship with my college roommate is one that I’ve not talked a lot about. I still carry a lot of regret about that situation and how it went. I certainly hope he’s doing well and all of that, but I’ve not stayed in touch with him.

Zibby: Speaking of things that you wrote about that you hadn’t written about before — I hate to even gingerly tread on these horrific memories of yours, but the scene with Ben — Ben was his name, right?

Brandon: Yeah.

Zibby: The scene with Ben where you go to this stranger’s house and he does terrible things to you and you’re so ashamed and cracked open inside and not feeling able to talk about it or process it or get external help and that you then say to us in the book that you’re literally now writing about it publicly and talking about it publicly for the first time, something that traumatic, that could be a book, by the way. Some people have written books just about the effect of something like that happening. How did you feel getting it out and onto the page and now having it really out there?

Brandon: That was one of the hardest parts of the book to write because, as you mentioned and as I noted in the book, I’ve never told that story out loud before. I had actually never told my family before that that happened. I’d never told my parents. One of the roadblocks that I experienced while trying to figure out how to write that part of the book was knowing that my parents would read this book and read that for the first time and how they might process that, what they might be thinking about. This happened while I was still living in and around my hometown. I was still basically at home. That was really, really difficult. It was difficult for me to relive it while I was capturing it in the pages. It was also so important because I didn’t want — there’s a lot of queer memoirs. I love queer memoirs because I’m a queer person. I love reading about other people’s lived experiences. There are so many queer memoirs that center on sex. They feel very sexual in nature. Part of the queer existence is that your sexuality is the defiance. It is the political statement. So many queer memoirs focus on sex. I didn’t want this to be a book like that. I wanted it to be more, maybe, welcoming to people who don’t want to read something that is sexually charged, but there has to be an element of confronting the relationship between gay men and their sexuality and the ways that that shows up in violent fashion, in insecure fashion, the way we use sex as an outlet to seek validation from men because we didn’t get it from our fathers. All of these things are very complex. I wanted to approach it. It felt like the Ben story had to be in there, as much as I wrestled with how to tell it. I grappled with the idea that my grandma is going to read that. She’s never heard that story before. It really felt like it needed to be in there if I was being honest about my journey to where I’ve gotten today.

Zibby: How did your family handle it when they read it?

Brandon: We’ve not talked about that particular story in the book, but the reception from my family has really blown me away. Again, you put your first work into the world, and you don’t know how people are going to respond. You don’t know if anyone’s going to read it, first of all. You put it out there, and you hope people will read it. There’s all of those things. I think if no one else read this book, the fact that my family has read it and given me glowing reviews is probably the only thing I needed out of this process. My stepmom was so enamored and overcome after she read the book that she actually flew here for the first time and spent a week with me here in Florida just to rekindle our relationship. My dad, who you know has a really interesting arc in the book, sent me a beautiful note that essentially said, I’m proud of you. I don’t know if he used those words. Those are very rare words for him. It basically said, I’m proud of you. Then the one that really struck me is the one that I posted on Instagram, which is that my grandmother read it. I’ve never come out to her before. This was my coming out to my grandmother. She said a lot of really beautiful things, but the words that hit home for me were, “We loved you then, and we love you now.” If I get no other reviews on this book, my dad’s review and my stepmom’s review and my grandma’s review, those are the ones that matter most.

Zibby: This literally makes me want to cry, this whole thing. Not that it matters what our parents ultimately — we’re all adults in the world now. That searching for validation, the fact that your dad in particular, after so letting you down in different situations, oh, my gosh, could even come around to — anyway.

Brandon: He has been on such a journey. We still don’t agree on a lot of things. We probably never will. I am so proud of him for the amount of growth that he has had over the last ten-plus years. He’s really a totally different person than the person I grew up with.

Zibby: The fact that you’re so generous and can say that and be proud of him, oh, my gosh, it’s amazing. Wow. In addition to all of the things that happened to you and your search for place and home and all of that, then to talk about not just losing your friends in this very public thing — I lost my college roommate and best friend on 9/11, so I’ve been sort of a part of when something so personal to you becomes also a national thing that everybody talks about all the time. How do you reconcile being a part of a national crisis situation and yet protecting those individuals and making sure that they get their due so that we get to know people like Drew and we get to experience your relationship and your deep love and where that came from? Yet also, you give us this inside look into something we’ve heard about but, of course, had never been on the inside of. Tell me more about that and how it felt to write this and what people should know and anything you want to say about that.

Brandon: One of the things I’ve said over the last seven years that it took me a while to realize was that I am not the protagonist in my story. I think Drew is the protagonist in my story. I’m just the messenger. I’m just the person who gets to share the best parts of him with the rest of the world. I came to that realization because when you lose someone that you love that much, that is really truly family to you, you go through a lot of emotions. You go through grief and anger. There’s a moment that I have with God in a church that cuts at the core of everything that I believed as a child. There’s so many things that you’re going through. The most unexpected emotion for me was fear. You’re afraid you’re going to forget them. You save old voicemails so you remember how they sounded when they picked up the phone. You save old T-shirts so you remember how they smelled when they walked in the room. I was also deeply afraid that Drew and his partner Juan would be reduced to names on a wall somewhere, that they would just be part of this public spectacle, they would be two more names on America’s list of gun violence victims, and that people would never really get to know them. They would just be two more queer people that were killed in that bar. Part of the last seven years has been me setting out to make people understand what they meant to the world not just because of how they died, but because of how they lived.

That, for me, was the most important part of telling the Pulse story. I have to take you into the club that night. I have to help walk you through the truly horrific circumstances that surrounded the shooting, but the most important part was helping people understand who was stolen from us, giving them real humanity and depth so that you can almost hear their laughter or see their smiles. I had someone tell me today that after they read the Drew chapter, they actually googled him so that they could see what he looked like because they were so interested to know more about Drew. That, for me, was the most important part of telling the Pulse story. Perhaps, if it’s not Grandma’s review, I think the best review I’ve gotten was someone saying, it’s interesting that though it’s a memoir, it doesn’t really feel like it’s about you. At the end of the day, it felt like it was about Drew. That’s the best review that someone could give me because that’s the hope of telling the Pulse story, is that people get to know Drew the way I knew him.

Zibby: I do think he is a central character. I would argue it’s about you, but he is definitely a central cast member. We do get to know him. I did the same thing. I went on your Instagram. I was like, oh, my gosh, let me see these guys. Who is ? You just want more once you read it. You give us this introduction. Capturing the life of those that we’ve lost, there is this compulsion, I feel. It’s like, no, but here’s who they are specifically. Who else but us to tell the stories? Where are the stories going if — you know. I’m so sorry that you lost Drew and Juan, even though you were a little jealous of him and whatever. Clearly, the importance and the huge place he had in your heart, you don’t get over that. You just find a new way to live with it. I’m really, really sorry. I bet he would be so proud of you for writing this book too and would be posting on Instagram about it as well as your grandma.

Brandon: Thank you. I hope so. I really hope so. His mom sent me a beautiful text late last night just congratulating me and saying that she hopes that he is proud, wherever he is.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s all so heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I don’t want to dwell on the negative. Not the negative, but you know what I mean, the sadness. Your story is also one of complete resilience and overcoming and fighting for what’s right. Now you’ve become an activist. There you are with Obama. It’s amazing. I know that was at the time. You’re on the news now all the time. You’re fighting the good fight. Tell me about how you see your role now in the world, and your place. If that was A Place for Us, what is the place for you?

Brandon: I feel really honored to be able to do this work every single day. People ask me, what’s a typical day like? I’m now working at Equality Florida full time. I tell them I have the distinct honor of telling our stories, of making sure that every time LGBTQ people are in a conversation, that we’re at that table too, that our lived experiences are centered. I get to help people learn how to tell their stories in a compelling way. I get to help shape the way our state and sometimes the country are talking about both the queer community and the issue of gun violence. I just feel really honored to be able to do that. I see my place in the world so much differently after Pulse than I did before. Before Pulse, it was really about finding my lane and my sense of normal, the kind of normal that I believed people like us don’t deserve and were never going to be afforded in the world, finding that sense of normal and then just riding it off into retirement. What happened in the wake of Pulse and discovering this new voice or purpose or strength, for me, has unlocked a different kind of obligation that I have to the community. It’s not good enough for me to just live that sense of normal and ride it off into retirement. I have to reach back and give other people, the next generation, an opportunity to experience that sense of normal too. That feels like the place for me in the world, is fighting day in and day out so that the next generation of me doesn’t have to run away from home to find a sense of belonging because home feels like where they belong to. I feel really honored to be able to do that work every day.

Zibby: It’s so funny, Florida has been in the news nonstop with all of its not particularly generous policies. How are you reconciling that? Maybe you’re in the exact right place to deal with that.

Brandon: First of all, Florida has been my home for fifteen years. They’ve going to have to pry the white sandy beaches from my fingers because it’s my Florida too. I live here. It’s my home. I tell people I moved to Barack Obama’s Florida, not Ron DeSantis’s Florida. They’re very different. It was a different time in 2008. It was a different vibe in the state of Florida. Things really are very challenging, but where else would I be but on the front line? I couldn’t imagine, let’s say, living in San Francisco or Los Angeles and watching from afar, what’s happening to my chosen home and not be a part of fighting back and helping build a solution. I would say, number one, I think in the end, we’re going to win the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. We’re going to win the fight against gun violence because we’re right. I also think that the right-wing backlash we’re experiencing in Florida is a lagging indicator of where society is. They’re fighting so hard because they already lost the culture war. They’re trying to scratch back whatever power they can have. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. There’s no world where Gen Z or Gen Alpha don’t have access to TikTok and don’t know that queer people exist. It’s just never going to happen. I think we’re going to win. I think that is inevitable, that we’ll win the fight for equality. The question is, how can we create moments of oasis and safety for people along the way as opponents to that equality do incredible amounts of damage? That is the hard work. It’s getting people access to the health care they need when it’s being ripped away by the government. It’s giving people access to classrooms that treat them with dignity and respect when there are people banning books left and right. That’s the really hard work. At the end of the day, I think we’ll be successful. I think we’ll win. I think we can reimagine not just Florida for everyone, but I think we can reimagine a country that’s inclusive of everyone too.

Zibby: Have you thought about running for office, being in politics? Have you?

Brandon: Maybe. We’ll see. For now, we’re going to sell books. Then we’ll see what comes next.

Zibby: You have my vote.

Brandon: Thank you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re such a great speaker. It gives me hope. Really exciting. Very exciting. I feel like I can ask this because I know you from reading your book, but I probably shouldn’t be prying. Are you in a relationship now? Do you feel like you’re in a good place? Do you have somebody special?

Brandon: I’m not in a relationship, but I do have a beautiful chosen family, many of whom, by the way, are connected to Drew in some way. We may not have known each other beforehand. I’m thinking of people like Sara Grossman, who I note in the credits. Is that what you call it where you’re crediting people?

Zibby: Acknowledgments?

Brandon: Yeah, acknowledgments. There we go. Sara is a friend that was really close with Drew in college. Then she lives in Denver, so we never got a chance to meet while he was around. In the wake of the tragedy, she helped establish The Dru Project in his honor. We’ve become really close since then. Drew’s legacy continues to be the chosen family that surrounds me. I feel really honored to have them. They’re a great support system. Maybe someone special comes along at some point. For now, my chosen family is just perfect.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s really great. It’s wonderful. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors now that you’ve written a memoir on top of everything else?

Brandon: Just write. That’s the hardest part. I remember the elation when my publisher, Little A, said, “Yes, we’ll buy the book. We want you to write it. We think it’s going to be great.” I had that moment of pure joy. I called everybody and let them know. Then the panic set in. I’m like, oh, my god, I have to write a book. I don’t know how to write a book, so I should probably figure out how to do that. I called my friend Joy Reid. I called Chasten Buttigieg. I started asking people who I knew had written a book. Can you teach me how to write a book? The best piece of advice that came from all of them was, just write. If you’ve been thinking that you have a story worth sharing, if you’ve been thinking that there’s something out there you want to tell the world, just write it. You’ll be surprised how many people will relate to the things that you have to share. Every time people pull something from the book and take away some little insight, I’m surprised that they found that part of the story the most relatable. It’s a good surprise. If you’re an aspiring author, if you have something to share with the world, I say just write it.

Zibby: Little A is my publisher too, by the way.

Brandon: Yay, that’s awesome.

Zibby: Is your editor Carmen?

Brandon: Carmen was on my original proposal call. She was in the beginning of the process, but my editor is Selena James. She’s been incredible.

Zibby: Amazing. I’ve had the best experience with them. Really awesome.

Brandon: They’ve been awesome. They’ve been so supportive. I couldn’t say enough good things about my experience with them.

Zibby: Brandon, thank you for talking to me. I’m so impressed. I’m so moved. I can’t wait to watch what you do next. How can people who have read your book or heard this episode help you the most? Aside from reading the book and following you, is there some cause? What can we do?

Brandon: First of all, as you mentioned, just share the book. I think the more people that can read the story and relate to it and hopefully be inspired to find hope in the world right now, that’s the most important thing. Then for me, the other important part is finding a cause, finding an organization, finding a lane to be an advocate for the things you’re passionate about. So many people come to me and say, I don’t know where to start. I need a road map. I need a to-do list to help me get started in my fight for advocacy. The truth is you have everything you need right now. All you have to do is figure out, what is the thing I’m most passionate about? How can I add value to the community around me? Dive in feet first. Start volunteering. That’s what I did. I started volunteering for queer organizations. I started volunteering for gun safety organizations. Just start volunteering. Pitch in a few bucks if you can. Buy a T-shirt from your favorite organization, and wear it around. Start going to local government meetings, city council meetings, and school board meetings. Be involved in the community around you. You’ll find, once again, as soon as you dive in with both feet, that that’s exactly where you were supposed to be, that your voice is needed in that conversation, and that you can make immense amounts of change even just being one individual person. I don’t know what that organization is for you. I don’t know what that cause is for you. Whatever it is, dive in feet first.

Zibby: Amazing. By the way, do you know David Ambroz?

Brandon: That sounds really familiar.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you have to meet him. You have to read his book. It’s called A Place Called Home. No, it’s not. Yeah. Something like — oh, my gosh, this is so embarrassing. It was literally my favorite book last year. Anyway, I’m going to put you on email together.

Brandon: Please.

Zibby: You will love his book. There’s a very similar scene as one we discussed earlier. He is now a big advocate. You have to know each other. He’s awesome.

Brandon: I would love that.

Zibby: I’ll put you in touch. A Place Called Home, I swear that’s what it’s called. You two could do an event. If you ever come to LA, I have a bookstore in LA. He’s out here. I feel like the two of you should be in conversation at my bookstore. Would you have any interest?

Brandon: I would love that. Oh, yeah, I would love that.

Zibby: Let’s do that.

Brandon: Totally make that happen.

Zibby: Amazing. Brandon, have a great day. Thank you so much.

Brandon: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Brandon: Bye.

A PLACE FOR US: A Memoir by Brandon J. Wolf

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