My name is Sara Grossman, and on June 12, 2016 I lost one of my best friends — Drew Leinonen —at the Pulse nightclub shooting. I remember that day so viscerally. First finding out that a place where we spent so much together had been assaulted. Then waiting to hear from him. Then losing hope. And finally, after a full painstaking day, finding out that he and 48 others were gone. I’ve worked day in and day out ever since to make sure he is never forgotten and his legacy continues on.
I’ve done that through my tenure at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, through helping launch a nonprofit in Drew’s name, and speaking out on the gun violence epidemic as a fellow with Everytown for Gun Safety.
Drew was a spectacular human. He was brilliant, bubbly, and everyone’s best friend. He was a therapist by trade, a graphic designer by hobby, and a really terrible dancer by sad coincidence. When he was in high school, he won the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for starting the first gay-straight alliance at his high school in Seminole, Fla. He continued his advocacy at the University of Central Florida by protesting against marriage inequality, participating in annual fundraisers for the school’s GSA, and by being a friend to all.
This is why I want him to be honored as often and as well as we can offer him and the other 48 people who lost their lives the night of June 12, 2016.
There is a lot of chatter within the Orlando and Pulse communities about the validity of a memorial going up where the nightclub currently sits. Community members and survivors have expressed concern about the cost and management of such a project. In fact, Drew’s own mother Christine is now leading a small but loud call to tear the building down, erase the decades of memories made there, and replace it with a few park benches. But I, for one, am all for a museum and official memorial. I know that extensive research, months of community input and compassionate thought were taken into consideration when planning what to do with the space, and we can’t let a couple of very loud dissenters dismantle the hard work that’s already been done.
My friend Drew Leinonen would have wanted a museum. Let me tell you why.
He loved pomp and circumstance. This line pops into my head as I recall Judy and Dennis Shepard discussing why it was important to honor their son Matthew the way he would have wanted by allowing the National Cathedral to have a public memorial service for his internment. Drew loved a good party. There is nobody in this universe who loved a uniquely themed event more than him. His birthday parties were the best of the best, complete with specially designed invitations. From “Dirty Disney” to “Reality TV Stars” to “How Many Drew Parties Have You Attended?” (complete with blank t-shirts for us to write the number). Most of my best college memories involve Drew and his parties.
He also loved a teachable moment. Drew was intersectional by nature. He was Japanese, German, Finnish, gay, a Gemini, and a plethora of other identities all rolled up into one bubbly, brilliant human. One of the priorities of the Pulse museum and memorial is to have space for other nonprofits to use for those teachable moments that Drew would have been sharing in if he were here. The Matthew Shepard Foundation will have a new space for when they are in town teaching law enforcement about hate crimes. The Zebra Coalition and The Dru Project will have a space for teaching educators and gay-straight alliance leaders how to start a club or help with tolerance training. The community will have a place to go when they are simply in need of a space to mourn.
Of course, with any project like this comes the need for management and maintenance. Which is why I also need to address those questioning Barbara Poma, Pulse nightclub owner and OnePulse Foundation Executive Director, and her salary. As someone who has worked in similarly sized nonprofit organizations, I’m here to tell you that $150,000 is absolutely on par for a CEO salary. This job will be demanding on many levels — emotionally, time-wise, and talent-wise. Barbara will be tasked with building something extraordinary. As for the topic of a gift shop, selling $25 t-shirts or $10 bumper magnets is a way for nonprofits and museums to make a little extra change for their programmatic efforts. Even the Holocaust Museum in D.C. has a gift shop and field trips to visit it. People often want something tangible to walk away with from an emotional and informative experience.
Finally, I would implore the press and folks outside of the community to stop giving the microphone to any one voice connected to this cause. So many of us lost someone that day — friends, children, siblings. No one will be happy with every single decision made regarding the museum, that’s just a fact. The important thing to keep in mind is what sort of legacy we want this tragedy to leave behind. For me, I want to honor Drew’s dedication to educating people and standing up for what’s right. This museum will help so many people grieve, learn, grow, and so much more.
As for the organization I helped start with several of Drew’s other friends, The Dru Project, I am so proud of what we have accomplished. We will continue to push forward with our leadership training and financial support for budding activists. We firmly believe that what we have built together would make Drew so proud. Empowering future leaders, combating bigotry, creating community spaces to teach inclusion — those are the values he lived for.
While I was leading communications efforts for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, I had a conversation with Barbara Poma about there being no physical memorial for Matt. She was disheartened to hear that to say the very least. Of course, now we have The Laramie Project and Considering Matthew Shepard. And 20 years later, he was memorialized at the National Cathedral. But up until then? You couldn’t visit the fence, and you couldn’t visit an official memorial. All that popped up was a bench with his name on it at the University of Wyoming because his parents were afraid any memorial would be vandalized. He deserved more, and so do the 49.
Whether the dissenters see it or not, this memorial and museum are more than just a reminder of the horror that happened on 6/12/16. It’s a memorial for all of the lost and fallen from the LGBTQ+ community, as well as for those who’ve been taken by gun violence. It’s a reminder that we have come so far from Stonewall and Shepard, but we still have a way to go. This memorial and museum will help guide us into that future fighting for justice, peace, and love. We will not let hate win.