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Being an activist for gun control took a toll on X Gonzalez, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. -- but Gonzalez remains committed to the cause.
Gonzalez is now a graduate of New College in Florida and is back home with their parents. They came out as nonbinary in college and changed their first name to X, partly in honor of civil rights icon Malcolm X. They detailed their activist history in an essay published recently in The Cut, a blog of New York magazine.
Gonzalez became famous nationally with a speech at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale shortly after the shooting, in which 17 people were killed and another 17 injured. "Every single person up here today, all these people should be at home grieving," they said in the speech, broadcast live on CNN. "But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see. ... We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we're going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because ... we are going to be the last mass shooting."
Their name began trending on Twitter, and they heard from celebrities and ordinary citizens, they wrote in The Cut. "I was a senior in high school, waiting on college acceptances, and suddenly I was a voice in the fight for gun control," Gonzalez noted.
Many strangers approached Gonzalez at various times and places, making the student feel like "a living relic," Gonzalez wrote. "I'm an empathetic person, and I had no idea how to guard myself, how to turn away and toward myself," they noted.
Gonzalez and their fellow student activists went on to organize the March for Our Lives and a national tour. "On the tour, I started to shut down," Gonzalez recalled. "I ended up going to four funerals throughout 2018, and only one of them was because of the shooting. I kept my breakdowns to myself, silently sobbing whenever my emotions overcame me. At some point it even became hard to cry."
Dealing with pro-gun protesters became difficult, Gonzalez related; it was rewarding when there was civil dialogue, but just seeing the weapons they carried turned out to be overwhelming.
Gonzalez was able to step back and have a "normal college life" at New College, thanks in part to someone who sent out a campus-wide email and urged everyone to allow Gonzalez that. The college is queer-friendly and an ideal space to change one's name and pronouns, they wrote. "I settled on X (inspired by Malcolm X) and realized in the process that the reason I didn't like being known as Emma is partially because that person belongs to the public but also partially because it's such a feminine name," Gonzalez remarked in the essay. "I realized then that I'm nonbinary."
Eventually, Gonzalez was ready to be an activist again, joining protests and speaking at the 2022 March for Our Lives. They continue to encourage others to become involved in the fight against gun violence, and they summed up their own work and that of their March for Our Lives colleagues as follows:
"Even as I feel conflicted about my time on tour and how much of myself I gave to the movement, it's nice to know that the work we did with MFOL led to the creation of 278 stricter gun laws all over the country, including in my home state. ... The status quo that the NRA had spent more than 150 years pushing for was thrown out the window by some meddling kids. This causes me no shortage of pride."