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Op-Ed: I Didn’t Cry for Orlando—Until I Heard Christine Leinonen Speak

Christine DNC
AP Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Our failure to pass common-sense gun reform had a face and a voice last night. And we can’t ignore her message.

Last month, I spent a week in Orlando reporting on the mass shooting at Pulse. I spoke to victims. I stood among the vigils where church bells rang and candles flickered. I watched from a distant table at my hotel, Parliament House, as queer men and women cried, embraced, and cursed the heavy, moist Florida night.

During the seven days I spent in that mourning city, I never once cried myself. I was trained for this. As a journalist, I had covered fires, murders, sexual assaults. Reporters know our job--to authentically retell the story. To speak for those who can't.

A month later, on my couch, I watched Christine Leinonen take the stage in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. I remembered her instantly. I remembered her impassioned pleas to find her son, Drew, in the aftermath of the attack--only to learn her son and his boyfriend had perished along with 47 others that awful June night.

I clutched a pillow and held my breath.

"It takes about five minutes for a church bell to ring 49 times," she said.

And then, the tears came.

I wasn't the staunchly detached reporter I told myself I was. I was a scared, gay son, listening to a mother spell out in unforgiving detail the sharpest grief--the grief of a parent who has lost her only child.

Related: Couple Killed in Orlando Planned to Marry, Now Will Have Joint Funeral

Only after she spoke did I finally realize that I could be Drew, or Juan, or any of the dozens of dead or injured that night in Orlando. My own mother could have been screaming helplessly into a careless night looking for me. My own mother, who told me when I was born that she prayed for two angels--one at my head, one at feet--to protect me, could have mounted some platform to tell the world how her son died because cowards could not be bothered to put in the work to save lives.

What else can we call the men and women of Congress, but cowards? Shooting after shooting, death after death, they have prayed and moralized--and done nothing. They pass no new gun laws, even as the epidemic spreads across every single dividing line in American society today. Take stock of all the victims in the past years. White, black, gay, straight, man, woman, Christian, Muslim, officer, civilian. From children to presidents, no one is safe from gun violence in this country.

The weight of this domestic gun violence, this uniquely American curse, now weighs so heavy on our hearts that even detached, unbiased reporters like me can hardly type the words to describe it without a sense of hopelessness. Can a Hillary Clinton presidency deliver the common-sense gun laws that could lift this curse, as Christine Leinonen believes? I honestly don't know.

And that's the scariest part. A grieving mother who left me in tears for my queer brothers and sisters now dead a month still could not fully convince me that America might see a future free from gun violence. I grieved with her; I cried with her. But was I ready to hope with her?

It only takes five minutes for a church bell to ring 49 times. How long, I wondered, alone in a dark Brooklyn apartment, will it take for us to feel safe again?

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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