Centering Queer Joy Is Hard Right Now—But It’s Also Never Been More Important

Photo: Courtesy Sara Elizabeth Grossman; Graphic: W+G Creative
To me, the vibe of Pride Month feels very different this year than it has in the past. Frankly, it's difficult to think about the joy of being queer when so many states are attacking the queer community by banning gender-affirming care for adults and minors, criminalizing drag performances, and even trying to erase our experiences from school curriculums and library shelves. But one thing that I keep coming back to regarding my own queer joy is the concept of chosen family.

When you grow up “different,” which is how I often felt as a young queer person in Florida, you may feel out of place in your family of origin. You may feel like you have nothing in common with the people you are pushed to spend time with at school, and that you can only find refuge in certain spaces. For me, refuge looked like sneaking into the guest room at my parents' house to watch But I’m a Cheerleader with my other not-yet-out queer friends, sitting at an LGBTQ+ coffee shop for hours, and sitting with the Diversity Awareness Club at lunch on Wednesdays. My Florida high school technically didn’t allow us to have a Gay-Straight Alliance club (GSA), so we were a club by another name—but everybody knew. The Diversity Awareness Club included me and my merry band of not-yet-fully-out bisexual friends, a couple allies who practiced Wicca, and a theater kid or two.

We were diverse enough. More importantly? We chose each other.

When I got to college, I was able to really spread my wings as a young LGBTQ+ person and create a chosen family. I went to queer bars that held weekly college nights for those of us who were underage, and I got involved in GSA.

This is where I met Drew. The first day of the first meeting of our GSA at the University of Central Florida, he and his roommate walked up to me, introduced themselves, and then just said, “We should be friends.” It was a suggestion, not a request.

Yes, we should be.

To know Drew was to know joy. Drew introduced me to pop-cultural tidbits I had never known about before—Dance Dance Revolution, the annual Eurovision Song Contest, obscure YouTube videos that I still watch today. He included me in his diverse collection of friends that he picked up in different phases of his life, but never discarded.

He would walk with a bounce in his step. He would hum “mmm” while hugging you, as if he were using extra senses to express his love. He would dance like a maniac without caring how he looked to anybody else. He would hype up his friends because to him, friendship was romantic. To know Drew was to know authenticity and love in the greatest capacity.

Unfortunately, I lost Drew, along with 48 others the night of June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Reclaiming queer joy after tragedy

Pulse had been a safe space for so many of us. It was a true offshoot of our education, with drag show performances including the likes of Detox, Ginger Minj, and Roxxxy Andrews—all before RuPaul’s Drag Race was a mainstream hit.

But in a few moments, a crazed man with enough ammo to take down an army squadron entered the club and fired off round after round after round. Drew’s boyfriend Juan made it to the hospital only because Drew shielded him on the dance floor and took nine bullets himself. We lost both of them that night, nonetheless.

The days following this news left me bereft. In shock. Like a piece of me had been taken away. I didn’t know who I would be in the inevitable next phase of my life. I felt as though my queer joy was snuffed out and couldn’t come back.

I was wrong, though.

If not for pushing my pain into positive change, I may still be in bed mourning the loss of my friend.

Shortly after returning home from Drew’s funeral, I joined forces with several friends of his in Orlando and launched The Dru Project—an organization to honor him, named after his online moniker. So far, we’ve given out almost $200,000 in college scholarships for queer youth, and given $15,000 in grants to help people form Gay-Straight Alliances—work that was near and dear to Drew’s heart. We’ve also helped distribute the most comprehensive Gay-Straight Alliance guide in the world (co-written by Drew himself, thanks to some notes he had kept filed away on his computer) to help schools set up their own groups.

In many ways, this work has saved my life. If not for pushing my pain into positive change, I may still be in bed mourning the loss of my friend. I’ve found purpose from this work, starting with The Dru Project, to my volunteering with Everytown for Gun Safety to help the new crops of gun violence survivors tell their stories, to the work I was privileged to do for the Matthew Shepard Foundation for three years, to working with queer artists. And leaning into my identity, in spite of the violence and hate that people like me face every day, has been its own form of joy.

In a lot of ways, this work has also expanded my chosen family. I am proud to call some of The Dru Project’s scholars my friends. In fact, I just helped one of them move to Colorado (where I now live) from Florida to escape transphobic the state has recently passed. I stay up-to-date on the work our other scholars are doing with their own advocacy and can proudly say that they are changing the discourse of politics in this country. And who do I have to thank for bringing all of these incredible people into my life? Drew. That is the lens through which I choose to see my life. Just as he did while he was alive, he continues connecting people.

Centering queer joy during pride (and beyond)

During this month, in addition to honoring my friend and those we lost at Pulse, I make sure to center joy, because that’s what Drew would have done. I always celebrate a little extra by uplifting my chosen family of talented friends—all the incredible LGBTQ+ people making society better through their activism, work, and art.

I put on “Glistening” by Grace DeVine—a song I helped write about the nonbinary experience and being joyfully queer. I tell people to read my friend Brandon Wolf’s book, A Place for Us, which is about his experience learning to love himself at all intersections of his persona, thanks to our mutual friend Drew. (I only met Brandon after Drew’s passing, and I treasure how we can keep pieces of him alive together.)

In a world where there are hundreds of laws seeking to push our community back into the shadows, I find that our queer joy is resistance. It’s light.

I support local drag performers, like my friend Jessica L’Whor, someone who has been doing drag for a decade now and continues to shine in the face of adversity while supporting community initiatives. And I try to amplify the voices of people like Sarah Todd, who is creating a space for queer musicians to place their music commercially, and who recently placed a song with Apple during Pride Month (and was announced by the company's openly-gay CEO)

This chosen family of mine continues to uplift the voices of the marginalized while making splashes of their own. Our successes are shared as a community, and I am proud to be able to revel in the accomplishments I see these wonderful humans achieve.

In a world where there are hundreds of laws seeking to push our community back into the shadows, I find that our queer joy is resistance. It’s light. I find that our community is brave and strong and resilient. The space we create for each other is safe and sacred. I welcome the friends I have had since I was young and those I met this weekend at Denver’s Pridefest alike with open arms, just like Drew welcomed me into his all of those years ago. I cherish that you are a part of my journey and I can’t wait to cheer yours on, as well.

The arc of justice is long. I know that we, as a community, are in the thick of our fight, but in this case, I see the arc as a rainbow. How could I not?

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