Less than a year has passed since an armed gunman killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history. The attack sent shockwaves throughout the country, particularly in our LGBTQ community, as we collectively tried in a post-marriage equality world to make sense of such a heinous hate crime and act of domestic terrorism.
Fear and sadness gripped those living outside of Orlando, and while their feelings were no doubt legitimate, they paled in comparison to the pain of families and friends who lost loved ones that night—mothers like Christine Leinonen, whose son Christopher “Drew,” along with his boyfriend Juan Guerrero, did not make it out alive.
OUT recently spoke with Leinonen about President Donald Trump, the need for parents to fully affirm their LGBTQ children, and how she’s turned her personal tragedy into action.
OUT: Less than a year ago, a gunman took the life of your son, Chris, and since then you’ve become an outspoken advocate for stronger gun safety measures. In light of your situation, what’s driven you to turn a tragedy into a cause that goes beyond your own grief?
Christine Leinonen: Even before I knew my son was among those killed, I recognized that an assault weapon was used, that it would be a mass shooting, and that I would join the club of those affected by mass shootings in this country, no matter what. It's a reality that everyone in this country lives with because we’ve all heard about and talked about mass shootings. I even talked about Sandy Hook, Aurora and Columbine with Chris, and then he became a victim himself.
That's how prevalent the problem is. It's an American epidemic, and I feel obligated to bring this national health crisis to the public. In time, I believe there will be a mass movement of common sense citizens who will demand changes to our out of control gun problem, not unlike common sense smoking or Mothers Against Drunk Driving laws that changed over time in our society.
President Trump recently signed an executive order that does away with an Obama administration regulation aimed at preventing people with severe mental illnesses from purchasing guns. What do you make of Mr. Trump’s decision?
I'm not expecting much from the big gun manufacturers that control our executive and legislative branches. Even though 80 percent of Americans are in favor of common sense gun laws, we can't seem to break through the big money gun manufacturers that control our government, despite the will of the people. Again, it’s akin to the stronghold big tobacco had on the U.S. for decades, but eventually—if you remember—we moved towards common sense smoking laws. People are fed up with greater numbers of gun deaths, and politicians aren’t listening to the people. So I keep speaking up and telling Chris' story so that it’ll help the common sense movement grow, so that eventually we’ll see some actual change.
Our president seems to think that our best safety plan is to ban people from certain countries—what many agree is a ban on Muslims—and to build a wall on the Mexican border. Yet most injuries and deaths in this country happen because of guns. Imagine if we didn’t allow the mentally ill to get weapons. Imagine if we banned high-powered weapons with high capacity clips. What if we didn’t let people with domestic violence records purchase weapons? We’d all be safer.
At his recent address, Mr. Trump brought [up] families of two slain deputies who were killed by an undocumented immigrant, and he mentioned crime in Chicago and talked about the risks from ISIS-inspired attacks. But stronger gun regulation could help curtail all three of those dangers because they’re all gun related. Trump would rather spend billions of our tax dollars to build a wall, increase the number of customs agents, and enlarge our military, which is already the biggest in the world. Why spend tax money on those things and still have an epidemic of gun violence, especially when gun laws will cost less and [can] be reasonably effective?
You recently attended the president’s speech to the joint session of Congress. What was that experience like, and—as a mother of a son killed by gun violence, as an ally and advocate of the LGBTQ community—what’s your take on the Trump administration’s agenda, particularly as it relates to rhetoric about Pulse and LGBTQ rights?
I loved going and seeing the Democrats in Congress stand in solidarity against Trump. All the Democrats brought interesting guests. There was the surgeon from the Orlando hospital who worked on and saved most of the gunshot victims from the Pulse shooting; a doctor from Flint, Michigan, who discovered the high level of lead in children; the police chief from Newtown, CT, where first graders were slaughtered.
Trump wants to use Pulse as a reason to attack Muslims, you see. And while the killer was a jihadist wannabe—a man who knew little about jihad, given that he pledged allegiance to two fighting factions—he was also a born and raised American who legally bought the high-powered weapon and high capacity clips from an American gun store. And until he walked into that gun-free zone and massacred so many gay, Latino young adults, he didn’t break any American laws.
Unlike Trump and other politicians, I see the killing as a hate crime, multiplied in severity because of our nonexistent gun restrictions. Sure hatred was high, and sure there was a thinly veiled ISIL rationale, but he grew up in America where there’s easy access to weapons.
What do you say to people who oppose full LGBTQ equality, and what kind of advice do you have for parents with LGBTQ children, especially those who may struggle with their children being LGBTQ?
Anything less than full equality is unacceptable. Period. And parents, well, parents must love their children regardless of their sexuality. Children are meant to be treasured. So often they love their parents unconditionally, and so we owe it to them as parents to do the same, especially those who may struggle with being gay in a world where they’re sometimes told that’s not okay.
As they get older, you’ll be so happy you loved them as they were and let them grow into their own. You will see that their personalities got cooler, and you’ll enjoy them as adults in ways you may not have otherwise. Let them go, let them grow, and have fun with them.
After massive shootings in the U.S., we've often heard politicians offer their "thoughts and prayers" to the victims' families, but a common critique is that those same politicians do little in terms of making policy to help prevent future shootings. As a victim's mother, what are your thoughts on this?
It's ridiculous that our politicians are bought and paid for by the NRA and big gun manufacturers. The second amendment wants and demands that we are "well-regulated." And we have regulations already. We don't let 5-year-olds buy guns. No one can buy a machine gun. Convicted felons can't possess guns. This is part of what it means to be well-regulated. So why aren't we banning high-powered weapons with high capacity clips?
When the two planes flew into the Twin Towers and 3,000 people died, we immediately developed the TSA, and we changed how we board planes and what can be brought onto planes. Lots and lots of laws were put into place that now keep us safer. Yet, mass shooting after mass shooting—nothing changes. In fact, our solution is just the opposite. We are allowing more guns in more places. And we are getting less and less safe. Imagine if that was our response after 9/11. Just let more weapons on more planes. Instead of no planes being hijacked since 2001, we'd be having one hijacking after another. But we don't because we’ve created tighter laws, and as a result of those laws, we are all now safer. It’s not a complicated formula.
March is Women’s History Month. You’re no doubt a woman on a mission and an inspiration to so many people. But who inspires you?
I'm inspired by the nameless women who collectively make things happen. They protest. They march. They are allies to what is human—loving, nurturing and intolerant of people who hurt or abuse those less fortunate or vulnerable.
A.J. Walton is a senior communications manager for North America at Change.org. In the past, he’s written on race, life as a gay man, and theology.