By Brett Yancey
How Christine Leinonen has turned the loss of her son in the Pulse tragedy into something beautiful
On June 12th, Christine Leinonen got the news that no parent should ever have to receive. Her son, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, and his partner, Juan Ramon Guerrero, were among those killed at Pulse nightclub. As the one-year anniversary of the horrific Pulse tragedy approaches, Christine sat down with Hotspots to talk about that night, the loss of her son and how the biggest mass shooting attack in U.S. history has changed not only “The City Beautiful” but her world.
Q: Christine, how are you coping with your loss?
A: I am coping with losing my only dear son, Christopher, by doing things that give me meaning and purpose. Of course, I grieve, lightly at times and other times with great difficulty. With the horrific nature, however, sometimes I simply have to be in a state of denial. The pain that the reality of my son’s death is potentially so severe, that to cope means to distract or busy myself. It’s hard to comprehend the level of evil it took for one person to kill and injure so many, so deliberately. But for the most part, I try to turn my son’s energy into good works. By doing that I’m turning the grief into good. I’ve been speaking out to give my son, whose voice was silenced, a voice. I have not only been a gay-rights advocate, but an activist. Being a part of theDruProject.org has been tremendously helpful in my gay activism. ‘’ve also become a gun safety advocate. I’ve been speaking out in favor of common-sense gun protections.
Q: One year later, what is your perspective of this tragedy?
A: One year later, I am very proud of the victims, families of victims, and friends of victims, who have turned our tragedy in a mission to not only survive, but to thrive in defiance of the evil. Some are going back to school for new careers, some are becoming political, some are becoming voices with various media, some are starting non-profits, some are becoming religiously active, writing books, getting tattoos, writing songs/raps. [There are] many different ways to heal. However, the pain is still there. The reality that my son will not see the new Disney Star Wars movie, or go to the ride at Magic Kingdom, or get married, or laugh or dance ever, ever again, is heartbreaking. During those times, I cry, or just rest and relax and feel the pain, then move forward, once that feeling passes. I know at the end of that pain, is a rainbow, and beyond that rainbow is a pot of gold. The feelings I get when I work through the grief are pretty wonderful. I get to see how it’s very probable that there will not be 284 victims and their loved ones in sadness, but 284 victims and their loved ones full of success and a renewed vigor for life. The killer succeeded in our loss of 49 loved ones and I want to do whatever I can to insure that no one else is lost as a result of his evil.
Q: If you could ask one question to the killer of these innocent lives, including your son’s, what would it be?
A: I don’t have anything to say to the killer. I don’t think it’s even a good idea to address him in any fashion. Many of these mass shootings are a result of giving the killers notoriety. That’s what they want… attention, saying their name, becoming infamous. Even my son’s killer mentioned the Boston Bomber when he was on the phone with the police. That makes it clear that he was seeking that same notoriety. I’ve adopted the Aurora victims’ loved ones position and I don’t address the killer in any way, shape or form. I don’t want to see any other families go through the pain of losing their loved one in a mass shooting because that future shooter was trying to emulate the Pulse shooter.
Q: How well has Orlando handled this tragedy in terms of response and support?
A: The businesses of Orlando have been the best, most generous, kindest possible. Starting with the Baldwin Funeral Home that was so protective and giving my son and his friends a respectful, safe space to show their last respects. St. Luke’s in downtown Orlando, again so beautiful and protective space for our services. The parishioners all came out to volunteer to make sure my son’s services were second-to-none. Then, you can’t say enough about Disney, Olive Garden, Starbucks and JetBlue, just to name a few of the big companies who came out in force to donate to the victims and their families. It was awesome! Whenever people ask me about how they can give I always say, instead of giving to a charity that may or may not be legitimate, just take your grandma to Olive Garden, or buy your kids Disney toys, or go to Disney World, buy your neighbor a cup of coffee, or fly JetBlue. Just patronize the businesses that give back during a community tragedy, get a great product and let the companies donate when needed.
Q: There are children out there who have been abandoned by their parents–rejected and cast out–because they are LGBT. You embraced your gay child! What words would you say to parents who discover their children are gay?
A: To think there are parents in this world who don’t love their children exactly as they are is heartbreaking. The best advice I could give any parent is to love your child, period. They will grow up to be adults one day, and I can assure you, that if you live long enough, you will regret it if you did not provide your child with a safe and loving home… especially, if their personality is a little spicy, because they are gay or creative, or special, you will love them even more when they are young adults. The last couple of years of Christopher’s life I told him while I loved him as a child, and as a gay child, I grew to love him even more as an adult. Instead of the boring adult children of some of my friends, I had this vibrant, interesting, goofy, great kid. He was spicy!
Q: What has been the response to the Dru Project you have received?
A: The Dru Project (thedruproject.org) has been growing and growing and has become this beautiful tribute and legacy of a great human being. Chris was kind, inclusive, giving, caring and fun. That’s the meaning of the Dru Project. It exemplifies his spirit. We hope to set up a role model Gay-Straight Alliance that can be replicated statewide or nationwide and pass through any school board’s scrutiny. And we are giving the first $1000.00 scholarship at our Launch Party at the Abbey on June 11, 2017, from 6-midnight. So, we will not only have a model to use for any other school wishing to start up a GSA, we will be giving scholarships twice a year to students who are either gay or straight, but are inclusive designed. We know that high schools that have clubs like a GSA have zero teenage suicides! Teenagers need a place to fit in as they are growing from being children to adults. And they are all growing into a new world of sexuality. The worse thing we could do is to make them feel weird. So, the solution is to accept all and let them all feel like they are not only accepted, but loved and safe.
Q: Besides the Dru Project, can you name some good that has come out of this terrible tragedy? Not just in Orlando but all over?
A: Lots of good has come out of this tragedy. The gay community has activated not just to provide a safe gay area, or align with straight allies, but to demand protection. Our resistance, shown across the globe, is telling the world that we, as a people, will not go back. We are moving forward, with or without our governments. That we, the people of the world, own this planet. And we decide our rules and how we want our futures to evolve. It’s impressive to watch how active everyone has become.
Q: You have accomplished so much in this past year…speaking at the Democratic National Committee, confronting Marco Rubio at a town hall discussion, the creation of the Dru Project… Do you think your son would be proud?
A: My son would be mind-blown at everything that has happened since his death. Speaking about him at the DNC, when before he died, he remarked to a friend at a gay wedding that he wondered if his mom, who he had never seen done any public speaking, would be able to give a toast to him at his own wedding. Or for him to learn that his own selfie doodles, ending up on his shirt design with his image in the Love Is Love comic book, in the middle of super heroes!