It has been three days since I learned he was in danger. Two days since I learned he had left us. Eighteen years since I met him.
I have to keep rewriting this sentence: “Eighteen years since I met YOU.” Because it hasn’t set in that he is really gone.
Sometimes, we meet someone and choose them to be our friend. And other times, they choose us, recasting our fate.
I was 14 years old, sitting in an unfamiliar classroom in an unfamiliar school, surrounded by 2,500 unfamiliar faces. Drew turned around to size me up. He smiled. Those eyes — full of mischief, it seems, until his last day on earth. We had both been scribbling on the back of our Five-Star notebooks. His drawings were so much better than mine, and continued to be, indefinitely.
He looked at me in a way that let me know I’d passed some sort of unspoken test. I don’t know what he saw in me, or what we talked about. A love of drawing? Arbitrary locker assignments? I may have eaten lunch alone in the bathroom that day, but I left campus feeling like maybe I had made a friend. “Sit with me,” he said later, and so I did. Relief! My first friend.
I had no idea then how much he would change the course of my life.
As some have gleefully recalled in recent days, he became the de facto leader of our “merry band of misfits.” He was the Rufio of our Lost Boys, and not just because he resembled the handsome Filipino-American actor who played that character in Hook, beautiful skin and spiky hair (that would come later, predated by an of-the-times bowl cut). Recently I am delighted to see from his friends’ that some called him “Tinker-Drew.” He embodied that storybook magic, bringing levity to the mundane. Once, he informed me he was driving six hours on his day off, round trip, to visit a Dance Dance Revolution console at a shopping mall on the Atlantic coast. “But you can play DDR here,” I said.
“I know,” he replied. “I want to visit every DDR in the state.”
“Why not?” was a guiding phrase for him. Why not seek out this weird candy to taste it? Why not start a formalized group for discussion of LGBT issues? Why not stage a random dance party in a garage, or a dorm room? Why not host a daytime pool party after a night out dancing, as he planned to this past weekend?
Life, to him, seemed a smorgasbord. Willy Wonka’s fruit medley wallpaper, waiting to be licked. Which, as so many of us know from first-hand experience, or from so many of these shared photos, was how he liked to greet people. A fierce hug and a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
He was the first friend to teach me to put my thoughts to paper (or screen) in any kind of public way, pioneering a little platform known as LiveJournal. An avid technophile and early-adopter, his screen name for most things was “TheDruProject.” His life was a project, a reality show, a stage, a screen, a book — pages waiting to be turned. While the rest of us were falling over ourselves, waiting for the next stage of life to begin, wherever we were, he was already relishing the current chapter, perfectly comfortable in the present.
Always one to embrace dichotomies, his first car was a red pickup truck he called “The Flamer.” He would drive it around, sipping a large fountain soda and blasting British girl pop. The first of us to get a driver’s license, he was the first person to make sure that someone had a ride home, wherever we were, and a pioneer in teenage sobriety. He was always the life of the party, be it a garage or a distant coffee shop where other queer kids would congregate.
Our sophomore year, he announced that he was creating a “Gay-Straight Alliance.”
“If we’re going to be a real club, we need officers,” he informed us. “And you,” pointing at me, “are going to be the treasurer.” And so began my tenure as an Ally — with a capital A.
I don’t remember when, specifically, he came out. He just was. He was the first openly gay person I knew. He was the first for many, as we’ve learned in the past few days. How many lives did he save, by openly living his own? We know now, collectively, that many people came out to him first. He taught them you can be out, and proud, and survive, thrive.
Creating this alliance, this club, was not an easy feat. It required securing sponsorship and classroom space from a teacher who would dare lend their name to this endeavor in a largely conservative public school. It required talking openly with other students. It required hanging posters to let curious students know that there was a space for them, without having to approach us directly, or risk being seen. It required watching a teacher tear up one of our posters in front of us. It required facing down bigots, sitting in the classroom of a teacher who routinely called students “faggots.” (This teacher would turn out to be one himself. “I told you so,” said Drew, matter-of-factly, rolling his eyes.)
Many of us would like to remember high school as pleasant, and Drew’s “outness” as quirky, or fun. Indeed, he was both. But he was also brave. He was, as we call it these days, “woke.”
To be the only openly out student in a school of 2,500 students had to have been terrifying on some level. But he never let it show. And he never beat around the bush. “Are you…” someone would start to ask, or crack a dimwitted homophobic joke, trying to goad him. “I’m gaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAaaaay!” he would say, dragging it out to make the questioner uncomfortable. “Gee! Ay! Why! GAY!” he’d punctuate with a screech. And we would collapse into laughter.
In recognition for his work creating the GSA, he was one of the inaugural recipients of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s Anne Frank Humanitarian Award, just a year after Sept. 11. It was a huge deal to us all: he was being recognized out of all the thousands of students in the county, for creating the first safe space for queer kids, for standing up to an authority that said, “Disappear, please.” We were so proud of him, and he was so humble. While he loved attention, creating the GSA seemed like an inevitability to him. “Why not?” Or, more likely, “If not me, then who?”
An entire country was rapt this week, watching his mother, Christine, bravely search for her son. For over 24 hours, we waited, and hoped, with her. What people may not realize is that Christine, in accepting and loving her son for who he was, so many years ago, and not just “tolerating” his sexuality, but truly loving him, all of him, allowed him to exist unfettered and undiluted. And his existence made space for so many others in 32 short years of life. To be friends with Drew was to be granted our own freedom to exist.
To know him, to be near him, to love him, was quite literally to be swept onto a dance floor.
In college, his strong work ethic allowed him to flourish. Many weekend nights he let me sleep on his floor while I visited from a nearby campus. A consummate cinephile, he always had the latest release on DVD, recent, foreign affairs or old classics. His paternal nature aided him as an RA, a wise older sibling to so many young, unsure students finding their foothold in the world. I’ve also seen from recent tributes that he took many people to their first gay club, myself included. Pulse, Parliament House, or a night out at I-Bar or The Castle: he knew how transformative these places could be. The circumstances of his death are all the more bitter.
When I transferred to a college further south, he’d come to visit. After undergraduate years, he was one of the few friends with whom I stayed in contact, always making time to see each other when we were in the same city. I’m so glad we did. Who would we all reach out to now, if we knew how limited our opportunity would be? Each time we met, it was as if no time had passed at all. He would stride across the parking lot and embrace me, with a tight hug and a flirtatious, “How arrrrrre you?” He would do this for any friend.
Three years ago, as we neared our 10-year high school reunion, I confessed I was nervous to see so many people after so much time. “We’ll get dinner,” he assured me. “Don’t be nervous.” We followed him into the bar that night, carried along in his wake, as he embraced each person, genuinely excited to see them, to learn what they’d been up to for all these years. He brought his camera, so we could take high-quality photos. “We deserve them.” He closed a chasm that night, bringing us all back together, remembering even the people who couldn’t make it that night, sending his warm wishes. And now, in death, he’s closing the chasm again: bringing old friends together to celebrate a bold and audacious life well-lived.
He was a talented artist, and could capture just about anyone in caricature. A voracious consumer of culture, he was the first to tell you how “s—” a new album was, or how fantastic a new film had turned out to be, or how beautiful a video game’s fictional world was rendered. I always thought he would become a movie critic. Instead, he chose a path of helping others, pursuing his master’s degree in psychology right away, working as a therapist. If he absorbed the trauma of his patients over the years, he never let it show. He was happy, no matter what life threw his way. I was so glad to see a text exchange that a friend of his shared from just before the weekend.
“How are you?” he asked him.
He was so wonderful.
I got to see Drew again one more time, at a favorite cafe of his, Stardust Video & Coffee. Inside, and later as we milled around the nearby craft fair, people kept coming coming up to him. “How arrrre you?” It seemed he knew everyone, the unofficial mayor of Orlando. To be in his company was to be welcomed by all.
“I love you,” he said to me and our friend Amber as he hugged us goodbye. It was unremarkable to say it to one another now, but at 14, he would tell his friends he loved us, long before it was cool or even acceptable to do so. “I still love you,” he’d say after we’d have an argument. “We’re only fighting because we’re both Geminis.” A pragmatist with a scientific mind, he inexplicably loved astrology. If you told him you were seeing someone, he’d ask, deadpan, “Sure, but is he a Scorpio?”
He loved Juan. I never met him, but I hoped to soon. The way he spoke of him was, as his mother has said in recent days, “different.” You knew he had found a person with whom he could build a life. How beautiful their life together already was: a joy to observe through their photos, and I’m told a pleasure to behold.
Drew was love, embodied. He loved Juan, his family, his friends. He had all the time for love because he left little time for anything else. In our last conversation a few weeks ago, I lamented that I’d seen a mutual acquaintance post something upsetting, divisive, about the presidential election. “I’m so tired of the rhetoric,” he sighed. “But that person is a good person. Give them the benefit of the doubt.” He suffered no fools, but he was unwavering in his belief in the goodness of others.
I am gutted. All I want to do now is to tear my clothes from my body, hair from my scalp — and scream at how f— unfair this all is. Forty-nine lives cut short. Hundreds of parents, siblings, children. Thousands more friends. All of us casting about in an ever-darkening sky, desperately trying to orient ourselves. Where to, now?
There will be a time to change our laws. A time when this sharp grief will shift into a hot and forceful anger. We will not let their deaths go unremembered, nor leave any questions unanswered.
Right now, the simplest way anyone can honor Drew, Juan, the 47 other lives lost, and the hundreds who will live with the trauma of that night forever, is to examine our prejudices. To call out injustice where we see it. Drew did not mince words.
He did not tolerate bullying. He may have been ready with a withering insult that could cut to the bone. But he never let undeserved cruelty happen on his watch.
Stop prejudice where you see it. Homophobia, Transphobia, Islamaphobia, Xenophobia, Racism. Hatred. Fear. The jokes, the off-hand remarks: call them out. Question those who think they can use this tragedy, or any other, to justify hate.
His voice has been silenced. Speak for him.
“If not me, then who?”