Remembering Congressman John Lewis, a Staunch LGBTQ Ally | Opinion

I first met Congressman John Lewis at the darkest point in my life. Just a few months earlier, on June 12, 2016, a man charged into Pulse Nightclub a few feet from where I was washing my hands and opened fire. By morning, 49 people including my two best friends were dead. I slipped through an emergency exit, narrowly escaping with my life. It was the shooting that brought us together that November day, months after the tragedy. Lewis, who had led a sit-in to demand lawmakers take up gun safety reform in the aftermath of the shooting, joined me at Pulse to pay his respects. We walked the grounds, largely moving in somber silence, stopping to scribble words of hope on a banner hastily fastened to the fence. As we made our way back to the car, he grabbed my arm and uttered, "we can never stop fighting."

That spirit of resilience defines who John Lewis was. From lunch counter sit-ins to policy debates to grinding Congressional business to a halt that summer of 2016, Lewis never relented from his insistence that we could do better, aim higher, and fight harder for a world built for all of us. The fight for survival waged by LGBTQ people after Pulse didn't have to be his burden to bear. Like cable news pundits and calculating politicos, he could have chosen to keep us at arm's length, seeing us as an election storyline instead of a community in need. But for Congressman Lewis, to be American meant charging into battle against injustice, refusing to leave anyone behind. He made the case for marriage equality when few would utter those words aloud. He resisted Don't Ask, Don't Tell when others stayed silent. He likened the struggle for equality to his work on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. No matter how contentious the issue or fierce the opposition, John Lewis could always be found at the front of the line, arm-in-arm, marching in solidarity against hate.

At a critical moment in history, the nation has lost that moral compass. While the COVID-19 pandemic exposes fissures in our social safety net and the struggle to uproot generations of systemic racism boils over, leaders at the highest level of government have abandoned the principles of unity America once prided herself on. Death tolls have become campaign fodder. Federal agents are trampling Constitutional rights in cities across the country. This democratic experiment hangs in the balance and, with Congressman Lewis' death, our nation is adrift with one less voice to guide the way. That is why the task of crafting Lewis' legacy rests on each of our shoulders. We are all challenged to redefine justice, reimagine freedom, and lift our country to its potential.

Congressman Lewis invited me to speak before the House Ways & Means Committee in September. Over three years after the shooting, I became the first Pulse survivor to testify, sharing my story in a hearing about the fight to end hate violence. Our discussion meandered through tax policy, frequently being derailed by Republican lawmakers angling for a CNN soundbyte. But no matter how far off track we got, Congressman Lewis would calmly remind his colleagues that American lives were at stake and guide us back to the task at hand. As the morning wound to a close, Lewis shared his parting thoughts. "We're one people. We're one family. We all share one house...We've got to teach our children, our neighbors, that we have to live together." In those words, he was calling on each of us to rise above the division being hurled at us and stamp out hatred with our collective resolve. Congressman Lewis, just as he did throughout his life, was imploring us to seek justice by refusing to leave anyone behind.

Much has been and will be said about the legacy of Congressman John Lewis. But in the end, his legacy is about what happens next—how his spirit of resistance inspires all of us to demand more from our country. It is about our unwavering commitment to the fight for freedom he waged throughout his life. Our rejection of the toxic culture of hate permeating our politics. Our demands for a system which declares that Black Lives Matter. Our refusal to accept a status quo that devalues marginalized people simply because of how they look, who they love, how they worship, or who they are. The lasting legacy of Congressman Lewis is rooted in our collective struggle to realize the powerful potential of liberty and justice for all.

There have been more dark days in the years since the tragedy at Pulse upended my world, more sleepless nights. But each one is made a little easier by the lingering sound of Congressman John Lewis' voice in the back of my mind. We can never stop fighting. Rest in power, my friend. May we make good trouble in your honor.

Brandon Wolf survived the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, that killed 49 people and injured many more. He is the co-founder and vice president of the Dru Project, a nonprofit working to uplift and empower LGBTQ youth, and the media relations manager for Equality Florida, the state's largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.