Loved ones remember JA victim of Pulse club shooting

REMEMBERING “DREW” ­— Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero  (Top) The Dru Project was started to honor the legacy of (left to right) lost their lives during the Pulse nightclub shooting June 12. photo by Christine Leinonen

REMEMBERING “DREW” ­— Christopher Andrew Leinonen and Juan Ramon Guerrero (Top) The Dru Project was started to honor the legacy of (left to right) lost their lives during the Pulse nightclub shooting June 12.
photo by Christine Leinonen

Christopher Andrew Leinonen was one of 49 people slain in the early morning hours June 12 during the Pulse nightclub shooting. The shooting occurred inside the popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. frequented predominantly by members of the gay Latino community. It is considered the worst mass shooting against the LGBT community in the country’s history. Leinonen died with his partner Juan Ramon Guerrero that evening. His name has spread nationally since his mother, Christine Leinonen, spoke out against the violence that took his life during the July 27 Democratic National Convention.

Uninhibited Growth
Leinonen was born June 1, 1984 in Detroit, Mich. and primarily raised by his mother. Both his mother and father were police officers. While his parents never married, Leinonen had kept sporadic contact with Mark Bando, his father, who is Japanese American. Leinonen’s paternal grandparents Mare Mark Bando and Michi Tao met in the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp and later moved to Detroit after the war.

Known as “Drew” to friends, Leinonen attended the University of Central Florida for both undergraduate and graduate school. He obtained a master’s degree in clinical psychology and was a licensed mental health therapist and had worked for Aetna in Orlando for the last three years, his mother said. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he had many friends, enjoyed working out at the gym and watching movies, especially “Star Wars.”

The mixed-race Leinonen moved to Florida at the age of 8. According to his mother, who is white, many in Detroit still harbored racial prejudice against Nikkei, which reached a boiling point in 1982 with the murder of Vincent Chin. “It does take a village to raise a child, and the village in Detroit was not a good place for a biracial kid,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

Relocating to Central Florida, Leinonen said her son grew up “uninhibited.”

“He never came out as gay. He just was,” she said. Leinonen never asked if her son was gay or straight and said she just learned as he helped organize the Gay-Straight Alliance club in high school and saw him with his boyfriend.

Unifier of People
Leinonen said her son was not particularly political, but she considered him a “unifier” of people. “He wasn’t necessarily politically active. He would go to gay pride events across the country and he would be a unifier for other gay people to give them safe haven and give them voice,” she said.

Despite it being more than a decade since his graduation from high school, Seminole High School in Seminole, Fla. still remembers Leinonen for starting its Gay-Straight Alliance club. Elizabeth Conway, the club’s sponsor, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that they hope to create a memorial honoring Leinonen by the end of the school year.

“I have been the GSA sponsor for about six years now, and in my time at SHS I have seen it grow from a barely-known organization to a widely recognized and active club with dozens of members who actively work to improve the school’s climate overall,” Conway said in an e-mail. “His legacy works on with the continued attempts of our GSA students to make this place a more welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of how they define themselves.”

For his work establishing the gay-straight alliance, Leinonen was one of the high school students awarded the inaugural Florida Holocaust Museum’s Anne Frank Humanitarian Award in 2002. “Christopher’s award nomination, written by his high school’s guidance counselor, describes the way Christopher saw and was moved to action by the everyday struggles of gay and lesbian teenagers; struggles that left many feeling hopeless and silenced, exemplified at the time by a strikingly high suicide rate,” the museum said in a statement remembering Leinonen.

Remembering Drew
Following the shooting, Leinonen’s friends set up a GoFundMe campaign online to help pay for funeral expenses, but his mother refused the money. “I didn’t want any, he’s my son, it’s my honor (to pay for his funeral),” she said.

The campaign, however, still inspired five of his friends to launch “The Dru Project,” named after the username Leinonen used on social media.

“Our intentions for The Dru Project are to create curriculums and provide funds for schools that lack a GSA. Drew started one at his high school, so what better a way to push forward his ideals of love and acceptance?” said Sara Grossman, the organization’s communication director. Grossman attended college with Leinonen. “He was an incredible friend, an empathetic ear, a warm and loving heart, and one of the most fun people we ever had the honor of knowing,” said Grossman.

Leinonen’s mother said she hopes the project will serve as his legacy, and recently joined its board to help network for the organization. While she expressed she is not so interested in fundraising, she said she hopes to spread the organization’s logo to help raise awareness and unity.

“I would like to see that logo everywhere and anywhere. Instead of having a rainbow ribbon or a pink ribbon, have a rainbow pulse, because he died at The Pulse and he is the light, he is the pulse that keeps living,” she said.

Leinonen herself, however, has shifted her focus to gun violence and is now speaking out to address the mass-shootings occurring in the United States.

“There isn’t anything I can do personally. My life is already — I will go now to my grave in mourning. There isn’t anything I can do, there isn’t any gun law that’s going to undo the horror of losing my son,” she said. “I’m left with trying to convince other people that they don’t want to live this horror. Even if I convince them, I’m not a winning a prize for it. It’s never going to undo Christopher’s death.”

For more information on The Dru Project, visit www.thedruproject.org.

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