LOS ANGELES — Emma González is famous now. She'd rather be enjoying the summer before college hanging out with friends.
But the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stole away that carefree freedom, morally forcing the survivors to take on the responsibility of doing something about the gun violence that has impacted more than 150,000 students in the two decades since the mass shooting at Columbine High School.
The 18-year-old senior first caught America's attention as the furious-faced warrior, fighting back tears, chastising politicians beholden to the National Rifle Association.
"All these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see," González said at an angry rally at the Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale three days after the shooting. "To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you!"
González let loose:
"Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA, telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this: We call BS!
They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence: We call BS!
They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun: We call BS!"
A string of public appearances followed, helping generate funding for a national March For Our Lives tour to spread the message about gun violence prevention and nullifying the power of the NRA. "
On Feb. 26, Harpers Bazaar published an essay by González, with photos of her at a Valentine's Day event one hour before the shooting and another (with hair) decked out for Pride week at school last year.
"My Name is Emma González. I'm 18 years old, Cuban and bisexual. I'm so indecisive that I can't pick a favorite color, and I'm allergic to 12 things. I draw, paint, crochet, sew, embroider—anything productive I can do with my hands while watching Netflix. But none of this matters anymore," she wrote. "What matters is that the majority of American people have become complacent in a senseless injustice that occurs all around them."
González next caught America's attention on March 24 at the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, D.C., the main rally of about 800 student walkouts and rallies around the country. Head held high, tears streaming down her face, she stood before thousands of marchers and millions watching on TV.
"Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR- 15 and my friend Carmen (Schentrup) would never complain to me about piano practice," she said, a catch in her voice. "Aaron Feis would never call Kyra 'Miss Sunshine.' Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan."
González went on, naming the names of those shot dead that Feb. 14. And then she stopped. For 6 minutes and 20 seconds—the time it took for the shooter to kill 17 people and wound 15 others—she stood silently, letting the confused crowd gradually absorb what that silence signified, filling the silence in their own imaginations with the screams of terror that must have accompanied the gunshots. Many wept.
"Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job," she said before leaving the stage. "One final plug: Get out there and vote."
The Parkland students' 20-state summer bus tour, March For Our Lives: Road To Change, stopped in NRA-loving towns to have civil conversations with gun-lovers, noting that they do not want to take away guns, but create common-sense regulations to prevent gun violence. The tour hit Los Angeles in July and included a meeting with Mayor Eric Garcetti, who pledged to work with high schools and colleges for a voter registration drive on Sept. 25.
But the town hall at the California African American Museum on July 19 illuminated another aspect of Emma González. The Parkland students served as a draw but they also shared their platform with coalition partners and expanded the discussion to guns used during domestic violence, suicide and police shootings.
And Emma González listened. When a question was asked of the panel, she reached for the microphone, paused, and then deferred to the community panelist. It was as if González and the Parkland students were modeling a different approach to public encounters: be authentic, have facts in hand, truly listen to the other person, and reply as a "human person."
González talked about coping and their intention to connect.
"I'm a mess and I'm messy," she said in an interview after the panel. "I'm very, very bad at organizing myself…We do eat whenever we get to restaurants. But we don't think about eating as much, especially because the topics we're talking about kinda take appetites away and like sadness fills your stomach more than food can. But then you smell food and you're like rrrr I need that."
"It's hard to get enough food in the day and hard to get enough sleep at night," González said, "because we have like 19-hour workdays, essentially. And we ride the bus. We ride the bus a lot and it's easy to sleep on the bus but it's not a full night's sleep, you know what I mean? It's choppy and blocked up."
Meeting with people who have faced gun violence is "an incredible experience" but "it's hard and it's sad to know that so many people are affected by gun violence. And of course, we knew that they were. But hearing it is a whole different experience.
"We share our experiences as they share theirs—but it's also incredibly healing to know that you're not alone," González said. "That's the number one rule after you lose someone is: go to somebody else. Go to the people around you, be with the people that you love. And as you can see in 'Big Hero 6,' that doesn't always happen. A lot of people push away the people around them because they feel like they're alone.
"In our case, all we could do was be with the people around us because they were the only people who knew what we had gone through," she said. "I wanted to be around my family because I knew that they wanted me to be with them and they wanted to know that I was safe and they wanted to hold onto me like that. But I wanted to be with the people at my school who had experienced that. I wanted to be with my friend who had sat next to me the whole time. It's a different sort of connection and because of that, it's easier for us to connect with the people around the country because we know, we've all experienced the same thing."
González noted that LGBT people are heavily involved in the March For Our Lives movement. "A lot of the people in our organization are LGBT+ so we bring it up in discussions and we make sure that people in the LGBT community are present in discussions," she said. "I do believe, personally, that like we have brought those topics to light in conversation [but] the solutions that we have will directly affect and support the LGBT community."
González said she feels like she's been threatened "generally," as much as in the context of conservative verbal attacks on the Parkland survivors.
"Anything is up for grabs to anybody around, ya know?" she said. "Like I'm a female. I'm a short female. I live in Florida. I'm Cuban and I have family members that live with me. I have survived a school shooting and I speak out politically and I'm bisexual—and all of these things are not desirable things to the people who are in power and especially the people who are getting money from other people who are in power.
"But I'm an 18-year-old girl, at the end of the day," González said. "I'm a human person and so are the people that I work with. And a lot of times, we either get put on a pedestal or we get treated like we're untouchable, like we're not human, we're undefeatable. But a bullet could take down any of us just as much as anybody else. And it's statistically more likely to happen nowadays.
"But I mean, like we're all the same and we all have the same amount of potential," she said. "Anybody could have done what I had done. I didn't even know what I was doing at the time. I looked back and saw what had happened. I did not think forward at all. None of that was like an intentional kaboom that had happened, it just did."
Most importantly: "Get out and vote. If you can't vote then register other people to vote. Get people to the polls, make sure that people who need to vote, can vote," González said, adding a plug for their merchandise. "Buy the shirts on our website because they can register people to vote. Electronics are lovely, lovely."
'Get out and vote. If you can't vote then register other people to vote,' says Emma González
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.