How I Learned to Grieve and Heal Through Star Wars
Warning: this article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker!While Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker delivered some big revelations that rocked the foundations of the Skywalker Saga, it was one innocuous, blink-and-you-miss-it moment featuring two unnamed characters that left me reeling. It came as the Resistance congregated after their victory: two women shared a celebratory kiss.Though it may not seem like much, for me it meant the world because it helped me find closure after years of trying to process the loss of my best friend Drew Leinonen. He was among those killed during the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That little kiss marked the end of a long journey involving an online petition, thousands of Star Wars fans, and the head of Lucasfilm itself.Since we first met, Star Wars was always special to me and Drew. At the drop of a hat, we’d launch into full-on debates about why Leia wasn’t trained as a Jedi. We’d argue over whether Palpatine was Anakin’s father, obsessively play his old Star Wars trading cards and of course made sure to visit the traveling Star Wars museum and the Star Wars Celebration convention when they came to town.
Drew and I enjoying the cantina photo op at Star Wars Celebration 2012 in Orlando, Florida.
Meeting Drew was more than just finding someone to enjoy Star Wars with. You see, I was never the popular kid growing up. Quite the opposite. I was the gay, geeky loser who got picked on during gym class, ate lunch alone, and never got invited anywhere. All that changed with Drew. My overwhelming obsession with that galaxy far, far away had always felt like a barrier keeping others away, but now Star Wars had brought me into Drew’s orbit — and through him, his circle of other nerdy misfits — and became the glue that held us together. Drew was all about love, and I had never met someone who loved so freely and openly. Thanks to Star Wars, I became friends with Drew, and meeting him changed my life for the better.In 2014, I moved away from Orlando to work my dream job in Los Angeles. When Drew visited in December 2015, it happened to be perfectly timed to The Force Awakens’ release, and we made sure to allocate a healthy amount of time to watch it together and have a lengthy discussion about our wildest Snoke and Rey theories. We ended the night with big hugs and promises of seeing each other again soon. Little did I know, that would be the last time I saw my best friend alive.
Watching The Force Awakens was the last thing Drew and I did together.
When I heard about the Pulse shooting on June 12, 2016, I was alone in my apartment and spent a sleepless night refreshing the internet for news on the casualties. I texted my closest friends who still lived in Orlando, but Drew was the only one who never responded. The number of dead being reported kept growing higher and higher. It was pure chaos and next to impossible to get any solid information. After an agonizing 33 hours of waiting, the news came that Drew was gone.It’s hard to describe how I felt in that moment. I was of course sad and angry at what had happened, but I found myself unable to cry. The best friend I had ever known was brutally murdered, along with his longterm boyfriend he had intended to marry one day, yet I couldn’t muster any tears. I went to the funeral and saw his body. His mother walked me right up to him and I squeezed her hand far too tight. It looked like him and it didn’t. Drew was always bouncing about with a glowing smile on his face, and if you weren’t smiling too then he’d tickle you so hard it hurt, so how could this gaunt figure lying still in a casket actually be him?When I was heading back to Los Angeles, I saw that one of the other victims who had worked at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park was acknowledged with a beautiful tribute by J.K. Rowling. It got me thinking about what would be a fitting tribute to Drew. Something as brave, inspiring, and full of love as he was.
Drew celebrating his 34th birthday with a Star Wars sweatshirt and Darth Vader cake from his mother, mere days before his death.
There had been a handful queer characters in Star Wars novels and such, but never in the big blockbuster movies. It’s those movies that so many millions of fans obsessed over, and what became the basis for all the action figures, games, books, comics, and merchandise. You may not understand why seeing someone who looks or acts or feels like you can be so important, but representation helps normalize people across different cultures. For queer people, that is desperately needed in countries where inhumane laws persecute queer people and force them to live in fear for their lives. Pop culture directly influences our lives because it informs how people view the world around them, so even creating a tiny bit of influence for queer people would have an immeasurably positive effect.Drew never got the chance to see proper LGBTQ+ characters in a Star Wars movie. As a passionate fan of pop culture with eclectic tastes, he was a fervent believer in the need for LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood movies. It wasn’t long before the thought hit me: what if Drew became the inspiration for the first-ever gay character in a Star Wars movie? What more fitting way to honor his memory than to rally the community around what happened to him, and lobby for his inclusion as a part of Star Wars canon. So I did what any gay entertainment journalist with a small nerdy following on Twitter would do: I started an online petition.Even creating a tiny bit of influence for queer people would have an immeasurably positive effect.
“While this may seem like an unreasonable pipe dream, this isn’t unheard of in Star Wars. Lucasfilm incorporated a pink R2 droid into Star Wars canon in tribute to a young fan who lost her life to cancer; R2-KT has gone on to help raise awareness and collect funding for those fighting cancer. Star Wars honored Riley Howell, the heroic 21 year-old student who lost his life protecting his classmates by tackling the gunman who opened fire at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30, 2019, by canonically making him the Jedi Master who assembled the sacred texts featured in The Last Jedi.Within a couple hours of launching my petition, numerous websites covered it as the big news topic of the day, several reporters contacted me for interviews, and #PutDrewInStarWars trended on Twitter. As the days went on, the petition collected thousands of signatures and word spread to other countries as the campaign was translated into different languages. An anonymous insider at Lucasfilm let me know they were doing everything they could to champion the petition around the company. People were moved by Drew’s story and wanted to see him immortalized as a part of Star Wars canon.A veteran entertainment journalist was even so moved by Drew’s story that they invited me to attend the world premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as their guest, all so I could try to get some face time with Lucasfilm decision makers. But even getting the chance to speak with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy in person and tell her about Drew — his love of Star Wars, his death, the petition — wasn’t enough to push through a promise for LGBTQ+ representation in this franchise that meant so much to us. She gave a very polite answer about how perhaps they would include queer characters one day. Possibly. Maybe. If the story was right. It wasn’t a no, but it wasn’t a yes. I thanked her for her time and went about my night, unsure about how to feel about having reached the final boss but coming away empty-handed.People were moved by Drew’s story and wanted to see him immortalized as a part of Star Wars canon.
“For the first time in my life, Star Wars had become something that was difficult to enjoy. I knew that the stakeholders of a global mega franchise didn’t owe me the tribute, or anything at all, yet I couldn’t help but feel this thing I had devoted so much passion to had let me down. As promotions for the next Star Wars movie began, I found it hard to engage with excitement because Drew wasn’t there to enjoy it with me.But when the The Last Jedi hit theaters on December 15, 2017, I found myself incredibly moved by how it addressed the subject of loss. "No one is ever really gone,” Luke tells Leia in the final act, handing her Han Solo’s golden dice from the Millennium Falcon. There was power in that artifact because it symbolized the man they had lost. He was tragically taken before it was his time to go, but his loved ones still held on to his memory to inspire them to move forward. When I went home, I found a Star Wars beanie belonging to Drew that his mother had given to me after his passing. A memento of my own, to remember him by. It made my ears look funny when I put it on but I kind of liked that because, for a moment, it reminded me what it was like to hear Drew’s laugh.While it became clear over the years that I wasn’t going to get a gay character inspired by Drew into Star Wars, by the time The Rise of Skywalker had come out, I had resigned myself to the fact that Lucasfilm wasn't going to include any LGBTQ+ representation at all.Star Trek had included Sulu as an openly gay character in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, a first for that popular sci-fi franchise, and in April 2019 Avengers: Endgame broke ground for the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies by featuring its first gay character by way of a civilian recalling a tearful date with another man during Steve Rogers’ group therapy session. Other franchises were taking the small but meaningful steps towards more inclusive representation, but Star Wars seemed unwilling to budge.Love is what Drew was all about.
“I was so convinced that Star Wars would never actually include a gay character that suddenly seeing two women share a kiss at the end of The Rise of Skywalker left me in a state of shock. It was brief and chaste but it was a gay kiss and it just happened in a Star Wars movie. It wasn’t what I had ever imagined but it was just what I needed because it was a gesture of love, and love is what Drew was all about. It made my heart swell like a balloon being filled with too much water until it burst, and just like that I was sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t tell you what happened for the rest of the movie because I was so overwhelmed.The first queer kiss in Star Wars has already been the subject of much criticism online. Some pointed out how one smooch doesn’t count as true LGBTQ+ representation, despite the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for it before the movie even came out. Others weren’t pleased with how the queer characters were unnamed supporting characters who weren’t even a part of the story (a criticism also leveled at Marvel’s inclusion of a queer character in Avengers: Endgame). And many were upset that the moments of lesbian affection were obviously included in such a way that they could be easily edited out of the film in foreign markets where it would prove problematic, like has been done in Singapre and Dubai.And while I agree with those points, I can’t help but appreciate the gay kiss on a personal level. Star Wars is about a great many things — the hero’s journey, Good vs. Evil, the agitation of sand — but to me it has always been first and foremost about hope. When I was moved to tears this time, it wasn’t from sadness. It was because I finally saw something on the big screen that I never thought would happen. My hope was rewarded. And even though Drew didn’t get to see it, I finally felt at peace with him.
Joshua is Senior Features Editor at IGN. You can reach out to him on Twitter @JoshuaYehl and IGN.