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Emma Gonzalez Opens Up About How Her Life Has Changed Since Parkland Tragedy

Emma González is, in many ways, your typical teenager. She’s bright-eyed and jaunty, and wears her passions, emotions and fierce independence on her sleeve. She doesn’t attempt to censor her opinions. She voraciously consumes movies and TV shows like “The Office” on Netflix. She knows all the lyrics to her favorite songs, and her Spotify user name is González spelled backward.

But 18-year-old Emma González is anything but typical.

On her left wrist, she wears an array of rubber bracelets memorializing victims who were gunned down at her high school in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year. The bands are a stark daily reminder of the painful memories that no young person should ever have seared into her consciousness. On her right wrist, González wears friendship bracelets. “I have friends who are still alive on my other bracelets,” she says, perhaps not realizing just how heartbreaking that sounds.

Her life took a shocking turn on the afternoon of Feb. 14, when 17 students and teachers died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. González was in the auditorium attending a class when the fire alarm went off. Students spilled onto the campus to find SWAT teams swarming and authorities screaming, “Code Red!” González and her classmates were rushed back into the auditorium, where they took cover on the floor between the folding seats. Holding the hands of friends on either side of her, González focused on keeping those around her calm as many began frantically searching the internet for any news that could explain what was unfolding on their campus.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” recalls González. “I didn’t want to go on my phone to check and see if anything was real because I was in a complete state of denial,” she tells me in her first-ever solo magazine interview. It wasn’t until days later that she would learn the full extent of the tragedy, when she read a story in the Miami Herald and saw the names of all the students and faculty members who had died.

Just three days after the massacre, González mustered remarkable resilience and courage when she transformed her anguish and heartbreak into unabashed activism. She delivered an impassioned speech at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, calling “B.S.” on President Trump, other politicians and the NRA for not tightening gun laws that could prevent “the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred.” Her speech was broadcast nationally, and her name began trending on Twitter that afternoon. She created the @Emma4Change handle to promote stricter gun laws, and along with other Parkland survivors she founded March for Our Lives, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization pushing for stricter gun laws and registering young voters.

Today, González boasts 1.66 million Twitter followers — hundreds of thousands more than the NRA’s 710,000. She and other Parkland activists, including Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin and David Hogg, have been featured in magazines and interviewed on countless news programs. When Variety invited González to be one of our five 2018 Power of Women honorees, which entailed a solo cover and a one-on-one interview, she was initially reluctant. She was used to sharing the spotlight with her compatriots and wasn’t comfortable drawing attention exclusively to herself.

But González arrives at our photo session and interview — which takes place shortly after she graduated from high school — raring to go. If she is nervous, it doesn’t show. She talks excitedly about having watched Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary “Borat” for the first time, which she says made her laugh so hard she fell off her chair. She comes dressed in blue jeans rolled at the cuffs, Vans and a cropped, sleeveless T-shirt printed with the American flag and a QR code that when scanned enables her to register people to vote in less than two minutes.

As the photographer clicks away, González lip synchs and grooves to the tunes on her playlist. After the session, I remark that for someone unaccustomed to the spotlight, she seems incredibly comfortable in her own skin. “I am comfortable in my own skin,” she replies.

How many teenagers can say that?

What advice would you give to young women who are growing up in an era when female empowerment is so vital on every level? 

To young women who are growing up in an era of female empowerment, it is important to remember that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Many people in this world are not raised to understand the concept of consent, in all walks of life, and it’s important that abusers of consent not be treated as victims when they are rightfully exposed.

Women have the power to do anything men can do, just as black people have the power to do anything Hispanic people can do, and gay people have the power do anything that straight people can do, and trans people have the power to do anything that cis people can do. This country’s government was made to work slowly, but if we elect the right people and keep moving as fast as we have been, we will change our world for the better.

Women need to feel powerful enough to share their stories and make their impact, but perpetrators of the system that make women have stories to share in the first place need to be reminded that their behavior is disgusting and disgraceful. I’m looking at you, [Brett] Kavanaugh.

We forget that half the solution is women being comfortable with who they are and who they wish to be, and the other half is taking down the system and people who made them uncomfortable and have low self-worth in the first place. This is an effort to be taken on by all genders.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? 

Feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. I do indeed describe myself as a feminist because I believe equality of the sexes (and all genders) should be the basis our society builds upon.

How has life changed for you since the shooting? What kind of emotional toll has it taken? 

There are always moments in the day when I get hit with a sadness about the people who have been lost in this tragedy. That has directly affected me. It’s really hard to get through those moments when you’re upset about somebody having passed.

I imagine that you have encountered some incredible people as a result of your activism.

Meeting with people is awesome in every sense of the word. It can inspire you with glee. It can inspire you with happiness. It can inspire you with sadness and melancholy, but also hope.

What is the biggest impact you and the other Parkland survivors have had so far?

We’ve gotten a lot of people registered to vote. Even if one more person who normally wouldn’t have gone to the midterms goes to the midterms this November, I personally will feel that we’ve done our jobs. And I know it’s going to be a lot more than one person. Four million people turn 18 this year in time for the midterms. So if we could get every one of those kids registered and even half of them to vote, we will have a major impact.

Is it odd for you to suddenly be recognized everywhere you go?

It does feel a little strange. It’s not a bad thing though because it’s nice to know how expansive our message has gotten. If people are listening because they like the people who are delivering the message, that’s all the better because it means we’re doing our jobs, which is getting the message to everybody who needs to hear it. I never used to be afraid to have my head uncovered in public spaces. It’s not settling to have people recognize you and come up to you when your head is uncovered versus when it’s covered and nobody comes up to you. It’s a weird feeling. So if I wear a hat and sunglasses, not as many people recognize me.

Lena Waithe Power of Women
CREDIT: Joe Pugliese for Variety

Were you an activist before the shooting?

I was active in terms of class discussions, and I was president of the school’s GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance]. But I didn’t want to be another voice lost in the crowd and have people listen to me at that point in my life. I was still just trying to become the person that I was trying to be, which [is to say] I was waiting for college. I was still formulating myself as a person. I feel like in my senior year of high school, I had my clothes a lot more figured out. I had my hair figured out.

As you’ve explained in interviews, your buzz cut wasn’t a political statement but a practicality, and you made a PowerPoint presentation to change the minds of your reluctant parents.

Yes. It was too hot in Florida. My hair was heavy. Any time I had my hair in a ponytail it would give me a headache by the end of the day. I was super self-conscious because I was worried it didn’t always look perfect, and because of that I was thinking about it so much. Insecurities are debilitating a lot of times, and if it was a windy day or a rainy day, which happens in Florida, I didn’t want to worry about the fact that my hair was going to look less than I wanted it to. So if I shaved it off it would always look good and always look the same — which is fantastic!

My parents wouldn’t let me shave it earlier, so I made a PowerPoint presentation to convince them. I strategically put pictures of bald women in there. My dad was laughing so hard the whole time he couldn’t even pay attention.

Is it true that your parents have been supportive of your individualism and have encouraged you to speak out?

My parents were very hesitant to tell me to stop talking after everything that had happened, but they were also like, “You haven’t spent any time at home. You’re living at Cameron’s house with everybody else when you’re working [on the campaign]. You need to come home and take a shower. Be a person for four hours. Just be regular,” and I’m like, “I can’t. I have interviews I need to do. I need to call people.” My life was very messy, but my parents managed to get through my awful, awful communication.

How did your two older brothers deal with the trauma?

My one brother, Dan, lives in New York. It hit him hard because he couldn’t come home to visit with us. He has a job so he couldn’t take time away. My other brother, considering he was at home, was hit as you expect with news of that sort. All of his friends are out of Douglas by now because he’s three years older than me. But still, it was a rough time for everybody. I was the only one actually at the school, so it hit me hard but differently than it did them.

On the day of the shooting, how did you process what was going on when everything was happening so quickly? 

I had no idea what was going on. I waited to find out what happened after it happened. I didn’t want to know during because that was only going to most likely incite panic, which is the last thing you needed in a situation like that. I was with my friend Lenore at the time. I was holding her hand and another one of my friends who will remain nameless.

Lenore and I are going to be roommates at college because she and I are the only two people who know what each other was going through, and we had the same experience at the shooting. So it’s going to be really cool to have her with me and have me for her. We already have little movies set up, communicating with pictures instead of words, because sometimes it’s hard to always figure out what words we’re feeling.

When you hear about other mass shootings, do you relive the horrors of Parkland?

It’s not that we relive everything, though some people definitely do. But it’s very easy to go back to the mind-set that existed in those days. I remember that everything felt a lot darker. By “darker” I mean that there were actually lights turned off because we did a lot of stuff in the evenings and early mornings. We did a lot indoors. We didn’t go outside a lot. Or we’d be up really early doing interviews. I don’t know how many calls I had in Cameron’s driveway in the evening in the dark, pacing around his driveway. People coming and going and going and coming, and it was such a hectic and unstructured period of time. Very loosey-goosey.

But when I hear about the details of situations, it does bring it back a little bit in terms of “I know how it feels to be in that situation, and I can completely and totally empathize with the emotional process of dealing with it.”

What do you say to all of the critics, internet trolls and cyberbullies who call you and other survivors “child actors,” anti-gun liberals, communists — and float these ridiculous conspiracy theories?

I haven’t actually said anything to any of my critics. The reason why I haven’t talked to anyone else about the specific criticisms that you mentioned is because they never come up in person. They only come up online. Nobody’s going to go up to a child and say, “You’re not real. I don’t believe that you exist.” [When I say] “Hi, I’m Emma González. I lost a friend in the shooting” ­— and since I learned about the other people, I lost many friends in the shooting — who is going to come up to me and say, “That’s not true”? … We shouldn’t have negativity attached to our names for reasons that are obviously fake conspiracy theories.

What’s the biggest public misperception about you?

A lot of people say “dyke” in terms of negative statements against me. Technically it’s for lesbians. I’m not a lesbian; I’m bisexual. I like guys and girls. There’s confusion with the fact that definition isn’t widely known. But it’s fine, I guess. We’ll get there.

Has anyone from Hollywood approached you about doing documentaries, movies, TV shows, writing a book?

[Her publicist cautions her not to give any specifics.] Initially everybody was like, “Let’s do a documentary,” and so many documentary crews appeared, and there were documentaries made, and I was not a fan of how they portrayed everything. … The documentaries were not what they could have been because we were being looked at through the eyes of people who didn’t fully understand, didn’t want to understand, and wanted to change the story because it didn’t fit with their narrative.

Are you hopeful about the future of America?

I most definitely feel hopeful because I’ve met so many people who are ready to engage in our political system, and these are exactly the people we need to engage. People who are devoted to the concept of keeping people safe, focusing on the rights of people who need to be kept in mind, who need to be kept alive. People who are looking out for each other, not just themselves. People who are sacrificing a lot because they feel like it’s their job. Because not enough people do that anymore. A lot of people have folded up within themselves, ignoring responsibilities because they don’t want to take on the task of fixing the country that has been broken for so long.

The fact that it is broken feels like a parent who has not done their job properly, and you feel embarrassed and ashamed for the fact that you don’t know how to change the country, how to change the way this parent acts. You don’t know how to have pride in a system, a situation that only causes many people pain and suffering. But we realize now that it’s not that the system exists — it’s that we have a direct hand over the system’s checks and balances. We are the checks and balances.

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