Elke Kennedy is a brave woman - someone who has turned unbearable grief into heartwarming action. She's a mother who sadly, like too many others, has lost a child to a hate crime.
In the Spring of 2007, her 20-year old son, Sean, was fatally attacked in Greenville, South Carolina because he was openly gay.
Describing the attack on her son, Elke wrote:
On May 16, 2007, at about 3:45 am, Sean was leaving a bar in Greenville when a car pulled up beside him, a young man got out of the car, came around the car approached my son and called him f**got and then punched him so hard that it broke his face bones, he fell back and hit the asphalt. This resulted in his brain to be separated from his brain stem and ricochet in his head. Sean never had a chance. Sean's killer got back into the car and left my son dying there. A little later he left a message on one of the girl's phone, who knew Sean saying: "You tell your f**got friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for my broken hand".
Charleston, South Carolina's, The Post and Courier reported on the attack:
At 4:55 a.m. on May 16, Elke Kennedy's telephone rang. It was someone at the hospital urging her to get to the emergency room as soon as possible. When she arrived, she found her son on life support. At 11:20 that night, Sean Kennedy was pronounced brain-dead.
'Until then, we were clinging on,' Elke Kennedy said.
Since her tragic loss Elke has become a tireless advocate for LGBT rights, specifically around hate crimes legislation. She founded a non-profit in memory of her son called Sean's Last Wish Foundation and has traveled across the country sharing her story and helping people understand the importance of hate-crime protections for LGBT people in her own state of South Carolina and at the national level.
Elke is an inspiration to many and we are lucky to have her here today to share her story and valuable insights on her journey.
What positive changes have you seen happen because of sharing your story and Sean's story in the media?
I have met an incredible amount of wonderful people in the last 16 months. Each story I hear, each person I talk to assures me that I am doing what I need to be doing. I got over 75 phone calls this past Mothers Day from some of these people that I had met checking on me and wishing me a happy Mothers Day. For me it meant the world to get these calls showed me that I have made a difference for them.
I have met so many people who knew Sean (I never knew what an impact my son had on so many) and thousands more who have heard about Sean and his story who are now getting involved in their school, community or with Sean’s Last Wish.
Our educational panel has informed so many people about things they were never aware of and most ask what they can do to create change.
Every time we change one persons mind and heart, we make a difference - one person at the time - this is how we will achieve equality and equal protection for all human beings.
This is how I hope to realize Sean’s Last Wish:
- No mother should ever have to bury her child
- No mother should ever have to lose her child to hate and violence
- No mother should have to fight for justice for her child.
You don't focus solely on the passage hate crimes of legislation in South Carolina. Tell us about the incredible amount of work you do across the country.
Since Sean's murder, I have found that our justice system is not working for the victim or the victim’s family, but for the defendant. In South Carolina over 90% of cases get plea-bargained. Sean's murderer was only sentenced to 3 years, which means he only has to serve 10 months before he is eligible for parole. There is definitely no justice for my son.
Bullying, hatred, violence and intolerance negatively impact all of us, and I stand and fight for all human beings to be treated equally and have the same protection under the law. Every human being has the right to be happy - this is not only an LGBT issue - it is an issue of civil rights and equality.
I have traveled over 43,000 miles and attended over 50 events to speak about Sean's case, educating the public, providing information and resources on what everyone can do to stop senseless, hate-motivated crimes.
How has your reception at home in Greenville been since you became a voice for LGBT issues? Has local media about LGBT issues improved since you began your work?
At first, local media did a good job to cover the case. However, the investigator stated that the case had nothing to do with Sean being gay, and I think it was pressure in part from the press, as well as politicians and the community in general that led him to make that assertion. It was played down from murder to involuntary manslaughter, and even our solicitor was against discussing or supporting hate crime legislation. People are afraid to acknowledge that there is a problem.
Media still shows up to some local events, but it never makes the paper and only some coverage makes the [television] news. It is no longer important to them.
I think it’s important to get the gay community to stand up together. The community as a whole has been very supportive, but many have yet to stand up because they fear they will face harassment, lose their jobs, or experience violence for speaking out or just being openly gay in public.
What advice do you have for straight allies in South Carolina who want to become involved in media advocacy or hate crimes prevention but aren't sure where to start?
There are several ways to do so:
- Educate yourself about issues that are important to you.
- Get involved in your school administration
- Get involved and talk with your local, county and city officials
- Let your elected officials know you feel about the issues.
- Speak out in groups, write letters and most importantly vote.
- Go to Sean’s Last Wish website for links and more information about other organizations, like:
- South Carolina Equality Coalition (SCEC)
- PFLAG (local and national levels)
- South Carolina Progressive Network
What's it been like working with GLAAD along your journey?
Shortly after Sean’s murder I received a phone call from GLAAD, offering their condolences. They described the work that they do and offered to help me share Sean’s story with the media.
That was in June of last year. Since then I have worked very closely with Cindi Creager, the Director of National News, and I have met many of the other staff in NY and LA. They have all been always willing to help. GLAAD provided me with media training and helped me with press releases at the local and national level. Anytime I need help they are always there for me.
I feel like I have developed a personal relationship with everybody at GLAAD including Neil Giuliano.
Sean’s Last Wish has been instrumental in helping me getting Sean’s story out and make contacts and network with other organizations.
What is in store for you/Sean's Last Wish in the coming year?
We have just launched our educational panel, which is the first part of our educational program. I will continue to travel to as many events to speak out about the gaps in the laws and the need for education. We have been invited to about 14 universities across the state and the nation. So I see many more traveling miles ahead of us.
I have spoken at several churches and I plan to continue with that as well.
We are looking into the statewide South Carolina bullying law, we are trying to work with law enforcement on how to identify and record all types of bias motivated crimes, and we are supporting the startup of a network for GSA’s across the state to support and educate them on the importance of getting involved in local, state and national legislation. We will continue to work on building coalitions with different groups to realize change.
We are working to add a second-degree murder charge and to extend the voluntary manslaughter charge to close the gap that allows bias crimes to be unrecognized.
And I look forward to continue my relationship and work with GLAAD!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with people to help them understand what you’ve gone through and how you cope day to day?
Just that there are so many nights I can’t sleep, the nightmares I have, the hope I still have that Sean may walk back through the door and it was all a nightmare. The fact that I have not yet taken care of his room. I have to take each day and reflect. I just wish I had the chance for Sean to hear me tell him – “I love you,” and have that be the last thing he heard instead of “f**got.”
That is why I am here fighting this fight and working to make sure Sean’s Last Wish comes true.
GLAAD invited Elke to attend the 19th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in both New York and Los Angeles as an honored guest. In his speech to attendees GLAAD President, Neil Giuliano, made special mention of Sean Kennedy's story and of Elke Kennedy's work supporting LGBT people (video below).
As we reflect on the 10-years since the loss of Matthew Shepard and the work his family does to bring visibility to anti-LGBT hate crimes, we also pay tribute to advocates like Elke Kennedy whose stories are all too familiar and intertwined with that of Matthew Shepard's.
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