Remembering Sean Kennedy Five Years Later

On May 16, 2007, Elke Kennedy received a phone call at 4:55 am. 

An hour earlier, Elke’s son, Sean, was leaving a bar in Greenville, SC when a car pulled up beside him.  A young man asked Sean for a cigarette and Sean obliged.  Then the young man got out of the car, approached Sean and called him a f**got, then punched Sean so hard that it broke his face bones.  This caused Sean’s brain to be separated from his brain stem.  Sean then fell to the ground and was left to die on the pavement.  Shortly thereafter, Sean's killer left a voicemail message for one of Sean’s friends:

“You tell your f**got friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for breaking my fist on his face.”

When Elke arrived at the hospital, she found her son on life support.  At 11:20 that night, Sean Kennedy was pronounced brain dead.  He was just 20 years old.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Sean Kennedy’s untimely death. 

Mother’s Day was just three days ago.

“It’s been a pretty rough couple of days,” said Elke Kennedy during a phone interview with GLAAD.  “I’ve been down, crying a lot about the fact that Sean’s not here.”

- If you'd like to leave a message of support for Elke and her family, please feel free to do so in the comments section below. -

For Elke, her son’s death is at once both distant and close at hand.

“There are moments when I feel like it just happened yesterday and others when it seems like it’s been a long five years,” said Elke.

But her story doesn’t end there.  What happens next is a testament to the indomitable power of the human spirit.

In the five years since Sean’s death, Elke has become a fierce and tireless advocate for LGBT equality, particularly around hate-crimes legislation.

Just two weeks following Sean’s murder, Elke founded Sean’s Last Wish Foundation to raise awareness that, in South Carolina, state law enforcement officials, solicitors and judges do not have the tools with which to investigate and adjudicate crimes of violence and intimidation that are motivated by bias against the victim’s actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Through the work of Sean’s Last Wish Foundation, Elke hopes to change that. 

In the years since Sean’s Last Wish was founded, the organization has expanded its focus to include educating people about bullying, hatred and bigotry, and how these acts too often lead to violence.

“We need to have laws in place that deal with bullying in a stronger way, laws that actually deter bullying,” said Elke.  “Bullying needs to be considered a crime because it is a crime.  We need to get into high schools, and middle schools, to talk with administrators about bullying, hatred and violence.”

In the south, Elke notes that it’s particularly hard to get into schools to discuss issues of safety for LGBT students.  Toward that end, Elke, through Sean’s Last Wish, established the southern Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network.

“Through the southern GSA Network, we are working to bring students together to share their experiences of bullying,” said Elke.  “In doing so, it is our hope that other students might not have to experience the same problems.”

Over the course of the last five years, Elke has traveled a staggering 300,000 miles and spoken at nearly 400 events, many of which have been held at colleges and universities across the country. She has also been a great friend to us at GLAAD. Elke has spoken at the GLAAD Media Awards and has played major roles in several campaigns, and we're incredibly proud and lucky to have gotten to know and love her. Elke's voice has become one of the most powerful in the country on LGBT issues, especially on issues of hate crimes and parental acceptance.

“I think Sean would be proud of the things we’ve accomplished,” said Elke.  “The hope that I have really comes from Sean.  He’s with me everywhere I go.”

Of all that has transpired over the last five years, Elke says that her personal interactions with young people stand out the most.  She notes that there have been several instances in which a young person has approached her, indicating that they’ve contemplated suicide. Though each life is unique, Elke’s response is always the same:

“Your life is worth living.”

Day in and day out, Elke receives messages from young people - messages indicating that a conversation with her made all the difference. 

During our interview, Elke shared that she received over 500 Mother’s Day messages from kids that she’s met through the years.  In losing Sean, Elke has become something of a second mother to countless youth, many of whose biological mothers completely reject them just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Though the responses she continues to receive from young people makes her feel as though she’s making a difference, Elke looks forward to the day when all parents will love their sons and daughters unconditionally.

“There are many moms who have the opportunity to spend Mother’s Day with their child, but some don’t because their child happens to be gay,” said Elke.  “Then there are mothers like me, and too many others, who have lost a child to ignorance and hate.  We have to live each Mother’s Day without our children.  It’s a shame that there are parents who have children alive and don’t cherish them.”

At 8:00 pm this evening, Elke, family, friends and community members will gather to remember and celebrate Sean’s life on this the fifth anniversary of his passing.  All are welcome. The gathering will take place at one of Sean’s favorite places - Freedom Bridge in Greenville, SC.  A white dove - the traditional symbol of love and peace - will be released in Sean’s memory.

For this piece, Elke requested that we close in the same way she ends every speech - with her Mother Statement:

“No mother should ever have to bury her child.  No mother should ever have to lose her child to hate and violence.  And no mother should ever have to fight for justice for her child.”

Below: Sean Kennedy (left) celebrates his 20th birthday with siblings Dawn and John (April 8, 2007).  Photo courtesy of Elke Kennedy.

- If you'd like to leave a message of support for Elke and her family, please feel free to do so in the comments section below. -