Courtesy of Out In Asheville
In May 2007, 20-year-old Sean Kennedy was murdered outside of a Greenville, SC bar. He was punched in the face and fell to the pavement, where his skull was shattered. Witnesses told police that Stephen Andrew Moller, the man convicted of Sean’s murder, shouted queer-bashing slurs at Sean as he beat him to death. Moller was arrested a few days after the incident, and after a lengthy trial, was sentenced on June 11, 2008.
While many of us in the LGBTQ community were hoping for justice, the judge in this case proved that justice for Sean Kennedy’s murder would never be had. Moller received a three year sentence. But, it is very clear that Moller is likely to spend only 10 months in prison, after which he is entitled to parole. If granted parole, he will be on probation for three years. He was also sentenced to 30 days community service and ordered to take anger management classes and enter alcohol and drug counseling. In a sad message to the LGBTQ community, and parents of LGBTQ youth, South Carolina has once again made it clear that even those born in its bosom are not afforded justice or protection.
Since his death, Sean’s mother, Elke Kennedy has spent a lot of time organizing and educating for changes to hate crimes legislation in South Carolina. Had there been hate crimes laws on the books at the time of Sean’s murder, Moller would have received a much tougher sentence. But, Elke told me in a recent conversation, she knew there would not be justice for Sean. Elke said, “Walking into that courtroom, I had prepared myself that there would not be justice for Sean because I knew what the laws were and I knew that [Moller] had not been charged correctly in the grand jury hearing. The laws are not good laws. When you can charge a violent murderer and you can make it involuntary manslaughter and the maximum the judge can give him is five years, there is a serious problem.”
Elke also understands that even if she succeeds in changing South Carolina’s laws, there will still be no justice for Sean because “you can’t turn back time.”
But I didn’t want to talk to Elke about her work with Sean’s Last Wish, the foundation she started soon after the murder. I wanted to talk to her about what it’s like to balance her newly found activism with the grief she is experiencing over the loss of her son. It’s the mother’s story that gets me – right in the soft spot.
Elke says that people think she should be done grieving already, and that I’m the first reporter she has told about her personal process of healing. “I didn’t give myself a lot of time to grieve, to mourn Sean, because I went from what happened within days to saying I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure this never ever happens to anyone else. And every day I get up and I grieve for my son. I have a heart that has a huge hole in it that will never stop hurting because Sean’s not here. I don’t give myself enough time to grieve because I’m afraid, I don’t want to be weak, and because I have stuff to do,” Elke said.
Though she can’t put her finger on exactly where her strength comes from, Elke told me that it started in the hospital waiting room as she consoled Sean’s distraught friends – and Sean lay dying in another room. After talking with the doctors about a surgical procedure they were going to perform on Sean, Elke was sent into a private waiting room.
“I had to go out and I had to tell his friends that it was very serious. And they took us into this little private room. That’s not a good sign when they take you out of the emergency room and put you in a private room. And I just remember thinking it cannot be. And for so many hours, I just held onto this slight, slight hope that he would be okay. But as the 17 hours were passing, people tell me I controlled everybody there. There were sixty or eighty of Sean’s friends there. And they say I held everybody and helped them. And inside, my heart was in pieces.”
Elke thinks that some of her strength comes from Sean, “because he’s not here to speak out, he’s not here to do what he would have wanted to do, which is fight for people’s rights, because he always said it’s not right for people to be treated differently because of who they are.”
“I hear story after story about how Sean impacted people’s lives, even in small ways, and that is the strength I draw from. And he is the one that keeps me going because I know that I don’t want any other mother to ever go through what I have experienced in the past 14 months. Because not only did I have to bury my child, I had to bury my child because he was murdered, because he was violently murdered, because he was killed for being himself. And that is the biggest injustice of all,” she continued.
Elke also says she has a support network that helps her through her grieving – starting with her husband. “I have my husband, and my husband has been my rock throughout this whole year. He is with me every step of the way. When I go out and speak, he is there. And when I get tired and when it gets to be too much, he is there. And he tells people that he has the easy job – his job is to walk behind me and stand by my side and hold my hand when I need a hand, and stand in front of me when I need to be protected. He’s an amazing man.”
She has also met incredible people over the last year. “I have so many wonderful friends across the state – across the United States, for that matter – and people who just pick up the phone and call me and make sure that I’m alright,” she continued.
And Elke will continue to grieve and work towards equality as a mother who lost a gay son because he was gay. Calling herself a mother on a mission, Elke said, “I am determined to help all the other Seans out there. Not just murder victims, but victims of beatings, people who commit suicide – the people no one talks about. It’s for all those people who have a mother who can’t do what I do, or won’t do what I do. It’s for those unspoken deaths, beatings, assaults and suicides that never get told.”
Elke chooses to focus on South Carolina, not only because it was the site of Sean’s murder, but because it is somewhere she moved because she thought she could safely and happily raise a child there. She wants to change South Carolina because “South Carolina has a long way to go before they can say that they are embracing people.”
Elke’s mission is to change South Carolina by changing its people from the ground up – grassroots level social change – a place where stories are important. “I travel to other states and I travel across the country and I’ve seen so many different parts of South Carolina, and I believe that it takes coalition building across all different sorts of groups and organizations to make this change happen. We can’t just do it alone. Truly, I want to be the advocate. I want to change South Carolina. I want to make sure that kids in schools don’t have to worry about being able to belong to a GSA. I want to make sure that kids can walk down the street and if they’re gay, they can hold a partner’s hand and not have to worry about being beaten – and that they can show affection for who they love.”
While Elke knows there are people out there who wish she would back out of the public arena, she says she’ll never stop. “I know people want me to be quiet. Other people are saying that I’ll never be able to do what I set out to do, but never is a very strong word, alright. And I may or may not be able to do what I set out to do, but I can certainly go through this state and educate the public, educate kids, educate people about all of these things that are wrong – stopping abuse, and hate, and violence, and tolerance of bigotry. And how these things are responsible for what happened to Sean and what happens to others. As long as I have a breath in me, I’m going to move forward, and Sean will be with me every step of the way.”
As my conversation with Elke ended, I found myself quite speechless, and in need of a deep breath and the release of a few tears. I remain in awe of a mother who can transform her grief into the courage and strength to move forward – facing her son’s attackers by changing the world – one mind at a time.