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Sean Kennedy’s death in context
Gay man’s killing a mile-marker on the road to equality

by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff

Sean Kennedy was a well-liked USC-Spartanburg student whose death has inspired action and visibility across the Carolinas.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The past year in the Carolinas has been marked by several instances of exciting growth in terms of LGBT visibility, action and movement toward equality. Pride events throughout the states were well-attended, with record-breaking crowds gathering in both Columbia and Charlotte.

LGBT protections were endorsed by high-ranking officials in South Carolina and Winston-Salem and Salisbury adopted non-discrimination policies for municipal employees. A marriage amendment in North Carolina was once again put to pasture by relegating it to committee. At the federal level, both the U.S. House and Senate passed a version of the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill.

There are blemishes in the record as well. The U.S. Congress failed to pass federal hate crimes protections at the 11th hour, the Human Rights Campaign endorsed a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that was not transgender-inclusive and many LGBT people still suffered abuse, discrimination and fatal attacks.

Of highest prominence in the press this year was the apparent hate-based attack and subsequent death of 20-year-old Sean Kennedy in Greenville, S.C.

In order to convey the full tragedy and scope of this situation it is important to examine how LGBT-supportive legislation remained critically important, yet frustratingly unattainable this year.

In April, 1,300 clergy signed a letter asking the U.S. Senate to pass the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 — a bill that would make gay and transgender people a federally protected class and give local police greater leeway to prevent and investigate hate-based crimes. The letter was an unprecedented show of support from the religious community, which is emerging as a key lobbying source for the LGBT community.

Elke Kennedy stood vigil for her son Sean in June and vowed to work for legislation to combat hate crimes.

The same month, a transgender-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect LGBT people from job bias nationwide, was introduced in Congress. It was endorsed by scores of equal rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

On May 3, the U.S. House passed The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act by a vote of 237 to 180. It did not match exactly the legislation being considered in the Senate, which would pose problems later in the year.

With the national debate on violence against LGBT people underway, Sean Kennedy was fatally assaulted May 16 as he was leaving a bar. According to reports, Stephen Andrew Moller of Taylors, S.C., an 18-year-old at the time with a record of violence and drug use, punched Kennedy in the face because he was gay.

Kennedy fell backward and struck his head against the curb. He died 17 hours later from severe head trauma. Moller surrendered himself to the authorities on May 18. Kennedy’s funeral was held May 20.

In the wake of this unprovoked attack, Elke Kennedy, Sean’s mother, started Sean’s Last Wish, an organization to advocate for LGBT equality and organ donation. (Sean Kennedy was an organ donor and his death allowed others to receive medical treatments they desperately needed.)

Memorial vigils were held in Greenville and Myrtle Beach in June. Two more were held in July in Columbia and Charleston. In August, Elke Kennedy spoke to a record crowd of 8,000 at Pride Charlotte. She gave a similar address at SC PRIDE the following month.

Stephen Andrew Moller killed Kennedy with an apparently unprovoked attack that resulted in a fatal head injury.

Also in September, the U.S. Senate approved the Matthew Shepard Act by a cloture vote of 60-39. On the day of the vote, it was announced that a new, trans-exclusive version of ENDA was being pushed in the House. HRC came under fire for being the only major LGBT group to support the change. (It is expected that the transgender community will organize a strong response to this snub in the coming year.)

In October, the non-inclusive version of ENDA passed the Education and Labor committee. A few days later Stephen Andrew Moller was indicted for involuntary manslaughter. LGBT activists were outraged, but South Carolina does not have a charge between murder and manslaughter. Since Moller did not intend to kill Kennedy, manslaughter was the only option. Unfortunately, it carries a light sentence.

Elke Kennedy has vowed to press for changes to the South Carolina criminal code so that more appropriate charges and punishments can be levied against perpetrators in the future.

During the first week of November, the U.S. House passed the non-inclusive version of ENDA by a vote of 235-184. A week later, at Greenville Technical College, Faith in America’s pro-gay “Call to Courage” campaign wrapped-up before a mixed audience of 200.

At the town hall meeting, the Rev. Kevin Boling, a local religious leader and talk show host, accused LGBT people and their allies of bashing Christians and the Church. He also questioned whether the members of the Kennedy family, who were in attendance, were being manipulated and used by the LGBT press.

In December, the Matthew Shepard Act was killed for the current session of Congress. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) attached it to an appropriations bill for the Armed Forces. When it was “found” that the combined bill would not pass, the hate crimes provision was stripped out. President George W. Bush had already threatened to veto any bill that included the hate crimes measure.

As we go into 2008 it is important to not lose momentum or lose focus on the issues before us. Sean Kennedy’s senseless death reminds us that along with changing laws, we must also find ways to create dialogue and change hearts where possible. And for those who are determined to exclude us, hurt us and even kill us, they’ll be our stepping stones on the road to equality.

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