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Making connections: the day Sean Kennedy died

Remarks given by Ed Madden at the Vigil in Memory of Sean Kennedy held at the South Carolina State House on July 1, 2007.

We are here to celebrate the life of Sean Kennedy, but I want to ask you to consider the contexts of his death. Sean Kennedy’s death was not an isolated incident.

When you talk about this violence, do not make the mistake the news will make of focusing only on the perpetrator, only the night of May 16, only on the death of Sean Kennedy. Make the connections. Connect the dots. Make them explicit. Recognize that a thrown punch outside a bar in Greenville has its origins in a culture that demonizes gay and lesbian people.

On May 16, the day that Sean Kennedy died, the newspapers were full of two stories. The front pages were devoted to the story of the Republican presidential debate in Columbia, which happened on May 15, the day before Sean Kennedy was killed. The buzz words of the talking heads on FOX news that night were “moral issues” and “values voters.” Those commentators also blathered on about the death of Jerry Falwell, who died only hours before the Republican debate, only a day before Sean Kennedy was killed.

The fist that throws a punch is connected to the brain that makes that happen. And that brain is the product of a school system and a community and a culture. This incident is the product of a culture that sanctions the hatred and condemnation of gay and lesbian people. A culture driven by the anti-gay rhetoric of the politicians and preachers who were represented all too well on the front pages of the newspapers the day that Sean Kennedy died.

As the Washington Post pointed out a few days after Falwell died, he made himself a household name in the late 1970s with “crude and dehumanizing” attacks on gays and lesbians. In 1977, when urging Florida voters to repeal an ordinance protecting gays from discrimination, he told a crowd that “gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you.” The voters repealed the ordinance. With his organization the Moral Majority, Falwell is credited with pushing the opposition to gay rights-among other social issues to the center of the Republican agenda.

We may laugh that Jerry Falwell condemned Teletubby Tinky Winky as a gay role model that was “damazing to the moral lives of children.” But the day Falwell died, the Republican candidates were falling over each other, rushing to the press to praise him. The day before Sean Kennedy was killed, Sen. John McCain, who had once called Falwell and his pal Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” praised Falwell as “a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Mitt Romney called him “an American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith.” Even Rudy Giuliani told reporters in Columbia that Falwell “was a man who set a direction,” “someone who is not afraid to speak his mind.”

No, he wasn’t afraid. To demonize gay people as disease-ridden perverts who are a threat to the nation. He called AIDS “not just God’s punishment on homosexuals,” but also “God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” In 1997, he said, “If we do not act now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women and children.” And after the attacks of Sept. 11, Falwell went on the 700 Club to blame the terrorist attack on feminists, gays and lesbians. He said, “I point my finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
Is this the kind of “strong principles” those Republican candidates would praise?

Gay rights wasn’t explicitly on the agenda of the Republican debate on May 15, the night before Sean Kennedy was killed. Surely, though, it was implicit in the FOX news commentary about “moral issues” and “values voters,” and it was there in the news commentary about Giuliani being “soft” on gay rights.

And it was there in the mailbox on May 9, only a week before Sean Kennedy was killed, when our own U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson — always dependable as a parrot of Republican talking points — wrote to his constituents that he voted against a federal hate crimes bill because it would, to quote Wilson, “inhibit the free practice of religion.” If the law passes, preachers will still be able to say what they want from the pulpit, but unless they expect parishioners to walk out the front door of the church and punch out some gay folks, I don’t see how this legislation inhibits religious practice.

Preachers and politicians who spout anti-gay rhetoric like to pretend that their rhetoric doesn’t have real consequences. But every act of anti-gay violence tells us otherwise. The fist that throws a punch is connected to the boy who thinks it’s okay to hit, and the boy that thinks it’s okay to hit a gay person is part of a culture that says it’s okay to hate gay people.

Okay to hate, okay to hit. If you say that gay people are evil, if you say that gay people are sick, then those who listen to you will act accordingly — and they will treat gay people as evil, and sick. If you say that gay families are not real families, that they aren’t part of our communities, that they don’t count, you can get people to vote overwhelmingly to destroy those families. If you say gay people are a threat to the community, those who listen to you will treat them that way,
Sean Kennedy’s death was not an isolated incident. It made explicit the consequences of the rhetoric of Falwell and his ilk. It made explicit the consequences of the continual political demonization of gay people. 

Maybe Falwell was only making explicit a kind of thinking that suffuses our culture. When I was growing up, we played a game called “smear the queer.” A boy with a ball would run the field, the rest of us after him, trying to tag or tackle him. In possession of the ball, you were the queer. And as the rest of the name suggests, it was the goal of everyone else to “smear” you — “smear” a loose term that became looser as the game progressed-meaning tackle, grab, kick, punch.

There was no way to win.

I left “smear the queer” on the playground of Rutherford Elementary School, but the lesson stuck. Of course, I didn’t know what queers were back then, or indeed that I was one, but I knew you were supposed to smear them.

Later I would realize the game takes many forms — frightening as public policy, discriminatory and pervasive as social principle and lethal as local practice.

On May 16, a boy stepped out of a bar. He was an ordinary boy. It was an ordinary evening. It was an ordinary bar. It was late.

The newspapers that day were filled with two stories.

Sean Kennedy’s death was not an isolated event.

My friends, we have got to learn to make these connections.

— Ed Madden serves on the board of the South Carolina Equality Coalition.

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