On Sunday I spent my 10th Mother’s Day without my dear sweet son, Sean. His life was cut short in an antigay act of hate May 16, 2007, 10 years ago today. He was only 20. I am still learning to live with my loss, and the hole in my heart remains. That painful void is what motivated me to spend most of the last decade advocating for change. I have traveled the country pushing for an end to hate violence. I will never stop speaking out and standing with others who have lost loved ones in similar attacks. I’m grateful for helping to further the progress in addressing anti-LGBTQ bias crimes but truly saddened by our continued losses.
For all of the strides we’ve made, we still see devastating setbacks like the the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Our nation will soon mark the one-year anniversary of that horrific event, and I cry with all of the families and friends of those lost on June 12. Through our grief it is my hope that we can all find the strength and resilience to continue sharing our stories and building a world that celebrates diversity and embraces LGBTQ lives.
The brutality of Sean’s murder still haunts me today. On May 16, 2007, my son Sean was leaving a straight nightclub where he had been with his friends. As he was leaving, he saw a car parked outside the club with three young men inside. One of them called Sean over and asked him for a cigarette. Sean gave him a cigarette. As he was walking away from the car, the guy in the backseat got out of the car, followed Sean, called him a faggot and punched him in the face so hard that it broke all of his facial bones and separated his brain from his brain stem. He fell and his head hit the ground, causing his brain to ricochet in his head. The guy got back into the car and left my son there dying. About 15 minutes later, Sean’s killer left a voice mail on the cell phone of a mutual female friend saying, "You tell your faggot friend when he wakes up he owes me $500 for breaking my fist on his faggot face."
Sean was pronounced brain-dead at 11:20 p.m., 17 hours after he was attacked. Sixty-five young people who were friends of Sean stayed with my family and me at the hospital throughout the night. When I told them that Sean was brain-dead, they were as devastated as we were. Sean was an organ donor. His heart, lungs, both kidneys, and liver saved the lives of five people.
His killer was sentenced to just three years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and served only 359 days. The other two were never charged. There was no justice for Sean, but I made sure his death was not in vain. Shortly after we lost him, I established Sean’s Last Wish Foundation to honor his memory by pushing for hate-crimes legislation and educating people and communities about how hate, violence, bullying, and religious bigotry destroy lives.
In the last 10 years I have seen many positive changes, like the passage of a federal hate-crimes bill. I have also been proud to stand with thousands of families who have experienced similar tragedies and work in solidarity towards solutions. But with incidents like Pulse and year after year of alarmingly high anti-LGBTQ hate crimes reported by the the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, our work is far from complete.
In the last few years I have had to scale back my work and close my foundation so that I may take care of my own health issues. Activism can take a toll on one’s physical and mental health and well-being. But even though I’m not on the road as I was before, I will always use my voice and my platform to work for the greater good. 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. This has been my mantra from the moment I lost my precious son. Sean brought so much love to all he knew, and I intend to carry that love forward for the rest of my life.
ELKE KENNEDY is the mother of the late Sean Kennedy, who was murdered in an antigay hate crime in Greenville, S.C., in 2007. She continues to advocate against bullying, hatred, and violence.