In the early morning hours of May 2007, three men called Sean Kennedy over to their car. Kennedy was leaving a Greenville, S.C., bar. The men asked him for a cigarette.
“Sean gave him a cigarette and was walking away,” writes his mother, Elke Kennedy, “when the guy from the backseat got out of the car, came around the car, approached my son and called him ‘faggot.’ He punched him and Sean fell to the ground. Sean’s murderer got back into the car and left my son dying there.”
Sean Kennedy was gay. He died from this attack. His mother formed the group, Sean’s Last Wish. Elke Kennedy travels the nation sharing the experiences of losing a son to a hate crime. She tells a tale that seeks tolerance.
Elke Kennedy is the featured speaker during the South Georgia Pride Festival scheduled for noon-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, John W. Saunders Park on River Street, says Raynae Williams, South Georgia Pride’s assistant executive director.
Kennedy will be joined by Mercury Heat, Jennifer Anders, Valdosta Venom Roller Derby, Bethany Brooks, Samantha Fox, Drew Kelly and TNT Entertainment. Participants can expect to find 30 vendors presenting everything from information, crafts, health screenings, more.
The South Georgia Pride Festival celebrates the region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Williams says it is a family event and the public is invited.
“It’s based as a gay pride event but it celebrates the diversity in everybody,” Williams says. “More than likely most people know someone from the LGBT community. They have a friend or family member. ... This festival lets people know we are here and we are contributing.”
The South Georgia Pride Committee “strives to create a welcoming community for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression,” according to a City of Valdosta proclamation declaring Saturday, Sept. 17, as South Georgia Pride Day.
South Georgia Pride opposes bullying and hate crimes while working to educate the community on matters of tolerance regardless of sexual orientation, race, or religion, as well as education in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The city proclamation also recognizes that the LGBT community works as employees in regional businesses, contributes to the community through various charitable, service and religious organizations.
The Pride Festival began as an event on the Valdosta State University campus a few years ago. Last year, it moved off-campus to better reach the entire South Georgia community.
As part of the festival, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta, 1951 E. Park Ave., hosts the Valdosta Interfaith Pride Service, 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18. Elke Kennedy is the scheduled speaker at this service.
Though she still works full-time, Kennedy of Greenville, S.C., travels to events and festivals across the nation during weekends, evenings and off-days, January through November. In the past few years, she has traveled 250,000 miles and attended 240 events. In October, she has 19 speaking engagements, mostly at colleges and universities.
At many locations, young students come to hug her for what she has endured. But many come so she will hug them, Kennedy told The Times, because their mothers do not support their choices. She hears sad stories of lonely students wherever she goes.
“Way too many heartbreaking stories of despair,” Kennedy says. “How they wish they had a mother like me because their own mom threw them away; the bullying and taunting they have to face everyday and they in most cases have no one to talk to. How some have thought about committing suicide; I hear stories from people who were told they are broken and need to be fixed so they are sent to reparative therapy.”
She distributes her business cards freely with instructions to call her any time. It’s not unusual for her to receive calls in the middle of the night.
“I get phone calls at 2:30 in the morning because someone had a bad day, or they just met the love of their life and anything in between,” Kennedy says. “I also hear good stories about couples that have made a life together against all odds, having adopted children, etc. Hearing positive stories helps me to also share hope with others.”
Despite the overwhelming support and numerous engagements, Kennedy still has difficulty speaking about what happened to her son, Sean.
“I have my good and bad days and, many days, I still choke up when I tell my story about what happened to my son, but it has also been a tremendous help for me in many ways because I truly believe that I am and have made a difference in many people’s lives over the past 4 1/2 years,” Kennedy says. “Telling Sean’s story, and being the voice for those that don’t have a voice, helps me to make sure that nobody will forget that this is happening everyday and it helps me to make sure that Sean did not die in vain.”
Two weeks after her son’s death, Kennedy started Sean’s Last Wish because she felt like she would either “curl up in the corner and die” or she had to do something about what happened to her son.
Through SLW, Kennedy also organizes educational panels and provides educational materials. She believes open advocacy such as the Pride Festival changes attitudes but there’s still much work to do.
“I think attitudes are changing, slowly, but they are changing,” Kennedy says. “Don’t get me wrong. There is still a lot of work to be done and I think the more I learn and educate myself about what the issues are, I can see that I must do more. I also realize that I cannot do it alone. That’s why we all have to stand together and united to fight for change.”
Kennedy ends all of her speeches with both a reminder and a warning.
“No mother should ever have to bury her child,” she says. “No mother should ever have to lose her child to hate and violence. No mother should ever have to fight for justice for her child.”
South Georgia Pride Festival
When: Noon-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17.
Where: John H. Saunders Park.
Public is invited.
Valdosta Interfaith Pride Service: 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta, 1951 E. Park Ave.
More information: Festival, visit www.southgapride.org; Elke Kennedy’s Sean’s Last Wish, visit www.seanslastwish.org