“I heard the evidence, and the effort to call this self-defense is subterfuge. I believe this sentence is far too light.”
On August 12 in Atlanta, while most of the country focused on police abuse in Ferguson, I watched Judge Todd Markle sentence Luke O’Donovan to two years in prison and eight on probation, based on a plea bargain agreed to by both the prosecution and the defense. Luke stood accused of stabbing five men who he claimed were beating him up for being queer, and faced 110 years in prison if convicted.
Markle also required Luke to undergo weekly drug and alcohol tests during his probation, and stipulated that no other judge can preside over the case if Luke violates his orders. Most unusually, Markle banished Luke from the state of Georgia except for Scriven County, in the outskirts far from his Atlanta home and community.
Prosecutor Ramona Toole argued that Luke stabbed five people without provocation at a New Year’s party in the early morning of January 1, 2013: Andrew Mainor, Kevin Ralph, his brother Michael Ralph, Luke Lane, and Brett Hammond. The men suffered injuries ranging from wounds to the stomach and heart to lacerations to the leg and hand, none of which proved fatal. Luke O’Donovan contends that Kevin Ralph used the word “faggot” at the party, which provoked an altercation when Luke objected. Kevin and his friends, Luke says, then started beating him, calling him “faggot” again and again while stomping on him. Luke stabbed them in self-defense.
Under oath, Kevin said that he told people at the party, “don’t be faggots about it,” when they complained about sparks after he threw a big log into a bonfire. Prosecutor Ramona Toole argued that in this context, using the word “faggots”—considered hate speech by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—was like calling people “babies.”
I’d been following the case since I arrived in Atlanta four days before, but I found no major articles that mentioned the gay-bashing claim, and only a handful of stories in Atlanta-specific outlets. Why was the media treating this as an open-and-shut assault case? Did the fact that Luke was an anarchist make him unsympathetic, though he had no criminal record? Was it just the South’s habit of burying accusations of homophobia? Or was it because Luke wasn’t just queer, but a kind of queer that unsettles even some liberals, the kind who slept around and also dated women?
I pondered this media blackout while around me, a courtroom full of Luke’s supporters struggled to contain their sobs. The bailiff had politely threatened to eject observers who got too emotional. Then Andrew Mainor’s mother Cheryl went before Markle to make a statement. As she went on the stand, the judge took the time to tell her, “I’m very impressed with your children.”
Mainor emphasized to the court that her son was not homophobic. She cited her history of fighting for civil rights and how she imparted those values to Andrew. Then she said, “I heard that the Southern Poverty Law Center was going to put up an article about the case and portray it as a gay-bashing. I called them up and told them, this is Andrew. This is my son.” SPLC, arguably the most important nonprofit law firm that specializes in hate crimes, decided not to publicize Luke’s case as a result.
Mainor was a media consultant and is now the publisher of the Chicago Defender, a prominent African-American newspaper. After the hearing, she told me she sent e-mails to both Project Q Atlanta and the GA Voice, the two most prominent gay outlets in the area, and tried to persuade them not to run articles about the case by presenting them with evidence that Luke was the aggressor. She claimed that she took action because any negative coverage hurts the victims and their families.
By coincidence, I ended up sitting between Luke’s siblings and his parents at the hearing, because I was early and the bailiff asked us to enter the court in order. I was next to Luke’s sister Kate when she sobbed as the judge read his sentence, and saw those sobs quietly intensify in the quivering of her body when Markle banished Luke from Atlanta. The O’Donovans have not escaped from this unscathed. But like most families and friends of victims and defendants, they don’t have the influence to keep their case out of the news.
It was another coincidence that led me to this courtroom. I’m barely a journalist, but there was no one else there to figure out what happened.
We’d been traveling by train for hours before the young man in dark-rimmed glasses that matched his suit asked me what I was up to in Atlanta. He’d been reading Nietzsche, and when he caught me looking, he told me he was an anarchist.
“I’m writing about queer people in the South.”
More specifically, I was stopping by Atlanta on my way to New Orleans then Dallas, to visit and write stories about trans women. But I said “queer” to protect myself. “Trans” can still make someone change seats, or worse. Still, I braced myself for a response. It wasn’t what I expected.
“Have you heard about Luke O’Donovan?”
The man next to me turned out to be Jerry Koch, a friend of Luke’s from New York. By the time I got off the train in Atlanta the morning of August 9, I’d told Jerry I’d try to write something about the case. I had published a piece on transgender issues in The Nation before, and a couple more at the American Prospect, but I had never done anything close to investigative journalism.
“There’s no secret to digging,” my friend Gabriel Arana, a summer guest editor for The Nation, told me in a text when I consulted him. “You just have to be nosy.” Nosy wasn’t my problem, but objectivity was. Luke and I are both members of the LGBT community. We’ve both experienced anti-gay aggression. I was predisposed to take his side.
The next day, I met Jerry at Aurora Coffee and he introduced me to Erin Connolly, Spencer Gould, and Katherine Paist. Spencer and Erin were both at the party where the stabbing took place, and Katherine had been good friends with Andrew Mainor and the others. The glass facade of the coffee shop at the end of a strip mall seemed unremarkable, but I had the odd feeling I had been there before, even though it was my first time in Atlanta.
Erin told me she accompanied Luke to the party that night, and Spencer had come separately. He was part of the group that Kevin Ralph referred to as “faggots,” and he witnessed the five men ganging up on Luke, but it was too chaotic for him to see what happened after knives got involved. Erin added that Kevin’s friends tried to look for her but she managed to avoid them. She heard them say they were going to beat her up too, before she was able to leave the party unnoticed.
Then they said something even more disturbing: One of the men who got stabbed, Mikey Ralph, was seen laughing in the background of a viral Vine video from May, showing someone stomping on a gender-nonconforming person. And it happened in front of Stratosphere Skateboards right beside the cafe. That was why the facade looked familiar.
“I saw the Vine video and I recognized the skate shop, and one of the people who was standing and laughing as this person is being attacked is Mikey Ralph,” Erin told me. “He was with the group of friends and other skater kids and they were the ones who were attacking Luke.” Spencer added that several people noticed the resemblance between the man in the video and Mikey, including someone who knew him personally.
I looked up the video and compared the man in the background to a picture of Mikey Ralph on Facebook. He was a known member of the punk community that frequents the skateboard shop. The man in the video did look a lot like him, though the quality’s too low to tell for sure.
Katherine also said that while the prosecution tried to claim Kevin Ralph didn’t intend “faggot” as a slur, the group regularly expressed homophobic views prior to the attack, which made her cut off ties with them. “I’ve even engaged in dialogue with them specifically about why they shouldn’t use the word ‘faggot’,” she said. “They would tell me that they had freedom of speech and I was choosing to be insulted by those words.” Katherine also gave me the number for Madison Hall, a friend of hers who happened to be leaving the party when Luke ran out, and ended up driving him to the hospital.
Later that night, Erin called to add a few details to her story, and admitted to me that she and Luke were romantic partners at the time of the incident. She was concerned that this detail would confuse media accounts of the story that Luke is queer. I asked her how she would ideally like me to describe their relationship. At first she said, “It might be just better to describe us as friends.” But when I asked her not to hedge she said, “We were queer partners in a polyamorous relationship.”
Erin was adamant that even though Luke is a man and she is a woman, they are not heterosexual, and people at the party knew that because they saw Luke kiss several men there. I also met a number of people who’ve had different degrees of romantic and sexual attachments to both Luke and Erin, both men and women. After his plea hearing, I wondered who among the friends who were there crying in each other’s arms he’d been intimate with. And if the judge knew, if the lawyers knew, if the media knew, would they understand? Or would it make Luke seem strange and unsympathetic, and his supporters seem suspect?
I left these interviews confident in Luke’s innocence. But I still wanted to talk to him, and asked Erin if I could get in touch. She said that Luke was sitting across from her and handed him the phone. He declined to be interviewed before the trial, but he consented to having his picture taken. We agreed to meet the following day.
None of the long-haired, hippie pictures I had seen of Luke resembled the clean-cut man in a button-down shirt who showed up at Aurora Cafe the following afternoon. He looked ready to appear in court.
Since I met Luke through one of his friends, he treated me more like an acquaintance than a journalist. Despite the impending trial, he came across as calm, and confident in a way that could be interpreted as arrogant. Over the years, I’ve met a number of attractive and masculine white men in queer communities who have this demeanor – people who, even though they’re outside the hetero norm, are seen by the rest of the world as belonging to the privileged class.
It’s something I experience as a feminine-looking trans woman of color who is often seen as white and non-trans. It’s hard not to be affected by that privilege, to expect or demand respect even when people identify you as belonging to a marginal group.
Various circumstances — a supportive family, a fancy education, my physical appearance — have conspired to make me one of the most confident trans women I know. So I often find myself seething to defend those who are more vulnerable. I saw the same instinct in Luke: this attractive twenty-one-year-old man, who chooses to be out as queer even though he’s attracted to women and could pass for straight, aching to defend his community against persecution.
Before I took pictures of him, Luke and I chatted a little about the case. He told me he intended to plead guilty the following day if things went according to plan. Part of me couldn’t understand why he would do that if he were innocent.
When I encountered him right outside the courtroom moments before his trial, wearing a suit among his gaggle of supporters, he looked at me directly with his chin down, his brow shading his gaze. Luke nodded to acknowledge me, the corners of his mouth hinting at a smile. I felt his charm then, and the shadow of what may be hiding behind it.
I found Luke’s decision to plead guilty more believable when I saw Judge Markle’s bias. I could see the judge trying to exclude relevant evidence, and manipulating the trial so that Luke would have the greatest chance of being convicted.
Still, something nagged at me about Luke’s decision to accept the plea, something about the charming poise he exuded throughout the proceedings. His support website posted a video of him inviting supporters to come to the court house for his hearing. He winks at the camera at the end, and one of his friends asked me later, “Don’t you think that’s the cutest thing?” Yes, yes it was, and that disturbed me. I didn’t want to feel like Luke was flirting with his supporters, with me, while I was trying to figure out the truth.
After the trial, I called Cheryl Mainor’s office but they said she was still in Atlanta. So I sent her a Facebook message asking if I could interview her.
She wrote a vehement reply, questioning why I would be writing about the case and repeating her belief that media coverage injures the men and their families. She ended her message with: “It is my opinion that Mr. O’Donovan is a sociopath, and dangerous, as he has already issued a statement of his innocence, after pleading guilty, making a mockery of the justice system, and further hurting those he wounded.”
I wondered whether someone who expresses herself with this much self-assurance could be fundamentally mistaken, and my interactions with Luke were already raising red flags in my head about the degree to which he was culpable. My conversation with Cheryl left me with further doubts about Luke’s version of the story.
Cheryl’s major contention was that Luke’s friends, led by Erin Connolly, made up the self-defense story after the fact. That was the reason, she said, why stories in the local news that claimed Luke had been attacked only surfaced two days after the incident. The injuries to her son and the others were extensive, while Luke’s didn’t even need to be treated at the hospital. And according to Cheryl, his mugshot doesn’t even look like someone who’s been through a beating like he claims.
I had seen the picture Cheryl was referring to, but I didn’t make the connection until then that because this was Luke’s mugshot, it was the one piece of photographic evidence about his physical state that night. And it was true that while the other men had to be extensively treated, Luke seemed fine and didn’t show obvious signs of a savage beating.
When I asked Cheryl how she would account for the great numbers of Luke’s supporters, she said, “Those people weren’t even at the party. My son and his friends were there. They were the ones who got stabbed. You know how one person convinces another and then another and then another, and pretty soon they’re all convinced even if it’s not actually true? I think that’s what’s happening. I think Luke is fooling everyone.”
Cheryl also told me she would put me in touch with people who could confirm her claims, including the men themselves, but she never did. My efforts to contact the Atlanta police and the attorney general’s office also went unanswered, and I didn’t have time to knock on people’s doors before I left town.
But this conversation with Cheryl left me feeling like I might be among the ones that Luke and his friends could be duping. I was aware, the whole time I was looking at the case, that Luke’s supporters were meeting together at an undisclosed location I wasn’t invited to. And my major sources for the story were people that Jerry had put me in touch with, the same people that both Cheryl and Judge Markle deemed unreliable. I had to take a good look at myself and ask whether my own bias was clouding my judgment.
I had already made significant sacrifices to stay for Luke’s trial. I had no steady job for the summer and barely any cash, so renting a room for two extra days in Atlanta threatened my ability to get back home. I also delayed my departure by two days, compromising the stories I was supposed to be working on in New Orleans and Dallas. And I was suddenly faced with the possibility that these sacrifices were for the sake of a bunch of queer anarchists who were fooling me into writing a story supporting Luke, a story that serves their purposes but may not be the truth.
After this conversation, I called one of my contacts from Luke’s support team to let them know I was investigating some of Cheryl’s claims, and that I should probably be less in touch so that I can maintain a modicum of journalistic objectivity.
“That worries me,” my contact said. “It doesn’t sound like you’re on our side.”
This reply didn’t make me feel better about the possiblity that Luke’s supporters were conspiring to put out false information about the case. I was starting to feel stupid for getting involved. I called my own partner Josh to let off steam. Like Luke and Erin, Josh and I seemed straight but were both queer. Like them, we get involved with other people.
Josh comforted me the way partners do, telling me it was fine and that whatever happens, we would figure things out, and that I won’t regret working on the story. Josh is one of those people who doesn’t process information the way most people do. Rather than looking at all the dimensions, he tends to focus on a key part and distill what to him seems vital. And this time, he said something that made me think about the case in a way I hadn’t before:
“Does it really matter if he’s innocent?”
The one source I didn’t get directly from Jerry was Madison Hall. We had trouble meeting in person because she lived an hour away from Atlanta, so we spoke on the phone several times. She describes herself as an acquaintance of Luke’s who happened to be leaving the party when he pleaded with her to stop her car and help him get away from the men who were chasing him.
From the start, Madison was incensed at the media’s portrayal of the case, especially because she also knew Andrew Mainor and was aware of the group’s homophobia. She told me she wasn’t surprised when the men ended up attacking Luke.
Contrary to Cheryl’s claim that the self-defense story did not appear until at least two days after the party, Madison told me she filed a police report that same afternoon, which I was later able to obtain. In it, she wrote that Luke’s first words when she got into her car while being chased by a gang of men were “Please don’t stop please. Keep going. They’re trying to kill me!”
Madison told me that the officer who took her statement kept interrogating her about her sexual orientation. And even though the police claim to have investigated both sides of the story, no one followed up with her about her report.
It took us some time, but Madison also helped me track down Toby Weston, a friend’s date who ended up riding with her in the back seat of her car that night. Toby did not know either Madison or Luke prior to the incident, and had not interacted with anyone associated with the case until I talked to him.
Toby corroborated Madison’s version of events. He said that Luke was really shaken when he got to the back seat. “I just told him to hang in there,” Toby said. “I covered the stab wounds on his back with my hand so he wouldn’t bleed.”
He also said that as he and Madison were waiting in the hospital, a friend of the men who might have suspected them of being Luke’s friends, came up to Toby and yelled, “What are you looking at, faggot?” To avoid a confrontation, Toby and Madison left the hospital prior to Luke being released. It was only later they found out that he had been arrested.
When I asked Toby why he didn’t file a police report, he said that he called the police two days after the incident, told his story, and asked if they wanted him to come in. The police said someone was going to get back to him, but they never did.
I told Madison about Cheryl’s claim that Luke’s friends made the whole self-defense story up to save him. I could hear Madison scoff over the phone.
“That woman is in deep denial,” Madison said. “She doesn’t know her son.”
Madison told me that Andrew and his friends never figured out that she was the one who drove Luke to the hospital, so they continued to treat her as a friend. As a result, Andrew made comments in her presence indicating that the men Luke stabbed had gotten together to make up their story. She was at the bar they frequented the night that Andrew returned after being treated for his injuries.
“Andrew bragged about what he did,” Madison said. “He told people there that he knew what he did was wrong, but Luke got what he deserved and they were sticking to their story.”
This was a serious allegation, and I felt the need to figure out how credible Madison was, especially when Cheryl Mainor was accusing Luke’s supporters of colluding to invent his self-defense claim. I finally met up with Madison when she joined the protest march the day after Luke’s imprisonment, and asked her to be more specific about her relationships with the people involved.
“I dated Erin briefly and had a fling with Luke, but we don’t know each other that well,” Madison replied. She added that she didn’t have any contact with Erin the night of the incident apart from texting her that Luke was in the hospital, and because she lived outside the city, they haven’t seen each other since.
When I tell people this part, I can see them get suspicious. How can Madison’s testimony be reliable, if she and Luke had a sexual relationship? How can she say they were barely friends? And what about Erin? And what about Luke liking men? Outside the queer poly community, these things can be hard to understand. I doubt Judge Markle knew where to start.
I spoke to Madison’s mom Grayson Klosinski, who comforted her the night of the incident and encouraged her to file a police report. She said that she was with Madison the whole day before she went into Atlanta to file the report, and the only person she observed her try to contact was her boyfriend, who was out of town. Grayson was adamant that there was no way Madison could have made her story up, either on her own or with others.
“Madison’s a stand-up person,” Grayson said, “not a liar or an exaggerator. I’ve always known her to do the right thing.” Madison’s mom also pointed out that at twenty-five, her daughter was one of the oldest people there. Grayson found herself confused and aghast when she saw news reports that portrayed Luke as the perpetrator.
“It’s a shame people don’t understand that the heart wants what it wants,” Grayson concluded, “and that people want to do harm to those who are different.”
Luke told me he would call me from jail the day after the trial, but the call never came. By the time it did, I was on the train to New Orleans, passing through a stretch of Alabama, looking at pictures of him on my computer. There’s this one picture I keep going back to, of him outside the skateboard shop with his hands in front of him, left on top of the right, forming the shape of a heart. Was he hiding the hand he used to stab those men, or just protecting it?
Luke was only able to tell me this before the train passed through a tunnel and we got cut off: “I accepted the plea because with that judge, I wasn’t going to get a fair trial, and he was going to sentence me to a lot more time.”
He tried to call me again, this time as I sat in the living room of a transgender friend in New Orleans, as she was having a loud argument with one of her other friends. Not the ideal conditions for an interview, but Luke didn’t seem to mind. His calm, which seemed calculated outside of prison, felt to me like resignation on the phone.
I told him about Cheryl’s claim that his self-defense story was made up after the fact. I asked him why he didn’t tell the police his side of the story that night. Luke told me that by the time they came to him, they had already spoken to the other men and were ready to make an arrest.
“I didn’t talk because I don’t trust the police,” Luke replied. “I was afraid they’d twist my words and use them against me. They’ve had a history of doing bad things to queers going back to the Eagle raid.”
Luke was referring to a 2009 incident where police illegally raided a bar without a warrant and harassed patrons. An independent report confirmed that police not only lied about their actions, but destroyed evidence on their mobile phones. The Atlanta City Council approved a settlement of over a million dollars to compensate a number of patrons who brought a civil rights suit against the Atlanta police.
When I asked Luke about why his mugshot didn’t show damage to his face, his reply seemed ready and unrehearsed. Though he didn’t have a black eye, his face was swollen, his lip busted, and there were marks on his face. “The damage didn’t look too bad because I tried to cover my face. You can’t see the rest of my body but I had blood caked to the back of my head.”
Though it was true that Luke didn’t look beat up in his mugshot, his face did look swollen compared to other pictures of him. Also, Luke didn’t get a medical exam in the hospital like the other men because of the police’s quick decision to arrest him. He was treated in prison where his injuries weren’t documented.
But there were other parts of our conversation that concerned me. First, Luke didn’t think Andrew Mainor was homophobic like the other men; he just joined in the fray because he wanted to back up his friends and was a homophobe by association. Second, he thinks that at first, Andrew and Mikey were trying to break up the fight between him and Kevin, and only started beating him up as the fight progressed and their friends joined in.
This made the situation a lot more ambiguous than either side portrayed it in court. Kevin’s motives may not have been harmless, but it also didn’t seem like a homophobic gang targeted Luke to beat him up, which is what you would normally picture when you hear the term “gay-bashing.” It was impossible to know when an effort to stop a fight turned into a beating, and when self-defense turned into a counterattack.
It became clear to me then that the truth was not just about what happened, but how people perceive what happened in light of their own lives.
If you were to ask me now, this is what I think is true: Andrew Mainor went to a queer-friendly New Year’s party, and he brought some friends who were not so queer-friendly. Kevin Ralph used the word “faggot,” which caused Luke O’Donovan to react and confront him. The vibe between them continued to be tense until they got into a physical fight.
Kevin’s brother Mikey and his roommate Andrew tried to intervene to break the fight up, but as it escalated, the dynamic shifted. The three men started ganging up on Luke, and then other friends of theirs joined in. Luke then pulled out his knife and started using it to get away, and he himself got wounded three times. He believed himself to be in danger when he ran from the party and found himself in Madison’s car, pleading for her to drive away.
If this story is true, Luke stabbed the men because they were beating him up, but they weren’t beating him up because of his sexual orientation. They did it to try to defend their friend. Given how many witnesses claim that they were yelling “faggot” as they were ganging up on Luke, and their homophobic behavior both before and after the incident, it’s likely that their prejudice emerged and intensified in response to the altercation. They may even have been angered by the idea of Kevin getting beaten up by a queer.
The consensus seems to be that while Kevin used the word “faggot” first, it was Luke who initially made the fight physical by grabbing Kevin’s neck. This is important both from a legal and ethical standpoint. Georgia has a stand-your-ground law that permits people to engage in violence while defending themselves against imminent physical harm, but the law also says that “a person is not justified in using force if he initially provokes the use of force against himself with the intent to use such force as an excuse to inflict bodily harm upon the assailant.”
Did Kevin provoke Luke’s use of force when he used the word “faggot”? Or did Luke provoke Kevin’s use of force when he made the encounter between the two of them physical? This was why it was so important for the prosecution to establish that Kevin did not use “faggot” to refer to Luke specifically, because this makes Luke’s initial use of violence seem unjustified.
It’s at this point that perspective matters, where the judge and I diverge, and where anyone who reads this story has to make their own conclusions. For Markle, if Kevin didn’t call Luke a faggot specifically, then he wasn’t the one who first initiated the violence. And because the men did not have homophobic intent when the altercation began, Luke’s claim of self-defense is bogus.
I would hazard a guess that Judge Markle has never been called “faggot.” I have, several times. Two incidents stand out in my memory, once before and once after transition. The first was when I was a senior at Harvard and had done my performance piece, “Dancing Deviant,” where I declared my queer identity while naked onstage. I was walking to Tommy’s Pizza from my dorm at Adam’s House, and a guy behind me called out, “Wanna put a dildo in your butt for me, faggot?” I was steps away from the pizza place, so I quickened my pace and ran in. I never saw the face of the man who hurled those words at me.
The second time was in South Boston, as I was walking to the subway station ten minutes away. It was early in transition, the first month that I began presenting myself as a woman full-time. It was late and a party I was invited to got cancelled without anyone telling me, so I had no one to walk with. There was a group of men hanging out on the sidewalk, and one of them smiled in my direction. I averted my gaze, and I was walking away when another man in the group shouted, “Dude, that’s a fag.”
I was a half a block away by then, terrified I would get beaten up, like so many trans women before and after me. I kept walking at the same pace so I wouldn’t confirm what they suspected, praying they wouldn’t give chase. I heard quick steps behind me and I was on the verge of breaking into a run, to live in life what had at that point only been a nightmare, when the footfalls slowed and then stopped. I refused to look back.
How grateful would I have been to have a Luke? How much would I have wanted for someone to be there, both of those times, to defend me, to be willing to put his self and body on the line for my sake? How much would I have wished for queer people not to be socialized as weak or victims, to be unafraid to stand up to those men? And if I had been there that night at the New Year’s party, would I have felt triumphant, that finally it was the homophobes who got hurt more than the queer, the tranny, the fag, the dyke?
What if I had been at that party? It’s likely I would have said something too. It’s unlikely Kevin would have confronted a woman, but had I still been a man, maybe he wouldn’t have backed down. And if I were the type of man Luke was, maybe I would have answered Kevin’s challenge, to defend my people from the hatred we’ve endured, from years and years of seeing queer and trans people being beaten up and killed by people who hate us, from the daily taunts and small psychological traumas we have to endure just to live our lives, traumas inflicted upon us by people like Kevin Ralph.
Let’s say Kevin didn’t mean to be a homophobe when he told a group of people “don’t be faggots about it.” Let’s say Luke did overreact and lose his shit unjustifiably. We’ve seen straight people claim “gay panic” or “trans panic” to explain why they’ve harmed or even killed LGBT people — they went into a state of temporary insanity, they say, after finding out someone was gay. Is panic and rage based on years of trauma that much harder to understand?
How can queer people seek reparations for psychological and physical trauma? How do we get back the time and tears and self-esteem we’ve lost from people telling us we’re worthless for being who we are? How should we react when slurs become the shorthand through which people express their hatred of us? Luke reacted with violence — violence that, while I don’t exactly condone it, I feel I can understand. But one person lashing out is not enough to turn the tide.
Entire communities have had to enact their trauma through self-defending violence for people to pay attention. That’s what happened in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, and dozens of other times before: protestors shouted back, threw back tear gas canisters. This is what it takes to get the nation at large to take notice of the plight of the marginalized. It’s what it takes to even begin to fight a police and justice system that is rigged against them.
This is something that queers as a community seem to have forgotten since Stonewall, that part of me hopes we don’t have to re-learn. But how can I not see the reams of coverage surrounding Ferguson while Luke sits in jail, the victim of shoddy police work and a biased judge, and not find myself wanting to remember this lesson?
It was August 13. The next day, thousands of people would gather across the country to stand strong in a National Moment of Silence for Ferguson. I was supposed to be in New Orleans interviewing trans sex workers. Instead, I was wandering around downtown Atlanta, trying to find a candlelight vigil hastily organized in response to Luke’s imprisonment. It came to about fifty people, who decided to turn the vigil into a protest march instead.
I started to follow them so I could document. The part of me that was still pretending to be an objective journalist wanted to keep my distance, but ultimately, the shouts of “Fuck the police!” ended up being too alluring. So I came up and found Jerry, who offered me a bottle of Coke.
The group meandered its way around Atlanta’s streets, met with shouts and comments and honks both approving and disapproving. I found myself walking with a woman whose name I don’t quite remember, but I call her Anna in my head.
She told me she’d heard that I was writing about Luke. Anna came from Chicago, didn’t know Luke personally but was close to one of his friends. She said it in a way that made me think she meant that she was connected to Luke through a lover.
Anna thanked me for my work, and I felt some comfort. It pained me to be in this position, not being able to fully join them or let go of the burden of having to tell this story as though I weren’t in it. At the time, I still thought that was possible.
The chants of “Fuck the police!” were soon interspersed with “Fuck Judge Markle!” and chants I didn’t recognize. I wanted to learn those new chants, wanted to shout them myself, but I stayed silent, handcuffed by my self-imposed objectivity.
Soon we had a police escort behind us and I moved to the sidewalk to avoid arrest. I followed the group as it meandered to a street that had a pedestrian walkway where police cars couldn’t go. Once there, the crowd dispersed in small groups, so the police wouldn’t know who to arrest.
“See you later,” Jerry said as he raised his hand goodbye, but I knew I wouldn’t. I wasn’t one of them, Luke’s supporters. I was an observer, who would spend the night in my hastily-acquired Airbnb rental. I imagined they would all convene at some agreed-upon location, maybe smoke some weed, cuddle or kiss or more. I wanted to join them, but they wouldn’t let me and I wouldn’t let myself, so I walked to the MARTA station, and took the subway alone.
My editor and friend Gabe tried to get this story on the calendar for The Nation, but he wasn’t officially working there anymore, so we never managed to get it through. I also tried to get it seen by a couple of other liberal publications, but didn’t get any responses except for an editor who wrote: “O’Donovan’s case is certainly note-worthy, but we are concerned the reporting as presented in the pitch is shaped by a foregone conclusion.” A journalist is supposed to be a vessel for the story, not a part of it. But to me, reporting on this case like that is like expecting myself to bow down to social norms I’ve spent a long time combatting.
If you’re queer, better to be out than pretend to be straight. If you want to have sex with more than one person, better to be open and polyamorous than have affairs. If you’re any journalist who will always find it impossible to be truly objective, better be as open as you can about your biases and let readers judge your words for themselves.
I don’t believe there was any way Luke could have gotten a fair trial. I think he could be guilty, as defined by Georgia, of stabbing men out of anger and not self-defense. I’m not sure if I care, and I’m not sure if I should.
But believing what I believe doesn’t mean I haven’t been honest. And in writing this story that no major media outlet wants to publish, I fulfill what I feel to be my moral obligation not just to Luke and his supporters, but to finding out what really happened. I also fulfill my obligation to myself, to defend members of my community against injustice, even if it means exposing the possibility that they may have done things other people would consider wrong. This is my stab at the truth.
Correction, September 30, 2014:
A previous version of this article stated that Cheryl Mainor was the publisher of the Chicago Defender at the time of the incident; she was in fact a media consultant and only assumed her publisher position in May 2014. It also stated that she contacted people she knew at Project Q Atlanta and the GA Voice; she was not acquainted with the journalists she contacted at the time of the incident.