A middle-aged wife and mother, she sits with her husband on the steps of the historical Hampshire County Courthouse in her former hometown—the small, quant, liberal, New England town of Northampton, which proudly calls itself Paradise City. They are on a rare date, momentarily freed from the responsibilities of their professional lives and the equal if not greater challenge of parenting. A couple of weeks away from their anniversary, they sit alone, half way up the steps, knee to knee, drinking ice-coffee and people-watching like tourists or teenagers.
Set back from the busy intersection, the old courthouse stairs spill into a walkway bordered by a small park and fountain before meeting the public sidewalk and then a four lane, two-way street where cars gather at the stop light of a busy intersection.
Grateful and giddy, she closes her eyes and places several pecks on his cheek. After three and a half years of cohabitation, she still feels like an infatuated seventh grader.
As she’s giving him those silly, sweet pecks, she hears a male voice yelling slurs. Startled, she looks up and realizes a car full of what appear to be college-aged boys have stopped at the light three lanes away. The driver is leaning out of his window yelling the slurs while looking directly at her and her spouse, then making vulgar hand gestures involving his hand and extended tongue. He stops only to yell at them and then resumes his pantomime of a sexual act.
Does this seem unlikely to happen to a middle-aged man and wife?
The truth is that this didn’t happen to a woman kissing her husband.
It happened to a woman kissing her wife. To me kissing my wife.
In the moment before I heard him yelling, I remember feeling lucky in love as I closed my eyes and gave my spouse those innocent, goofy pecks on her smooth cheek.
When I realized the obscenities were directed at us, I undraped my arm from around Viv’s shoulders and leaned away from her like a chastised child, physically separating as if several inches between our bodies might instantly stop the attack on our relationship. I put my hands in my lap and stared at the young man who was busy with his obscene gesturing.
I’m trying to remember what he said… Faggots… Faggots… Was that it? I’m fascinated that neither Viv or I remember with absolute certainty what he said, as if we both instantly repressed the verbal attacks. I remember “faggots.”
I’ve known boys and men to yell “Dykes” in the direction of my former partner and me—whether holding hands or not. But somehow I’ve always felt immune to “dykes” when used as a slur. It’s about as hurtful as calling a white person “cracker.” But “faggots”—when not used by a faggot—gives me a small taste of what it might feel like to be called another infamous slur with two Gs.
As a femme, I’ve only been gay-bashed when with a butch partner. When alone, the same boys/men treat me as they’d treat any other woman they deem attractive. So depending on whether I’m alone or with my partner, I’m perceived as sexual prey or a sexual deviant that threatens their masculinity—or both.
What disturbed me far more than the words that came out of his mouth: his sexual pantomime as he held his circling open palm in front of his extended tongue. He looked like a grotesque fool.
At first, I simply stared back and then gave him the finger, as did Viv. Gandhi we were not. Not that time.
He was momentarily distracted and turned away to talk to his passengers in the back seat. Viv and I looked at each other in disbelief. I felt entirely powerless.
The asshole in question (and I’m using an obscenity for the first time in a blog only because it’s the adjective which most accurately describes this young man in this moment of his life) then resumed his alternating slurs and obscene gesturing. His tongue worked the air his hand held. For an instant I pondered the physical distance between myself and his commentary on my relationship with my spouse.
He waited in the third lane away for the light to change. It’s a notoriously long light for the six-way cross walk.
Suddenly, Vivian stood up and started walking down the steps and walkway across the sidewalk directly toward the car. I was right behind her. With long strides, we moved quickly but it felt like slow motion. We entered the street’s empty oncoming lanes. I felt an electric connection with Viv. She was approaching the driver’s side as I pulled out my cell phone and held it above my head, ready to document. There we were: a lesbian mod squad of two 40s something women in jeans and motorcycle boots aggressively walking in the middle of the street toward a gay basher.
My wife rips open the car door on the driver’s side, exposing a surprised, scrawny guy in shorts and flip-flops. He puts his hands up in front of him, as if to suggest there’s been some sort of mistake, as if he can protect himself from my wife’s powerful hands. Standing there, she’s a force to behold—her striking, dark, Native American features sharpening in the face of bigotry—and then a breeze lifts her long black hair, exposing bulging biceps.
Suddenly shaky and wide-eyed, Gay Basher shrinks into his car’s interior.
Legs wide and hands ready at her sides, Viv says, “If I was a guy—and you objectified and sexualized my wife and me like that—wouldn’t you expect me to beat the shit out of you?”
There’s silence in the car as the crosswalk’s signal beeps its annoyingly crisp, birdlike tweets and I circle the vehicle, photographing the license plate and distressed faces of Gay Basher and his passengers.
Squinting, Viv says, “So give me one good reason why I shouldn’t rip your ignorant ass out of this car and teach you a lesson? You think ‘cause you feel a little horny or intimated by the idea of two women you have the right to degrade us? Hmmm… Way I see it, you got yourself three choices right now: respect, fear, or pain….what’s it gonna be?”
Dear reader, it was a glorious moment—in our imaginations.
But as we first approached the car, the light changed.
The car began moving.
Gay basher entered the crosswalk and turned left, looking out his open window back at us.
His mouth was open. But now he was silent.
Then gay basher drove away.
And there we were, standing in the middle of the street—staring back as Gay Basher’s face disappeared into his vehicle which grew smaller and smaller as he proceeded up King Street.
Yes, reader, if this feels anti-climatic to you, it was anti-climatic to us as well.
But what I just shared with you—our fantasy of what was ABOUT to happen in our steeped-in-too-much-Alias brains—was real to us, real for a tremendous instant after years of “small” incidents. And I only say “small” out of deep respect and regret for those victims, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, who have suffered and continue to suffer severe gay bashing and sexual harassment and/or assault.
To both of our Moms: Viv wants me to clarify that “we were unlikely to beat the shit out of that homophobic asshole and his car full of dumb assholes but we would have verbally challenged him in a manner intended to awaken his consciousness and humanity.” And Mom, please note that BEFORE we started walking toward the car, I was assessing the exact nature of the hand gesturing and noting details of the perpetrator’s and his passengers’ facial features while Viv was assessing number of males in the vehicle, proximity and numbers of potential pedestrian witnesses (and backup forces), time of day, traffic patterns, potential police presence and more. Seriously. And don’t forget: we were literally in the center of our lesbian mecca in broad daylight. Otherwise, we would have sat there and passively “taken it” like we usually do rather than risk our lives. I promise.
I must add, dear reader, that my description of Vivian is the only thing in the above slow-mo action heroine fantasy scene that WASN’T imagined after we approached Gay Basher’s vehicle. Viv truly is that astonishing.
Cars in the oncoming lane cautiously approached and so we walked back to the sidewalk. Deflated, we strolled along Northampton’s streets without holding hands. It was as if we were momentarily afraid to be out then reminded ourselves where we were—and that we were relatively “safe.”
We grabbed each other’s hands. We were, after all, still on a rare date after my poetry reading at the Forbes Library. While our lovely date felt tarnished on some deep level, we were together, even in this, this sad epilogue. The sun shone just as bright in the late afternoon as day waned into evening and each breeze still felt like a quick stroke of silk, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking for the car and hoping I’d see it. Nor could I stop replaying the alternate action heroine scene in my head.
In fact, I imagined other pedestrians starting to gather around the vehicle, not to harm but to witness and manifest that what a bigot does to one, he/she does to all. “Private,” “minor” ugly acts of bigotry committed against one or two nurture the human disease of prejudice and its resulting hatred based on ignorance and fear of perceived otherness. Many couples might just laugh off what had happened. We couldn’t.
And I couldn’t stop thinking about the moment of feeling safe enough to close my eyes and lean in to give my wife that little kiss on her cheek—the kiss quickly interrupted by Gay Basher.
Three weeks later, I saw a photo in the news of a teenage girl giving her girlfriend the very same sweet kiss. Her eyes are closed as she places a peck on her sweetheart’s cheek.
The large image caught my eye an instant before the headline. It was the same reverent, innocent kiss. The beloved receiving that kiss with a wide smile and beaming eyes, eyes that say everything—she’s happy. So happy.
I recognized that kiss and then read the words “lesbian”—“couple”—“shot.”
It is late at night and I’m the only one still awake when I first see Mollie and Kristene’s photo and read the headline. Even my teenage daughter is already asleep, tangled in her sheets.
The girls were found in knee-deep grass.
Through open windows, I hear the river rushing over the dam and an occasional car within the night’s stillness as I silently weep. The couple—Mollie Olgin, 19, and Mary “Kristene” Chapa, 18—was found at Violet Andrews Park just below a scenic overlook on a windy coastal bluff that slopes into the sea in Portland, Texas, a small town near Corpus Christi, just down the coast from where I thrice lived in Galveston. Police say Mollie was shot in the neck and Kristene in the head by a large-caliber gun at close range near midnight.
Their bodies were found about nine hours later on June 23—the very day of the Gay Pride Festival and Parade in nearby Houston, and just days after and before two separate pride parades in nearby San Antonio. Mollie was pronounced dead at the scene. Kristene was taken to a local hospital and later regained consciousness.
I read through tears. In one photo, yellow crime scene tape surrounds a playground. A female police officer bends to photograph the ground near a marker that says “10” and a blue children’s slide. Police believe the murderer led the two teenagers from a wooden deck overlook down a grassy trail to where they were executed.
Photos of the crime scene can’t help but be beautiful—slate gray ocean and swaying palm trees haunt the background. I remember taking my wife “home” for the first time and sitting together on a windy summer night on Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. We held hands, talked and laughed, savoring the warm late night breeze so foreign to her and familiar to me. A few cars passed but we felt safe enough, just across the street from our hotel encircled by palm trees.
I think about the distance between our innocent kisses that night on the seawall overlooking the gulf and the overlook along the bluff that slopes into the bay—the place where Mollie and Kristene collapsed into grass and sand. The distance between our kiss on those Massachusetts steps a few weeks ago and where Mollie and Kristene stood together for the last time. The distance between where their bodies were found and where long ago, at their age, I lay in a grassy Houston park side by side and holding hands with another girl.
That day, decades ago, we briefly lifted our heads to reach and kiss a simple little kiss on the lips when a neighborhood security officer approached us, calling me “douche bag” and threatening me. He said that the neighborhood and my landlord had “been good” to me but that he’d report me (for what? I now ask) if it ever happened again. We were in the small park across the street from the $100 a month room I then rented in a lovely little home that now borders the famous Menil Collection. At the time, I lived with the curator of another Houston museum, and I imagine she would not have been too shocked. But I was young and dumb and promptly slipped back into the closet, afraid of what I didn’t know.
Kristene and Mollie chose to openly live and love—to the extent that their friends had been aware of them as a couple for five months. Kristene’s tweets reveal a passionate, joking and irreverent teenager. She tweeted “Fuuuuck you cramps!!” and “Fuck controlling people!” and “When life hands you lemons, say Fuck them lemons and bail!” as well as romantic messages such as “Can’t wait till Saturday (((: staying with the babe” and “Is it weird I don’t wanna wash my shirt because it smells like you..” She tweeted about missing her niece and wanting to take her to the park as easily as “I wish I could be as awesome as@Jenna_MMarbles :/” She even waxed lyric on occasion, tweeting, “I use to think the Ashes from ash Wednesday were dead body Ashes” and “People throw rocks at things that shine.”
I try to imagine what my life might have been like if I’d have felt that I could be out at 18. I stare at the photo of Kristene kissing Mollie. The longer I stare, the more I feel their loss. And my loss. Shocked by the depth of my reaction, I drink a glass of water and blow my nose but I cannot stop crying. Too far from home, I now live half way across the country but I might as well be home, standing on the beach just down the highway from where they last stood together—that’s where my soul seems to be. I give up trying to stop crying and go to bed, collapsing into my wife’s arms. She wakes instantly, asking what’s wrong. When I tell her, she just holds me.
For several days, I walk through my life fully aware that I’m haunted. I frequently check for news of Kristene, waiting as she gains strenth and begins to sign, at first her only way to communicate. I take this loss, this tragedy, as if it’s happened in my own family. And it has. Mollie and Kristene are part of the human family and the LGBTQ community. The lives and love and loss of these two strangers has pierced my heart.
For my profile pic on Facebook, I post Mollie and Kristene’s sweet photo as a small political act to spread word of this unimaginable tragedy and the beauty of their love, acknowledging metaphorically that my wife and I see our younger selves in them. As if our younger selves—the selves we could have been, the selves we sometimes dream of—were executed the night that Mollie and Kristene collapsed into tall grass close to the sea.
“One shot to each. In the back of the head.” Detective Sergeant Roland Chavez of the Portland Police Department speaks quickly with a soft Texan accent, yet when he speaks these ten words, they are weighted.
“Except, he shot Kristene off to the side,” Chavez adds. He pauses before explaining how “muzzle blast” might have changed the killer’s aim with the second shot, when he shot Kristene.
“See, when you shoot a gun in darkness—I don’t know if you’ve ever shot a gun—well, when you shoot into the dark there’s a blinding flash. It’s like a small explosion and at first it’s hard to see if you go to shoot again.”
Listening to Chavez on the other end of the line, I see Kristene and Mollie standing side by side and the backs of their heads—Kristene’s straight dark hair and Mollie’s blondeness. Based on the positions in which their bodies were found, he thinks they faced inland.
“They were given directions. They were told they were going to be shot,” he says.
On that late June night, the moon was just beginning to wax toward full. Could it have given off just enough light to better betray the slightly lighter outline of Mollie’s head, making her a clearer target while leaving Kristene’s silhouette just vague enough that—combined with the muzzle blast—the killer’s aim was altered?
Questions begin to multiply. If the murderer shot Mollie first, did Kristene reflexively turn her head toward or away from Mollie at that instant? Could that also be part of why she was shot on the right side of her head? Perhaps that’s why Kristene is alive—although, to some great degree, paralyzed on the left side?
I begin to understand on a deeper level how the girls’ parents might be plagued with these kinds of questions. Mother to a girl about their age and a gay woman myself, what happened to Mollie Olgin and Kristene Chapa continues to feel as if it happened in my family. Oddly, when I first heard the horrible news and posted a photo of the two girls to help spread the word when mainstream media barely mentioned it, several friends assumed the photo was of my wife and me when we were young. We weren’t even “out” at their young age and didn’t meet until our forties.
I ask Sergeant Chavez for any fresh news about Kristene’s recovery. I’ve followed the minimal press coverage as closely as possible. Chavez says Kristene is working hard and has regained some use of her left leg. They are working on her left arm and the sight in her left eye. He notes that the brain—“that amazing organ”—can overcome even spinal cord injuries. When Chavez speaks of Kristene, he speaks as if she’s a muse —and she is—she is the thing that keeps them going as the investigation continues with the help of the FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Corpus Christi Police Department, and other agencies.
Every significant suspect, so far, has a verified alibi and/or has supplied a DNA sample. The Portland Police Department still awaits test results from forensic evidence: fingerprints, clothing and bullet casings were sent long ago to be analyzed. The Department has been told that the test results should arrive in early September, and the forensic technician can’t reveal any information yet—not even to the police.
Chavez explains that there is no benefit to the public knowing other details about what transpired on that night; it is Kristene’s story to tell, when and if she decides to do so, and that withheld information “holds certain value” for the investigation.
That said, he acknowledges that his older sister is a lesbian and she’s asked if there’s any reason gay women in the region should be unusually concerned about their safety. Chavez believes that based on everything the police know, they have absolutely no reason to believe Mollie and Kristene were targeted because of their sexual orientation. “We believe it could have happened to anyone,” he said. Chavez realizes there’s no comfort in that and urged his sister to take the same precautions she’d normally take.
Still, for this writer and many other gay women, the risk of a kiss or even holding hands is rarely diminished and tragedy such as this only deepens the sense that danger can lurk anywhere, at any time. The fragility of life—made only more fragile by choosing to live openly and honestly as a gay woman or man in this world—can, at best, constantly remind one to be grateful for yet another day.
When I ask Chavez what the investigation needs most, he said “We do know other people were out there—six to eight cars—and we need those people to come forward with any information they may have.”
When asked if I can note that his own sister is gay, he says, ”I do not mind you telling people about my sister. I am and always have been proud of her. It is quite humorous that when she finally decided to tell me about her sexuality, my response was ‘No shit. Glad you finally figured it out for yourself!’ I have always believed that God places people in our lives for a reason and I guess having a sister who is gay and having lost a child, there was no better fit for this case than me.”
Chavez tells me “I also have a blog, well, I guess it is more of a journaling that I do… I keep my son updated on things going on in our lives. I am sure he already knows since he is watching from Heaven.”
Apparently, his son died at the age of thirteen.
In one recent post, he writes this: “Hey My Boy! Well I had to leave the office. I have been there nonstop for the last two weeks, day and night… I went to the hospital and spent time with the family. I go pray every day when I leave the office for her [Kristene] to get stronger and peace for the two families. Well enough about work [but] that’s all I’ve been doing.”
Since the first moment I heard about the shooting of Mollie and Kristene, I’ve made assumptions that the local police investigating this murder/attempted murder might, somehow, not be as committed to solving the case since the victims were/are homosexual. Especially in Texas.
As a former Texan and now long-time Texas-loving New Englander who’d been homesick since she left home over twenty-five years ago and finds herself defending Houston and Houstonians on a regular, sometimes weekly basis (YES, there are liberal democrats and progressives in Texas thank you and I was raised in an intensely international city thank you), I loved having my conscious and unconscious assumptions challenged by dialogue with Sergeant Chavez.
Although he’s not aware of what “LGBT” means and uses the term “gay” when I ask permission to mention his sister, he is already a part of the community. “The family” just got bigger.
I imagine Kristene staring at a blank wall, or a TV, or well-intended inspirational art displayed in some rehabilitation unit but seeing Mollie for the last time. That last glance.
And then I remember Detective Chavez’s words: “I know that I will catch this guy. I don’t know when, but I will catch him.”
Born in Little Rock, AR, Chivas Sandage primarily grew up in Houston, TX. She has also lived in Galveston, TX; Santa Fe, NM; Bennington, VT; New York, NY; and Northampton, MA among other cities. She blogs at csandage.com and lives with her wife and daughter in Collinsville, CT.