Ryan Kendall was a star witness for marriage equality and against so-called "conversion therapy" when he took the stand in the Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco federal court six years ago. Ryan bravely recounted some of the most vulnerable moments of his life as he told the story of his parents' horrendous reaction to learning he was gay and of his surviving forced conversion therapy as a youth.
Ryan's testimony marked a key moment in the trial, because the immutability of sexual orientation is an important legal issue pertaining to constitutional rights of LGBT people. Ryan was in exactly the right place at the right time. Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the case and is gay, described Ryan's testimony as "the most touching testimony of the trial," -- so powerful that it led Walker himself to reveal that he had undergone conversion therapy as well. Since the Prop. 8 trial, Ryan has gone on to testify before numerous state legislatures about the harms of conversion therapy.
But Ryan knows firsthand that at any point in life, one might be called upon to testify as a witness to love or hate. A few years after his Prop. 8 testimony, Ryan found himself on the other side of the country and in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. In the end, though, he may have been just the right person to be there.
After the Prop. 8 trial, Ryan, a former Republican, dedicated his life to becoming a civil rights lawyer. His pursuit of excellence led him to Columbia University in New York, but also happened to put him on a tragic collision course to witnessing a horrible hate crime. He recently recounted the experience in The Advocate:
It was on a warm spring night in late May 2013. I was out celebrating the end of the semester and wanted to continue the festivities in the gayborhood after a Columbia University-sponsored event at the Delancey ended. I got something to eat, hopped in a cab, and headed to Greenwich Village.
Once there, I walked up the street, turning right on West Eighth Avenue, just in time to see Elliot Morales exchanging words with Mark Carson and his best friend, Danny Robinson.
As I approached, I heard Morales repeatedly call Carson and Robinson "faggots." I thought a fight might break out. So I passed them by on the left. As soon as I had gotten in front of them, though, I was frozen in place -- paralyzed by the unmistakable crack of a gunshot behind me.
While Ryan was able to choose to be a witness in the Prop. 8 trial, he had no choice in witnessing a hate crime and a murder. Mark Carson was dead, shot by Elliot Morales, and as fate would have it, Ryan was present for the whole thing:
In the moment after a gunshot, you don't think, you just do. I didn't even have time to be afraid. Once I could move again, I turned around to see what had happened.
As I did, Morales walked by, brandishing his weapon and saying, "Don't you look at me."
But I did look, and I flagged down the responding police officers to tell them what I had seen. The images from that night remain with me. I will never forget the sight of Mark Carson dying at my feet -- yet another young black man killed with a gun in the street.
Over three years later, Ryan, now a law student at the UCLA, recently returned to New York to testify at Morales' murder trial. He told the courtroom exactly what he had witnessed, and the jury convicted Morales of hate crime murder.
Ryan has never been a passive witness; he is perceptive, engaged and circumspect. Ryan observed, "As Morales cross-examined me on the stand, I saw a broken man who could have been helped at so many turns."
Ryan had used the months and years since the murder took place to reflect more widely on what he had witnessed:
In the first few months after the shooting, I was angry at Morales for stealing Carson's life simply because he was gay. In the months and years that I've waited to testify against Morales, my anger at him receded.
Ryan found himself confronted with the question of whether "Carson's death could have been prevented."
Along with countless other LGBT people, their friends and their families, Ryan, has used his voice tirelessly to convey the humanity of LGBT people to the world so that crimes such as the one Morales committed might someday no longer occur. He has also worked to raise the self-esteem of LGBT people; indeed, Morales at the trial claimed to be bisexual.
Ryan examined what little he knew of Morales as a person. He noted that Morales, 33 years old at the time of committing the crime, "had already had been incarcerated for 11 years after committing an armed robbery during which two women were bound and beaten. When Morales was released from prison, he doubtlessly found himself cast out into a society with little support or chance at a decent life...Then it is no wonder that, as he testified in court, Morales was out of prison by May 2013 but staying on a friend's couch, with little more than his clothes and a gun."
Ryan, who describes himself as perceiving "the world through a lens of policy and law," observes how our prison system seeks "to punish, not to rehabilitate," how our society lacks sufficient "mental health and social services," and how easy it is to obtain firearms. He notes how difficult it is for a person convicted of such a felony to find a job. He urges us to consider candidates' positions on these issues as we make "crucial decision[s]" in the 2016 elections. In Ryan's words
I can imagine a world where we choose to break the vicious cycle of imprisonment and recidivism and replace it with a virtuous cycle of education, job training, and hope.
In the end, maybe this murder couldn't have been prevented. Maybe Morales would have been impervious to help. Maybe he would have found one way or another to kill someone.
But to honor Mark Carson's life, we should at least try to make tragic outcomes like this less common. We should try to build a world with more love and less violence, with more opportunity and less suffering, with more hope and less hate.
Ryan's essay regarding his experience, What Happens After You Witness a Hate Crime, is published here: http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2016/3/16/what-happens-after-you-witness-hate-crime
John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality.