From NYC to San Fran, Vigils for Latina Lesbian Teens Shot in Texas
"Remember Mollie! Remember Mary! We want justice!" The chant rang out Sunday night, July 1, at the vigil held in New York City’s Union Square Park for the slain teen 19-year-old Mollie Olgin and her 18-year-old girlfriend, Mary Kristene Chapa, still clinging to life in a Texas ICU. Both were gunned down in a South Texas park on June 22.
Across the country, the LGBT community responded to a call for justice for the Latina lesbian couple attacked by an unknown assailant in Violet Andrews Park in Portland, Texas, a few minutes before midnight on June 22. They lay in knee-deep grass for nine hours before being discovered by a couple the following morning. Olgin, a first-year university student living in Corpus Christi, TX, died; Chapa, of Sinton, TX, was alive and rushed to an area hospital.
The police have not arrested a suspect nor established a motive for the attack. On June 28, an eyewitness described a possible suspect as a white man with dark hair in his 20s, weighing 140 lbs. and standing 5’8" tall. In a move eerily reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin shooting, investigators thus far have refused to classify the extreme violence as a hate crime.
The vicious and lethal assault and the slow-footed investigation triggered both grief and outrage in the LGBT community nationwide. On June 24, Cleve Jones of San Francisco group UNITE HERE called on LGBT advocates to act. Via social media networking, queers across North America responded with spontaneous vigils in 20 cities. LGBT communities coalesced in gatherings large and small to memorialize the slain teen Mollie, and offer comfort to her survivor, Kristene, battling for life from the gunshot wound to her head. As of today, she is conscious and communicating in sign language.
New York City’s candlelit vigil took place on July 1 in Union Square. Grassroots group Queer Rising helped bring out about 100 people. The event included a speak-out that found most addressing the issue of the violence against LGBT folks, especially youth.
"This is more than about one person being killed, not just one murder. This is a system of hatred...a system of people saying this is okay," said Queer Rising youth member Jake Soiffer. "This is a system of people oppressing each other with words. This is a system of verbal violence, not just physical violence. That’s why it is important for us to speak out."
There was a significant youth presence at the vigil. One young woman, Giulia Girgenti, made a statement, now accessible in a YouTube video. [The two girls] "faced violence we think because of who they were and who they loved. We don’t know for sure but it’s still something that affects the entire queer community," said Girgenti.
"Violence against our kids is violence against us all!" one activist shouted, echoing the sentiment of the crowd. The general message taken from the vigil was that our community must defend and protect its young people.
And for Queer Rising organizer Brandon Cuicchi, it didn’t matter whether the attack on the women was motivated by their lesbianism.
"The fact is that our sisters were attacked...the pattern is familiar," said Cuicchi. "Whether it is [a hate crime] or not, it’s a good time to address violence in our community."
Cuicchi called upon the LGBT community to forcefully condemn Texas law enforcement’s inaction both to find the killer, and to classify it as a bias crime, saying, "The Texas community’s hesitation or dismissal of bias motivation actually discourages people from coming out, from reporting violence, from being open, from being themselves."
He plans a follow-up to the vigil through his work on behalf of LGBT homeless youth, noting the connection between the violent attack on the Texas couple and LGBT homelessness. Forty percent of the homeless youth in NYC are LGBT, and they vie for less than 250 beds citywide.
"These attacks on teenagers are comparable to the economic violence perpetrated against LGBT youth," said Cuicchi.
Across the Country, Other Vigils Honor Mollie and Kristene
On June 29, a twilight vigil took place in Olgin and Chapa’s honor in Washington, D.C. More than 100 people braved the 104-degree heat and contributed more than $300 to help with Kristene’s medical care.
"They are members of our community. We have a responsibility to stand up for them," said Jamie McGonnigal, the organizer of DC’s vigil.
Speakers there included Maya Rupert, federal policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Chad Griffin, new executive director for the Human Rights Campaign, Andrew Barnett, executive Director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League and A.J. Singletary, chair of Gays & Lesbians Opposing Violence. The vigil was concluded with an ancient African ritual called "pouring libations."
"Kids growing up don’t feel like they have a community. We need to show up and show them there is a community that they can be proud of," said McGonnigal. "We also need to keep an eye on the investigation, and make sure the authorities know that the whole country is watching."
In San Francisco, Jones gathered more than 200 people together on June 27 for a vigil to remember the women, including some young people from SF’s local LGBT youth support organization, LYRIC.
"I think everyone understands the importance of paying attention to the investigation," said Jones. "Meanwhile, our hearts go out to the families and friends of Mollie and Kristene. I’ll continue to follow the investigation and also want to encourage folks to contribute to Kristene’s medical fund."
In Seattle, a June 29 candlelight vigil drew a multigenerational crowd of 250 people, who shared in prayer, music, speaking and lighting of candles. Seattle Out and Proud Sponsorship Director Karolina Longoria organized the event and shared her personal identification with the teens and the Seattle community response.
"I often read stories about horrible crimes, but this story took me and my thoughts to a different place," said Longoria. "I felt a deep connection to these young women. I don’t know why, maybe because I am Latina, a lesbian or because my parents are from Texas but for whatever the reason, I wanted to honor Mollie and Kristene and their love."
Longoria said that whether the attack was a hate crime or not, she wanted to honor Olgin’s life, and to support Chapa and her recovery. She said that others shared her feeling.
"They also felt a reason to be there, though I do not know what their reason was," said Longoria. "They came, they honored and they created a moment that was greater than anyone of us could have done alone."
Community Vigils Overwhelm Media Response
Despite the on-the-ground response of queer communities since this attack occurred, the case has been largely ignored by both the mainstream (and some gay) media outlets. Many are also curious as to why Texas authorities persistently refuse to classify it as a hate crime.
"I expected the crime to be on every editorial page in the city and for every single LGBT organization to be here," said veteran Irish queer activist Brendan Fay, at New York’s vigil.
Some have speculated that in addition to the fact of their romantic relationship, the girls’ ethnicity and class may determine how this crime will be investigated and eventually prosecuted.
Chapa’s family is uninsured; a WePay page has been set up to collect donations to pay for her hospitalization. Olgin was a freshman at Texas A&M but her socioeconomic background is unclear. NBC Latino identified Chapa as a "gay Latina teen" and her family as Mexican-American. According to NBC Latino, Olgin’s father is Hispanic.
"There are couples like Mary and Mollie on every street corner in the country," said Fay. "I hope this is just the beginning -- just the first vigil."
To donate to Chapa’s medical fund, send checks in her name to Prosperity Bank, 1127 East Sinton, Sinton, TX 78387. To donate online, click here.