Brandon White came out to his favorite aunt and cousin when he was 16 by sending them a text message.
“I sent it out and waited for five minutes. They said, ‘Oh, we already knew that and we support you,’” he remembered while seated Thursday, Feb. 9, in a small kitchen on the third floor of the Georgia-Hill Street Neighborhood Facility.
“I wasn’t really worried [about their reaction]. I didn’t hide anything from them. But for them to actually know was different,” he said. “Then they wanted to know when I was going to tell my mom.”
To this day, interestingly, White has not told his mother he is gay, nor has he told most of his family.
White, 20, was brutally attacked Feb. 4 outside a small convenience store in the Pittsburgh Community of southwest Atlanta by three gang members who repeatedly called him “faggot” as they punched and kicked him. White labeled them “monsters” at a Feb. 8 press conference covered by local and national media. During the press conference, he was open about being gay.
“I thought that … if a straight person could walk to the store and not have a problem I should be able to do the same thing. I shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not I should have to look over my shoulder or if this person is going to attack me or that person is going attack me for just being a gay male,” he said at the press conference.
“I still haven’t told my mom,” White said in a one-on-one interview with the GA Voice the day after the press conference. “But she knows. And my family knows. And they really know now,” he said with a grin.
“Everyone is supportive of me. No one judges me. They say I’m the same Brandon to them that I’ve always been because I am.”
A soft spoken and articulate young man, White is small in stature, has a pierced tongue and is proud of the boots he purchase on sale for $26. He wants to go to school to become a psychologist and then become a physician assistant.
He’s currently unemployed but the media attention he’s received from the attack after a video of it went viral on the internet is helping with job leads, he said. He’s currently staying with family members outside the Pittsburgh Community but friends and supporters are accepting donations to help him find his own place.
Attorney Christine Koehler, past president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and the gay Stonewall Bar Association is representing White pro bono to make sure he understands the legal process of his case as it goes through the system. Atlanta police and the FBI are currently investigating the attack as a possible hate crime. Atlanta police say they have identified the three attackers. A $15,000 Crime Stoppers Atlanta award has also been set up for a tipster who leads to the arrests and prosecution of the suspects.
He finds solace in reading urban erotica ― everything from Zane to E. Lynn Harris. His face lights up when talking about staying up all night to read a 400-page book, not stopping to sleep or eat.
“The fantasy – I want to be this person or I want to be that person,” he said of his love of erotica. “It’s based on real life but it isn’t. It just grabs your attention. I love reading.”
He is very grateful for the community support he’s received as he goes through a difficult time in his life, he added.
“My biggest support comes from my family, the community, Greg [Smith, executive director of the HIV Intervention Project], my therapist. A lot of people are helping me through this,” he said. And he knows he’s fortunate to be receiving the help.
“There are people who have been through this situation before where there was no evidence. People get jumped on daily, people have homophobic slurs thrown at them daily. For me to have proof and a video that was uploaded and the world to see it…it’s just crazy,” he said. “It’s been a roller coaster. Up. Down. Dealing with the media. It still hasn’t really hit me, everything that’s going on, but I’m slowly dealing with it.”
‘I can’t move on with my life if I don’t forgive’
White said he remembers the beating vividly. It was in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday and he went to the JVC store at 1029 McDaniel St. to buy a piece of chicken.
“They sell some good chicken,” he said, smiling.
“I wasn’t even in there for more than two minutes. I was calling my grandma and as the phone was ringing someone just hit me on the side of my head and from there came the kicks, the punches and the screams. I didn’t know they threw a tire until I saw the video,” he said. “And just like that they took off running. I walked home, packed up a few things and left.”
White said as he walked to his house and was packing, he was overcome with anger at the three gang members who blindsided him.
“I was pissed,” he said. “I was ready to fight. I wanted to go home, change clothes and go back. I wasn’t mad about the situation, but pissed because they didn’t want to give me a fair fight. If they gave me a one-on-one fight, it would have been different ― you have to give that person a chance to protect themselves and that’s something they didn’t give me.”
White said at first he wasn’t going to tell anyone what happened, he was going to “let it blow over.” But then Monday came and he got calls from his cousins telling him he was all over the TV and the internet.
“That’s when the embarrassment kicked in,” he said. “I cried that day. I don’t cry for nobody. I cried because there were so many emotions. I was pissed, there was anger, there was embarrassment, there was sadness.”
Watching the video of him being beaten was hard, White acknowledged. But now he believes the gang members who decided to upload the video to the internet “set themselves up for disaster.”
“Once you decided to take it viral, you set yourself up for whatever comes for you, the police … they set themselves up for everything,” he said.
White said he’s been asked what would he say to the young men the men who attacked if he saw them face to face.
“I would probably tell them I do forgive you guys. I can’t move on with my life if I don’t forgive you guys, and I do forgive them. It was a very immature decision they made, very immature,” White said.
‘I consider myself a very strong person’
White understands in the grand scheme of things his story has a short shelf life and the media attention and vast community support he is receiving now will eventually dissipate. He also understands there are agendas being made surrounding his situation.
So he intends to take full advantage of the opportunities he’s being given now while in the temporary spotlight.
“Instead of letting this hold me back and bring me down ― how can it help prosper me, how can it help me make myself better, make my life better. Those are the steps now going forward in my life instead of sitting around,” he said.
“My situation, I understand people have an agenda. Everybody is trying to get something done. It’s clear what these guys [the attackers] were doing. There’s a lot of people in the gay community really trying to help, they want to see the right thing happen. I do too. But it’s the way you approach the situation,” he said.
“I understand this only has so much media life to it. Even with that being said, you will still have the media’s attention because it’s out there. Know your options,” he said.
White said he’s learned a great deal about life by listening to his elders ― his grandmother, great grandmother, mother, sisters and cousins.
“Everyone deals with things differently. Once you sit around and listen to all these stories everyone tells, it makes an impact on you. I’m the type of person where I like to hang around my elders.
“They have been through so much in their lives and they can really teach you a lot of things,” he said. “Have a conversation with an elder and you will learn a lot that you would ever know or never experience. Elders are very wise. I give them the utmost respect.”
White doesn’t consider himself a loner, but he says he is typically close friends with two or three people only, such as his female cousins. He prefers keeping to himself and in school stayed out of the way of others and never suffered much at the hands of bullies. The mentality of joining a gang to feel important escapes him, he added.
“Why should I sit around and worry about what you are doing with your life as opposed to what I’m doing with my life? If I’m just standing on a street corner, where’s that going to take you? Going around in a gang will get you nowhere,” he added.
“Going around in a gang will land you in two places ― behind bars or in someone’s graveyard. That’s not a good look. If you have to hide behind a mass of people, too, that’s not a good look either.
“I’m the type of person where I stand alone. I don’t need anyone to fight my battles. I consider myself a very strong person,” he said.
Rally set for Saturday
Despite a strong soul, White admitted he is now fearful when walking in crowds, looking constantly over his shoulders to see if he is about to be attacked.
But in the end, he believes what happened to him will make him a better person.
“It’s true, I may be the victim. No, not maybe, I am the victim. But that does that mean I have to let this incident choose my life? How do I take this and turn my life into something better. How do I take this small situation in the grand scheme of things and make my life better instead of keeping it here and staying the victim,” he said. “That’s what I’m working on now.
A rally organized by the LGBT community activists and Pittsburgh Community activists is set for Saturday, Feb. 11, at the site of the attack beginning at 10 a.m. U.S. Rep. John Lewis will attend as well as Atlanta City Council members.