Gay group organizer apologizes for ‘appearing’ to turn back on beating victim

Many in Atlanta’s LGBT community are criticizing Change Atlanta on Facebook and various websites for the group’s apparent about-face in its support of Brandon White, the young gay man who was beaten in a filmed attack that went viral on the internet.

Now one of the leaders of the fledgling group says he has “learned his lesson” in how he dealt with the incident, which he acknowledges included questioning whether White was lying about knowing the attackers, “cuddling up” with one of the suspect’s defense attorneys on TV and not understanding that many in the LGBT community have been victims of anti-gay violence.

“Yes, we have gotten some flack. And I’m glad I’m learning this lesson at 21 rather and not at 41,” Devin Barrington Ward said told the GA Voice in an interview Feb. 28. “My youth and immaturity played into this. I will always reflect back on this when I’m 60 or 70.”

Change Atlanta is not specifically an LGBT advocacy organization but has several gay leaders. Ward said he wants to take responsibility for his actions, and how he deals with his mistake will determine if he will be welcomed back into the larger LGBT community.

“This is a touchy subject in the LGBT community. Many people have told me they have been victims, their friends have been victims or their family members have been victims. I’m a young man and I made a mistake,” Ward said.

“I realize whether or not he knew the attackers, a crime occurred. I want full accountability [from the suspects] so we can get to a healing stage.”

Ward added he was now having his “man up” moment to rebuild trust. He said he hopes a forum will be held soon with representatives of the FBI to discuss what exactly constitutes a hate crime.

“This happened in an impoverished community where these teenagers [alleged attackers] had no jobs, were not in school. We now have four young men under 20 whose lives have been dramatically effected, specifically by the actions of three who did it to the one,” Ward added. “What happened was unwarranted regardless of any prior relationships.”

A rush to ‘15 minutes of fame’?

The Feb. 4 beating, where the attackers can be heard shouting “no faggots in Jack City” at White, galvanized Change Atlanta and other activists to take action. They held a Feb. 8 community discussion at the Phillip Rush Center and organized a Feb. 11 rally where more than 100 people — including U.S. Rep. John Lewis and openly gay state Rep. Rashad Taylor — braved frigid temperatures to call for justice for the attackers, as well as healing for the impoverished Pittsburgh community where the assault took place.

At the rally, Taylor even promised to introduce a state hate crimes bill this session, drawing applause from members of Change Atlanta. That bill has yet to be introduced.

But in the days following the rally and arrests of the three suspects, Change Atlanta — with just over 200 “likes” on its Facebook page — began publicly questioning on a local TV station whether White knew his attackers.

Members suggested White lied to the media about why he was attacked and that this crime should not be considered a hate crime. Currently, the FBI is continuing to investigate the beating as a possible hate crime.

The gay activists with Change Atlanta also met with one of the alleged attacker’s mother and his defense attorney — also with TV cameras filming their actions.

“Brandon needs to come forward and make his wrong right,” Ward told CBS Atlanta in a Feb. 22 story.

“In the beginning we thought this was a random attack because Brandon was gay,” added Terik Jackson, also of Change Atlanta, to CBS Atlanta.

Activists questioning White’s motives also said White was threatening to “out” the attackers for being on the “down low” — or being secretly gay.

Christine Koehler, a lesbian attorney representing White, said the actions of Change Atlanta with the media were “reckless.”

“Brandon did not know his attackers and it is sickening to think that people would say that without asking Brandon and are instead taking the word of one of the attackers,” she said.

“The idea that our community, or the community at large, will reconcile in front of cameras is either naive or disingenuous,” she said. “To me, this seems more and more like a race to get 15 minutes of fame.”

Change Atlanta new to Atlanta’s LGBT scene

Change Atlanta, formed last year to empower young people, held its first event during Black Gay Pride over Labor Day Weekend. Its State of Young Gay America summit included such panelists as Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham and Darlene Hudson, a founder of the State of Black Gay America Summit held each year at Black Gay Pride.

A portion of Change Atlanta’s mission statement includes: “[T]he greater city of Atlanta has expressed their distaste and ultimate ignorance of who this LGBTQ generation is and where they are headed. Countless citizens have announced their objection to gatherings and events that are targeted toward this community in fear of violence and unrest to their own communities.”

Graham, a veteran LGBT activist, said he met Ward and other members of Change Atlanta, including Terik Jackson, last year when they were first organizing their group.

Graham said he supported the group because it is important to support young voices.

When Change Atlanta asked to use the Phillip Rush Center to hold meetings, Graham said he had no issues with it — many groups not affiliated with the Rush Center, or the other organizations that consider the Rush Center home, regularly hold meetings there.

Graham said he was aware of the controversy surrounding Change Atlanta and its recent stances on extending support to the alleged attackers. The attack on White needs to be thoroughly investigated by law enforcement, he said.

“What happened to Brandon White was just wrong,” Graham said. “I hope all sides can agree this was a violent attack and I have to wonder if some people actually have the best interests of the LGBT community and the one true victim in mind.”

Ward: ‘Want to make my wrong right’

At a Feb. 25 Change Atlanta meeting and press conference at the Rush Center, Ward said he supported White but also did not want to see the three suspects — black teenagers — thrown into a “broken” judicial system.

“I stand behind Brandon White, and I stand behind Brandon White because he is my brother, even though I never personally met Brandon… Just as much as he is my brother so are the individuals that attacked him, and we have to as a community talk how we bridge the gap between the victim and the ones who inflicted the pain upon the victim,” Ward said then.

Ward said Feb. 28 he knows he has a lot of fences to mend, but he is willing to do the work.

“I want to make my wrong right, to use those words I used with Brandon to apply to myself,” Ward said.

“I’m working on mending my relationship with the community and most importantly with Brandon,” he added. “I hope he’s able to understand I’m only one year older than he is. And I’m willing to continue working on relationships, coalition building. We’re not always going to get along, but if the community will allow me a seat at the table I would like to be there.”

Ward said that defense attorney Jay Abt —who is representing Dorian Moragne, the suspect who allegedly threw a tire on White after he was kicked and knocked to the ground — did not seek him out for help.

“I reached out to him because I wanted to speak to [Moragne’s] mother,” Ward said. “I wanted to know what was in his mind, where the homophobia and violence comes from. She didn’t raise her child to be this way.

“Homophobia is so perpetual in the black community, the cycle of violence, and I wanted us to address that,” he added.

— Matt Schafer contributed

Top photo: Devin Barrington Ward (right) of Change Atlanta now says he is sorry for doubting Brandon White after the gay man was brutally beaten by gang members in southwest Atlanta. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)