Claudia Brenner A Shooting Victim Now Crusades Against Violence Aimed At Gays

Posted: June 08, 1995

Claudia Brenner stepped up to the microphone, took a deep breath, and calmly began the story of how she almost died on May 13, 1988.

"When the first bullet hit me, my arm exploded. My brain could not make the connection fast enough to realize I had been shot. I saw a lot of blood on the green tarp on which we lay and thought for a split second about earthquakes and volcanoes. But they don't make you bleed. Rebecca knew. She asked me where I had been shot."

The audience - about 60 members and supporters of the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Task Force - sat, rapt, as Brenner continued the story.

"When the second bullet hit me I started screaming." Then the third bullet hit her neck again, and the fourth bullet her face, and the fifth the top of her head.

The sixth bullet hit Brenner's lover Rebecca Wight in the back of her head. The seventh bullet hit her back. "It exploded her liver and caused her to die." The eighth bullet missed.

Brenner was 31 at the time of the attack, and Wight was 28. They were graduate students, and they were hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania's Adams County. That morning, they'd encountered Stephen Roy Carr, a drifter and a criminal who was living in the woods. He'd asked them for cigarettes. They didn't have any. They passed him on their way out to the trail, exchanging "See you laters."

They didn't know that Carr would stalk them for the rest of the day, and that he would spy on them as they set up their tent fly, as they hugged and kissed and started to make love.

They didn't know he had a gun, and a grudge against "women kissing women." They didn't know until he started shooting.

Claudia Brenner bundled her lover in a sleeping bag, left her at their campsite and walked out of the woods: four miles with five bullet wounds. She was air-lifted to the Hershey Medical Center, and survived.

Rebecca Wight died at the campsite.

Brenner, who spoke in Philadelphia on Monday, wrote a book about her experience called Eight Bullets: One Woman's Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence (Firebrand Books). Instead of giving readings, she said she prefers to tell her story at events sponsored by gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

Monday's event was a perfect fit. Brenner was the keynote speaker at a press conference to launch a task-force sponsored study on anti-gay discrimination and violence in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

The last study - a survey of more than 2,600 gay men and lesbians in Pennsylvania - was released in September 1992. It said that in one year's time, 27 percent of the men and 8 percent of the women reported they were victims of criminal violence on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In her speech, Brenner said she believed - "as some of you might" - that anti-gay violence didn't happen to people like her.

"I always believed that it was a matter of harassment, not life and death, that it was something that happened to gay men, late at night, outside of seedy bars," she said. "I always thought that life-endangering oppression happened to people different than me. To heal, I had to acknowledge the world as a place that includes the possibility of getting shot and killed at any moment."

She told the crowd that, unlike many gays and lesbians who are the victims of discrimination or crime, she had a good experience with legal authorities. The Pennsylvania State Police believed her story almost from the moment she arrived at the station, bleeding, with her tongue sheared and her teeth shattered. They brought in an FBI sketch artist, launched a massive manhunt, and arrested Carr 11 days after the attack. He was found guilty of murdering Wight, and is serving a life sentence, without parole, in a maximum-security prison.

"The system worked because I'm white and educated, and my parents and friends showed up, and were very involved," she said, adding that the officers admired the strength and courage it took for her to make it out of the woods with bullets in her neck and throat and arm.

But even though the cops came through for Brenner, she maintains the prejudices against gays and lesbians are still in place. "One police officer told me that if it had been two men in the woods instead of two women, he wasn't sure the system would have worked," Brenner said.

Tim Allue, a state police spokesman, disputed Brenner's charge, saying that police officers are trained to treat victims the same way - "regardless of social status, gender, race, lifestyles, whatever." He said that officers don't receive special training in handling crimes against gays and lesbians,

because the goal is to have them treat all crime victims "fairly and objectively," without considering factors like sexual orientation.

Today, Claudia Brenner has no visible scars, and seems to have healed completely. "No pain," she said briskly, balancing on her hip Reuben, the son she gave birth to nine months ago. She lives in Ithaca, N.Y., which she's called home since her college days, with her "chosen family" - an ex-lover, Anne; Anne's daughter Satya, and Anne's lover Gina. She works as an architect, and as an activist, talking to legislators and politicians and the public about how violence against gays and lesbians should never be tolerated.

She has told her story over and over. To the United States Senate. On CBS This Morning. On radio call-in shows, and Sally Jessy Raphael's talk show. ''It doesn't bother me anymore," she said. "I think it's harder for people who have to hear it for the first time."

The important thing, Brenner said, is that things are getting better, and gay-bashing and gay beatings are getting more publicity, and being more widely condemned.

"We're making strides in getting civil rights," she said. "The more our movement is a part of the fabric of daily life, the more the acts of violence will become less acceptable."

Rita Addessa, the task force's executive director, said she hoped that Brenner's story would not frighten people, but would "move them to activism," and encourage them to report crimes against them.

"People need to know that there's hope," she said.

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