SAN FRANCISCO -- At exactly 3:33 PM on the afternoon of August 13, dozens gathered at Bronson Park in Kalamazoo to celebrate the life of Bryan Higgins, also known as ‘Feather’. At that exact time, he was taken off life support in San Francisco, the victim of a beating.
“I love you Bryan," said Higgins sister-in-law Liz George. "I wish you well on this new journey. It’s only the beginning. Feather’s human experience has ended and now his spirit is free to fly.”
Colorful balloons were set free with a special symbol: a feather.
“He is just carefree, light like a feather,” said Heather Baker, a lifelong friend of Higgins.
Feather is a nickname that, friends say, stuck with Higgins for years, so everyone gathered at the vigil sported a feather on their clothing or tied to their balloon.
“I love him, and I’m proud of everything he was as a person,” said Baker.
Baker said she smiles today because memories of Feather bring her happiness. However, she’s hoping for justice for Higgins after his violent death.
“Nothing like this should happen to anybody,” she said.
Feather’s uncle, Steve Horton, was at work when he heard his nephew had been severely beaten.“We were all confused, and said, "It’s a shock for somebody so healthy, young, and a beautiful soul to die in that manner,'” Horton said.
A chalk heart created by the group in Bronson Park was Horton’s reminder that Higgins wouldn’t want him to be angry, so he’s trying to find the love.
“I’m very angry, but I’m letting love take over my emotions right now, because anger is not the answer," he said. "It leads to hatred, and hatred becomes crime."
So, instead, Horton shared a favorite memory of Higgins when he was just three years old and embodied one of their first laughs together. “He was watching '16 Candles,' and he went, “What’s happening, hot stuff?” And it was a bond that could never be broken,” said Horton.
Eventually the vigil turned into a celebration, people writing their favorite memories of the man they called Feather. They shared hugs, and even broke out in song. Horton hopes to send a message to his nephew on one of the balloons soaring through the sky.
“Until we meet again. Love, Uncle Steve. That’s what I wrote,” he said.
The tragedy goes beyond affecting family and friends. The LGBT Community is stepping out and starting a conversation.
“We aren't making any assumptions until we know for sure what happened in San Francisco. But what we do know is that it was a violent crime, and violence is rooted in hate, and so that's where we stand,” said Jay Maddock, executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center.
The Gay and Lesbian Resource Center was there to support Higgin’s friends and family in this time of loss. They know this isn’t the first time someone from the LGBT community has been a victim of violence, and it’s probably not the last.
“The LGBT community is targeted at for violence at a higher rate than other population," said Maddock. "It’s a more vulnerable population, and it makes the LGBT community and the individuals in it feel often unsafe in certain situations. This even happened in San Francisco, but I think this type of thing happens every single day across the world. It it’s home for Kalamazoo because he is from here."
Maddock said the hugs being shared while they mourn for a nephew, friend, and brother-in-law is something he hopes to never see in this LGBT community again.
“I think hate and violence often come from a place of misunderstanding," said Maddock. "We need to talk more and communicate more so we can build bridges of sexual orientation in general and gender identity so we can come to a place where we can respect people."
The Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center is having a Hate Crime Forum Thursday night, August 14, at 6 p.m. at the Douglas Community Association.