They parked at Dead Woman's Hollow. The sun was shining on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail in western Pennsylvania where the two women had gone to hike and camp and be alone. This day in May 1988 was pleasant in an uneventful, unspectacular way -- the type of nice day anyone could have in the spring out in the wilderness walking with the person he loves. The leaves were new on the trees, the stream they camped by ran pure and cold, keeping company with a patch of soft moss large enough to stretch out on.
Later, after the stillness of the forest was broken by gunfire and screams and death, Claudia Brenner wondered how the birds could still be singing. She wondered why the green tarp where she had been lying with Rebecca Wight was now stained with blood. She listened to the chatter of the birds and wondered if they saw what had happened to her there by the stream, wondered what they were saying.
Claudia Brenner is supposed to be dead. Five bullets punctured her body that day. Eight shots in total shattered the afternoon. The blasts seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving Brenner and her girlfriend wounded and bloody when only seconds before they had been making love. Wight, 29, died alone in the Pennsylvania woods. Brenner lived to tell their story.
Claudia Brenner's voice silences the crowd gathered on Thursday night at a local fund-raiser for Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV).
"The first bullet," begins Brenner, reading from the pages of her book, "Eight Bullets: One Woman's Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence," written with Hannah Ashley and just released by Firebrand Books. "When the first bullet hit me my arm exploded."
Brenner's words chill the room and are part of the reason she has become one of the most prominent activists against anti-gay violence in the country. In Washington to speak at the Gay Pride Week event, Brenner goes beyond telling her terrible story and hits at what made it acceptable to her attacker to hunt and kill lesbians. To the crowd gathered to listen, the murders of 11 gay men in the area in 1994 gave Brenner's words urgency.
"I never thought that you could be killed for being gay," says Brenner. "I knew about taunts and harassment and that's what I thought of when someone said anti-gay. I never thought it happened to women. I never thought it was a matter of life and death.
"If it is all right to tell jokes about gays, if it is all right to yell slurs at us on the street, at some point it becomes all right for the Stephen Roy Carrs of the world to hunt us down and shoot us," says Brenner to the hushed crowd. "Rebecca and I were playing by the rules. We were in the middle of the woods. We weren't flaunting it and we still weren't safe. Playing by the rules won't keep us safe."
In an interview Brenner says that for her the issue isn't even about homosexuality specifically. "People are so afraid of difference that they see people who are different as subhuman," she says. "And sometimes they kill."
Brenner's world changed in the moments it took Carr, a then-21-year-old drifter and mountain man who was convicted of the murder, to load and fire his bolt-action rifle eight times. Carr hit his targets with all but the last bullet. When the shooting was over, bullets had pierced Brenner's arm and neck, grazed the top of her head and shattered her cheek. Wight was hit twice, fatally struck in the back by the seventh shot. Her liver exploded. Carr left both women for dead.
"I didn't know I was shot," says Brenner, her eyes on the floor as she describes the attack. "But Rebecca knew. Rebecca knew we were being shot."
In the quiet after the gunman left, Brenner wrapped a towel around her bleeding neck, pulled a sweat shirt over her head and tried to coax Wight into walking with her for help.
"I knew I was hurt but I think my brain, out of self-protection, wouldn't let me think about how bad it was. I knew Rebecca was hurt really bad," she says. Brenner walked four miles from the campsite to a road where she flagged down help. She wanted to go back for Wight; instead the young boys in the car that she stumbled upon took her to the nearest fire station.
Seven years after being a victim of a headline-making crime, Brenner says she has healed but will always carry the physical and mental scars of the violence. Sometimes she wears a necklace that belonged to Wight, a silver pendant dangling from a black cord.
Brenner lives in Ithaca, N.Y., in a home with friends who spent night after night at her bedside in those first weeks after the crime. An architect whose studies were interrupted by the nightmare in the woods, Brenner recently got her license. Not speaking up about the crime, she says, was never an option. Brenner, 38, has fine features, brown hair sprinkled with gray and clear blue eyes that she shares with her son, Reuben, born nine months ago and named for Rebecca. On the floor of a friend's Northwest D.C. apartment, Brenner cradles her son, turning the pages of a musical book to keep him occupied, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before answering each question.
"The man who killed someone I loved and almost killed me had no other information about us other than the fact that we were lesbians. I almost died because I am a lesbian," she explains. "Any murder is wrong, is unacceptable, but it seems like we should be able to do more about people being killed because they are gay." Brenner did not know the man who hunted her in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. She and Wight had spoken briefly to their assailant twice before the attack -- first when Wight encountered him at a trail shelter, and a second time on the hiking path as the couple made their way to another campsite. Carr asked if they were lost. Neither woman thought much of the encounters. Brenner believed that they were alone at a secluded spot in the woods when she and Wight settled in by the stream. But what she didn't know was that Carr had stalked them, taking aim and firing from a spot where he could not be seen.
In her book, Brenner praises the system for treating her fairly at every juncture. Still, she says that many factors made her case more clear-cut and easier for people to sympathize with than many equally serious instances of anti-gay violence. She is white and middle-class. Her parents came to her side immediately. Her friends were professionals -- all of which gave her credibility in the eyes of the officers on her case.
Even for Brenner, who had been comfortable being open as a lesbian for years before the attack, telling the police that she was making love with Wight when the shooting began came only after several days of thought and advice from a lawyer.
"I find it fascinating that my self-protection was that deep that in the middle of all this pain and sheer terror I still knew not to say I was a lesbian. I was protecting myself because someone had tried to kill me and I didn't know what anyone else's reaction would be to me and Rebecca being lovers," says Brenner.
For a week after the attack, Carr, whom police had identified as the man Brenner described to an FBI artist, evaded the law. A fugitive already from grand larceny charges in Florida when he shot the women, Carr hid this time in a Mennonite community. Mennonites do not read the newspaper or watch television, so the family giving him shelter had no idea he was a murderer. They asked only that he work on the farm and attend church. One community member who was not a strict observer of the Mennonite laws recognized Carr from media releases and informed the pastor.
"That's my kind of sinner," says Brenner with a smile. Brenner's honesty about her lesbianism proved crucial to earning the investigators' trust and to prosecuting Carr. Police never believed Carr's original story that he had been shooting at a deer and missed. Later, when he described to police his disgust at watching the women having sex, police knew they could place him at the scene the moment the crime occurred.
Though Brenner's straightforwardness about her sexuality sealed the case against Carr and gives her hope that the system can work for homosexuals, her fight was not without its low moments. The scope of anti-gay sentiment became clear at a discovery hearing before the trial began. Carr's attorney tried to introduce evidence of the women's sexual relationship to build a defense known as "homosexual panic."
Carr, his lawyer said, experienced uncontrollable rage when he saw the women making love. Their lesbianism was provocation. The judge in the case disallowed introduction of the women's relationship in court, forcing the defense to cut a deal and accept a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for Carr. The experience made Brenner sympathetic to other victims of anti-gay violence who often choose not to report the crime.
"There is a tendency to blame the victim in anti-gay crimes," says Brenner, as she arranges pots and pans for son Reuben to beat on. "The more people identify with Rebecca and me the more they realize that it could be their sister or brother or daughter or friend."
Brenner continues to speak out with the help of organizations like GLOV across the country. Does she ever wonder what Wight would think of her activism, which neither of them, when they were together, could possibly have imagined? "I think Rebecca would be really proud of me," she says, breaking into a smile as wide as her face, the same smile she has in the picture with Wight that appears on the dedication page of her book. "Rebecca would be really proud." CAPTION: Rebecca Wight, left, and Claudia Brenner. They "were playing by the rules," Brenner says, ". . . and we still weren't safe." CAPTION: "I never thought that you could be killed for being gay," says Claudia Brenner, wounded in an attack that killed her lover.