Judy Wight is the youngest sister of Rebecca Wight, who remembers her sister for her sparkle and wished to share how her loss has impacted her. All words below are hers unless specified otherwise.
TW: Loss, grief, murder, violence, death, mentions of sex-shaming.
When I think of Rebecca, I feel sad and angry. The world lost a star because of some stupid guy’s prejudice. Though gay people have become more accepted in society, I still see a lot of this prejudice and it infuriates me. What a waste.
Rebecca was five years older than me – when she was killed, I was twenty-three and she was twenty-eight. She’s sort of frozen in time at that age for me. I’m much older now, twenty-five years have gone by, but it’s like in my mind she’s still a young woman. One way her death affected me is how I didn’t get to know her as an adult; I was always just the kid sister. I’ve gotten to know my other sister as an adult and our relationship is different than it was when we were young. I mostly think about how it just sucks that Rebecca was this really interesting person I never got to know as an adult, so she’s forever stuck in my mind as this older sister and mother figure.
The time period around May 13th is always difficult emotionally. Every year around that time, I start getting physical pangs of anxiety and a dark cloud descends over my life. What happened to Rebecca and our family is an intense story that I don’t really share it much. People hear that you have a sibling that was murdered, and oh by the way, she was gay and she died because of anti-gay violence. People’s response to this story is generally painful – for me! They don’t know how to deal with it – and while I’m sympathetic – it’s just not worth discussing. Except that sometimes I just have to talk about it.
We didn’t have a traditional funeral; we just went through the Nature Conservancy to a wooded spot in Blacksburg, VA and everybody came and stood in a circle and told stories about Rebecca. I was stunned at the things people said about her, the love and admiration they expressed. I didn’t know her outside of our family. People simply adored her.
Our mother died young – I was nine and Rebecca was fourteen – and she ended up being like a surrogate mother. She was the older sister and she was always so much further ahead than me. She was outgoing, she was sweet and funny and smart as all get-out. After Rebecca died, we had to clean out the space where she’d been living. There were just piles and piles and piles of books. I’ve never known anybody to read as much or as often as she did. She raced through books. She was just smart that way.
Rebecca was my dad’s favorite child. I think that’s because she helped him, given that my mom wasn’t there and he had these little kids to deal with. He managed in part because she helped. My mom died in 1974 and from then until the time my dad remarried, Rebecca was sort of the surrogate mother that took care of me and my other sister. That’s one part of why she was so responsible and my dad really relied on her quite a bit.
We grew up mostly overseas and that had an effect on all of us, growing up in these other cultures. It gave us a certain perspective. When we were younger, we lived in Korea on an army base. She was only with us for a short while because it was her last year in high school. My dad took us to Korea and we got established in a house on an Army base. But then he left us there, Rebecca, me, and Evelyn, and went back to the states to marry my stepmother. He left us there in Korea and seventeen-year-old Rebecca was in charge! He went and married my stepmother, they went on a little honeymoon, and then they brought the boys, my stepbrothers, to Korea. When I think about it now, that’s so insane, but what it says about him is that he trusted Rebecca. We weren’t babies, but we were pretty young, and he trusted her to manage and deal with us.
I don’t mean to paint her as perfect, but it’s honestly hard to remember what faults she might have had. I remember Rebecca always tried to do things for us. A memory I have is of her taking us on buses into Seoul, Korea and we went to an AA meeting. Our dad was an alcoholic. It was fascinating! I’d never encountered other people like my dad like that. It was one of my first introductions to the whole concept of alcoholism. Later, when we were back in the States, sometime after 1983, she took my sister and me to an “adult children of alcoholics” group. She really tried to teach us something, to help us out regarding that subject in particular.
When we lived in Korea is when she really got into rock climbing and outdoorsy stuff. She was pretty bold. She was going to college at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA when I heard she went hang-gliding with her boyfriend at the time. She just did very adventurous things, or at least it seemed that way to me. She was into hiking and backpacking. I remember one year, I was going to high school in India. Evelyn was still there and Rebecca came back for a visit, maybe between school semesters. Evelyn and Rebecca – I can’t believe my parents let them do this! – backpacked alone across Ladakh, an undeveloped region in northern India. Two young American women just hiked across Ladakh, which is freaking amazing, because they were both in their early twenties. They both seemed fearless and just did a tremendous amount of adventurous things.
Rebecca was with a guy named Wayne for many years; they lived in Blacksburg, VA together. I guess when they broke up, that’s when she discovered this other side of herself; I have no idea if being gay was on her mind before this time. I had no sense of that as a kid. I remember her being a much more upbeat, cheerful and optimistic person. She had a different life growing up – our family was relatively intact at that point. Her beginnings were just different than mine.
The whole bit about her “taunting” Stephen Roy Carr was completely bizarre. Anyone who knew Rebecca knew that was a ridiculous accusation. At the time, that claim didn’t affect me because it made no sense to me whatsoever. I guess it was a tactic of the defense. What happened is that she encountered Stephen Roy Carr when she was naked going to the bathroom and the lawyers used that against her. I remember thinking, “Oh that is so typical of her.” She was unconcerned and kind of free that way – it was part of her charm. But it got her into trouble this time. I’ve always felt grateful to the Pennsylvania police because I thought they were relatively sensitive about it, and willing to go after the guy, especially for that time period (which was even more homophobic than now).
There’s one thing about the situation that really bothered me. In a way, I feel like Claudia kind of took the whole issue for herself – she made Rebecca “hers.” Rebecca and Claudia and the anti-gay violence issue: it was like this issue became who Rebecca was. You know, Rebecca had this whole family – I was her sister and it just felt like she was taken away from us. On the one hand, I can’t really argue not highlighting the story as evidence of anti-gay violence, because clearly that’s what it was. At the same time, Rebecca was more than the circumstances of her murder. She was a lovely person with a history and a life and a family.
People should know that gay people are just people. I’ve never understood the prejudice; I don’t understand why someone would commit violence over this. How individuals live is nobody’s business – that’s really all I feel. An LGBT person is no less deserving, so just let them live and be who they are. They’re just like everybody else and they’re doing the best they can. Gay people aren’t a separate breed from conventional society. The chances are very good that every heterosexual person knows someone who’s gay. Just deal with it. It’s not a big deal; it’s not something to get all bent out of shape about. Nor is it your business. All kinds of prejudice bugs me, but I’m especially attentive to when people are mean about LGBT people. People are people – we’re all just trying to do the best we can to get by. Somebody’s prejudice and negativity took a sparkling person off of this planet, somebody who had the talent and potential to make the world a better place and that’s just tragic. Rebecca was destined to do something great and the world lost that opportunity for no good reason.
I wish our society was more flexible and accepting. Had it been more flexible and accepting, perhaps my beautiful sister would not have been murdered by some creep in the woods who couldn’t deal with the fact that she loved another woman. She was just minding her own business and he should have minded his own business. It’s stupid and tragic and what a waste of the good she could have done because of this prejudice. She had so much potential. I wish people would just realize that they probably know people who are gay and they are just regular people – to make them separate or different is stupid. Whenever I meet somebody who’s gay, I always want to tell them Rebecca’s story. I usually don’t say anything, but I want them to recognize me as a safe individual. This happened in my life and I have a special sensitivity – I want them to know I’m a safe person and they don’t have to worry about me.
I had survival guilt for a long time – I still do a little bit. I wish it had been me instead of her because she was so well-loved and had so much sparkle and potential. She was everybody’s favorite and it’s just terribly unfair. That stayed with me for a very long time – obviously there’s nothing I can do about it. That period of my life is fuzzy in my memory. I remember having this sensation two years after her death of waking up from a fog. I had been living my life, going to school and to work and doing things, but I wasn’t entirely there. I remember just…waking up, and going, “Oh my god, two years went by and I didn’t even notice.” It was extremely traumatic, and I still think about her, probably every day. I’ve tried for years and years to make sense of it, and make something good come out of it somehow – if I can contribute in any way to waking someone up from prejudice, then that’s a good thing. If I can help the community in some way, then I want to.
I have to say, for many, many years I was very shut down. I had that two-year waking up period and many more years before I could deal with it at all. My other sister and I used to talk about how we became very afraid. It’s like you become fearful that there’s danger all over the place. The woods were a dangerous place whereas they had once been a safe place. I do remember feeling the sensation that things were dangerous and I still find the woods daunting.
I’ve often wondered if Rebecca’s story was still alive anywhere, if people were still aware of it.
The only thing we can do in life is try to deal with reality. Sometimes it’s beautiful and spectacular and sometimes it’s twisted and ugly and dark as can be, and there’s everything in between. All you can do is respond to it; respond to all experience and grow. I think back to my twenty-three-year-old self now and the story of how I learned that Rebecca was killed, and it really was a life-changing event. There was who I was “before Rebecca died” and then there is who I am “after Rebecca died.” It’s not like I grew up immediately, but in a way it did perhaps make me more compassionate. Once you’re wounded, you can relate to somebody else’s wounded-ness.