During a Thanksgiving visit with her girlfriend’s family in Mobile, Ala., Mallory Owens was severely beaten by her girlfriend’s brother. As it has unfolded since, the story is proving both savage and strange.
On Thanksgiving Day, Owens was sent to the University of South Alabama Medical Center by Travis Hawkins, Jr. She suffered multiple skull fractures, crushed bones and bleeding on the brain. Metal plates were put into her cheeks.
Aside from the human wreckage and Dec. 10 court date, the incident has grown to include conversations about civil rights and Internet justice. Gay-rights groups are cautiously eyeing the incident as a vivid argument to expand Alabama’s hate-crime legislation, while others are cautioning such public judgment.
Currently, Owens is recovering from her beating and has been both championed as a hate-crime victim and described as a prostitute and pimp. The Hawkins family is weathering the scrutiny of the global community and apparently receiving death threats.
Everyone involved, as well as the region itself, has become the focal point of a lurid Deep South soap opera being played out on the world’s stage. Two weeks in and Travis Sr., father of the attacker and girlfriend, has found himself at his wits end and “out there in the wind by myself.”
“They’re just going to say I’m lying, it’s a con, I’m a manipulative person—that’s already out there,” he said. “Every time I tell the truth it gets twisted around.”
‘I Do Not Feel Safe There’
As she lay in her hospital bed, photos of Owens’ beaten face circulated widely on the Internet. Her story was relayed through both traditional and social media. Facebook sites dedicated to her—such as Justice for Mallory Owens, or Charge Travis Hawkins Jr. With the Attempted Murder of Mallory Owens—sprang up.
Following her release from the hospital, Owens returned to the Hawkins residence in Mobile—the site of the beating. She gave interviews to the local press, saying the attack was not motivated by her sexual orientation.
“A lot of things have happened between us, but it doesn’t make me hate her brother,” she said in an interview with WKRG. “I don’t hate her family at all, or anybody for that matter.”
“It’s not a hate crime at all,” added girlfriend Ally Hawkins. “We both know the reason why this happened, and it doesn’t make any excuses for him, I’m not defending him at all. I know why he was angry, and that will come out.”
That news was surprising to the activist groups and the wider global social media community that had already begun waving the hate-crime banner. An online petition aimed at federal and state officials was questioning the assault charge and calling the incident a hate crime—“he beat her because she is gay”—and the Human Rights Campaign had issued a statement urging federal authorities to assist local authorities and noting that Alabama did not cover sexual orientation or gender identity in its hate crime legislation.
“So, we’re not going for hate-crime anymore, we can’t,” Alabama state legislator Rep. Patricia Todd said after Owen’s initial statements. “We’re stuck on that.”
Todd is Alabama’s first openly gay legislator and the chairman of Equality Alabama. Since getting elected in 2006, she has unsuccessfully pushed for the state’s hate-crime legislation to be expanded to include sexual orientation.
When images of Owen’s pummeled face exploded on the Internet, Todd initially thought the situation in Mobile might be relevant to the state’s larger legislation conversation. That notion appeared to breakdown upon Owens’ statements.
“I don’t think they want us to become involved,” Todd said Nov. 28. “They don’t want to become a poster-child on this.”
Owens’ family, however, appeared certain that their daughter was beaten because Travis Jr. didn’t like the fact that his sister was dating a girl. In the press and on the Internet, the family pointed to past issues—alleging he had previously hit her with a pipe—and said they wished Owens would return home to her young son.
Reports also began surfacing regarding the Hawkins’ family’s past. There was the 2011 arrest of Travis Sr., after he shot Travis Jr. in the stomach during an argument, as well as the 1999 event in which the father fired a shotgun into his children’s bedroom.
After Owens returned home—following another visit to the hospital—her girlfriend spoke with WALA Fox 10 on Nov. 29. Ally Hawkins explained that her brother had attacked Owens because “we were really bad on drugs” and “he found out me and Mallory had done prostitution.”
“People keep saying it’s a hate crime,” she told the station, “and it’s not a hate crime.”
The next day, Owens released a statement through the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She backed away from her previous position, and said she thought the charges against her assailant should be upped from second-degree assault to attempted murder.
“The last week has been the most traumatic several days I have ever experienced, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Owens wrote.
She said that she was pressured into giving media interviews at the Hawkins house, referring to the “media storm” and describing public comments made thus far as “premature and misguided.”
“I do not feel safe there,” Owens said in the statement. “I was very uneasy and nervous while I was there. I was still disoriented, weak, and intimidated.”
The victim also addressed her girlfriend’s citing of drug use and prostitution as the motive for the attack.
“Ally Hawkins has continued to release statements and make arbitrary Facebook posts and she has even offered a motive for her brother’s actions,” she wrote. “Please know that Ally Hawkins is NOT SPEAKING for me, she is NOT representing me in the media in any way.”
Owens also said that since the attack, Travis Jr.—out on bond, pending his court date—had “been seen following my family and appearing at locations where they have gathered.”
“He has threatened to finish me off,” Owens said. “I believe as long as he is free on bond that my life continues to be in danger.”
A ‘Moral Crisis’
Nearly two weeks after the Thanksgiving attack, Travis Sr. found himself alone at the Hawkins’ house. He said his family was “scared and devastated.”
“No matter what you say, no matter how honest and how sincere you are, it’s not going to matter,” the father said. “You’re just going to be attacked.”
He contends that his family—with its checkered history detailed in Mobile County police reports—is being unfairly caught in the crosshairs of the global gay-rights community. He’s exhausted from playing defense, sometimes personally, like recently when he logged a comment on a piece by Joey Kennedy on The Birmingham News website.
“Brothers and Sisters, when you assail my family with defaming words and indignation, you will find yourself constantly rebutted with simplicity and truth,” Hawkins Sr. wrote in response to a wall of posts. “Ask yourselves, for what reason would lies be told. I can no longer defend against every post, every lie, everything being said at all. My family and I are already ruined.”
Kennedy noted that the father’s active commenting “is probably going to send his lawyer into a coma.” Other commenters said he was using the platform to manipulate the public and harass the victim.
While Travis Jr., has been quiet—his attorney said he was in hiding due to death threats—the Hawkins family hasn’t. Both Travis Sr. and Alley have actively pushed their accounts of the story, stressing that the beating wasn’t a hate crime.
“By ignoring this cyber lynch mob,” Travis Sr. said, “I feel like we’re just making them more enraged”
Hawkins Sr. calls the media attention and what he sees as a rush to judgment among the blogosphere “pure evil.” He said that his family—in addition to Alley and Travis, Jr., there’s his wife, 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter—were unduly suffering in the incident’s wake.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “It really is.”
The father also backs up his daughter’s version of the story. He said the family did not have a problem with Owen’s sexuality, but rather the influence she was having on his daughter.
“She was pimped, that’s true,” he said. “The fact is that my daughter had the courage to stand up on camera and tell that.”
Hawkins Sr. said his family was experiencing a “moral crisis.” He said Owens was lying in her statement and stressed that he was “not a homophobe.”
“There’s so many good people in that community, those are the people that I want to reach,” he said of the gay community. “I want to apologize to them. I want to tell them what I really believe and what I think as a person.”
Later on that night, Dec. 3, Owens appeared on Fox 10 evening news. She was apologizing to the Hawkins family, saying she hadn’t written her previous statement and backing up Alley’s account of the drugs and prostitution.
“I don’t want to hurt them,” Owens told the Mobile station. “I don’t feel that way. I don’t have hatred towards them or anything.”
‘Spread the Love’
The gay-rights community itself is backing off the beating in Mobile. The unfolding story doesn’t appear to fit the bill, doesn’t lend itself to the case for expanding Alabama’s hate-crime legislation.
“So, there’s just some dynamics going on there,” Rep. Todd had noted early on regarding the scene playing out in Mobile.
She further clarified her position with The Birmingham News a few days later.
“The [Hawkins] family says they’re not homophobes,” Todd said. “We’re taking a very conservative stand, and trying to back off the national folks. We have to respect the rights of law enforcement and of Mallory herself.”
Currently, Travis Jr. faces assault charges. The online petition is nearing 100,000 signatures. And Owens has said she wants to allow the court system to deal with the charges against Travis Jr. as it sees fit.
Regardless of how Mobile’s Thanksgiving beating plays out in the courtroom, legislators in Alabama will continue to fight for the inclusion of sexuality and gender identity in the state’s hate-crime legislation. After spending years on the tip of the spear, Rep. Todd will not be sponsoring that effort this next session—she’s passing that duty off to a colleague.
“I think it’s good to spread the love around,” Todd said.
The legislator has measured aspirations for Alabama’s chances of accommodating sexual orientation in its legislation.
“For the past four years I’ve been trying to amend the bill to include that with absolutely no traction—which is surprising, coming from Alabama,” Todd said.