doubled deaths: bias crimes in black communities

In one of my classes this week we will be reading selections by the late Melvin Dixon, a gay and African American poet-scholar who died during the nineties. In one of his essays, “I’ll Be Listening for My Name,” he touches upon the kind of doubled death lgbt artists face in the AIDS crisis, as they face racial discrimination in the public sphere that is compounded by the denial of their emotional and sexual lives by families and communities who refuse to recognize gays and lesbians. We have also been reading Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, which is about a teenage boy who is the chosen one, smart and athletic. Also gay, he eventually dies under the burden of homophobia, of being forced to see himself as simultaneously chosen and damned, angel and demon.

Well, this morning I was greeted by a story on crimes against the LGBT community in Newark, NJ, “In a Progressive State, a City Where Gay Life Hangs by a Thread.” The story is by Andrew Jacobs, who’s on the Newark beat at the NYT. It’s not a terrible story, and it does a nice job of outlining a broad picture of options for the lgbt community in lower and working class communities of color in Newark.

The story got me thinking, though, about how difficult it is to talk about sex and race– especially when we barely have language for sussing out race and class. So what happens when, as in most cases, we need to talk about all three at once? Often, it seems, we latch onto the one that best serves our own needs, a need fed by our perceptions “what counts” and “what matters.” But, again, what does this mean for the possibility of

understanding and transforming our social world? And how do we thus honor the lives of those whose death’s motivate such transformations?

As the title suggests, the narrative of the aforementioned NYT story emerges out of a contrast between gays’ lives in Newark and in other parts of the state. The article gets a little murky at times, as it conflates anti-gay bias as a class issue–as a result of a lack of resources for the community in a famously poor city, and as a race issue–as a result of the anti-gay bias endemic to black and Latino communities.

Don’t get me wrong, it is striking that over the past few years our attention has been repeatedly drawn to Newark, and there is something particularly compelling that these crimes against gay POC have taken place in the shadow of the most gay-friendly bastions. But does the fact of proximity mean that there is a larger story here about resources for the poor, and how there is more at stake than we imagine, or is it a story about intolerance in communities of color? Is it a story about insides or outsides? Or, if the answer is both, where do we locate responsibility for change?

I do think that in coverage that comes in the wake of such events, I’m thinking specifically of Sakia Gunn’s murder or of the Newark lesbians case, we often see media and legal establishments unable to deal with the chimera of race, class, and sex, unable to address one bias without enlisting the aid of another. Were the men who killed Sakia Gunn homophobic because they were black, or because they were “street”? Were the lesbians who fought an attack on the streets of Greenwich Village “just” thug chicks from Newark, who shouldn’t have been there anyway, or were they gay women, fighting back against street violence?

Or, if we are to believe reports that the Newark schoolyard killings were also anti-gay crimes, as well as (?) the murders of Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes, then there is a sense of hiding the hate crime (hat tip to Kenyon Farrow, who has links to more good posts on this; also a story in The Washington Blade.) It’s like there is a sense that if this were to emerge as an anti-gay crime, then the event would lose meaning as a watershed urban crime– thus also losing its status as a catalyst for both grassroot and governmental action in Newark.

Blue Jersey (“all the news that slips from print”) has put it best,

There are well-meaning and deeply caring people who don’t want any of this public. And they are right to be concerned that talking about this publicly may put the families through additional pain. This is a delicate situation involving young students, and it makes the decision to write this a very difficult one. In the end, because of the possible implications, remaining silent isn’t an option. We need to talk about this.

While it’s important to respect the wishes of the families in their time of grief, it’s also important to determine with certainty whether this was a crime based on sexual-orientation. The challenge we all face is to get to the bottom of things and to ensure these tragic events aren’t repeated. To do otherwise is unthinkable.

We still have vulnerable young people whose freedom we are honor-bound to safeguard. They live in the city of Newark and in every town, city and suburb in this state. How can we ensure they have every chance for a long, free life if we do not do everything we can do now to understand all that happened to Terrance, to Dashon, to Iofemi and to the fragile Natasha. And why.

Indeed. Pursuing the circumstances of their deaths in ultimately about honoring their lives in all their possible meanings. Theyy are listening for their names.

As Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, stated soon after Sakia Gunn’s murder in 2003:

It is as if we are living in two Americas — one that tunes in to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but turns a blind eye to the injustices gay and lesbian people still face.

“It is evident that with progress comes inevitable attack by those who are threatened by our work. In 2003, more than 30 cities and towns reported crimes against gays. Most of them do not garner national headlines like my son’s murder did. Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian, was fatally stabbed in Newark, N.J., on May 11 this year. F.C. Martinez, a Navajo, transgender 16-year-old, was murdered in a hate-motivated attack in 2001. The list goes on and on…

(Curtsy for the quote above to Professor Kim, who also has a post on the differences in media coverage of the Shepard and Gunn stories, and a chart thereon.)

reposted fr 12/2/07

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