[27 January 2004]
I was listening to the drive-time morning team on the local “oldies” station in Austin, when they began to discuss the child molestation charges against Michael Jackson. Specifically, the morning jocks wondered aloud why the Jackson case had gotten so much more attention while charges of child pornography against R. Kelly (who collaborated with Jackson on his new single “One More Chance”) seemed to have receded to the background. The duo suggested that it was likely because of the “homosexual” dynamic of Jackson’s purported relationship with his accuser (a young white boy) that made the story such a tabloid favorite. While that may be true, there’s little doubt that that the story would not have been so big if Jackson had (surprisingly) molested a young female child. What the jocks failed to acknowledge was the identity of Kelly’s alleged victim—a young black girl—and that makes all the difference. I was reminded of such only a few days later when an episode of ER dealt with a six-year-old black girl who was found nearly frozen to death in a nearby park, unable to speak and with no identification. While the staff wondered aloud how such a child could exist without anybody actively looking for her, it seemed as if they were dancing around the obvious to me—it was because she was a little black girl and if America remains a tenuous experience for those who live on the axis of race and gender, it is most tenuous for those who are the youngest and the most female. Sakia Gunn was once one of those little black girls—and was still a child, really—at age 15, when she was stabbed to death in May of last year. The fact that so few know her name and the circumstances of her death underscores the reality of how dangerous of a society this is for little black girls.
Sakia Gunn was returning home from a night on the town in New York City with a few of her female friends. As they waited under a bus shelter in their hometown of Newark, New Jersey at 3:30 a.m., they were approached by two men in a car, who apparently saw the young women as sexual prey. In an attempt to discourage their advances, Gunn informed the pair that she and her friends were lesbians and thus not interested. A scuffle ensued and Richard McCullough, age 29, reportedly stabbed Gunn in the heart. Gunn died at a local hospital shortly thereafter. McCullough was formally indicted on a charge of murder this past November. Though Gunn’s murder has received coverage in The New York Times, from leading Gay organs such as The Advocate, and on CNN, there has been a relative silence about her death in the black community. That silence speaks both to the homophobia that is part of the very fabric of black life in America and the black community’s continued willingness to close ranks around black men, when they prey on women and children.
Writing for the on-line journal The Gully, Kelly Cogswell and Ana Simo admit that there were “fundamental errors in the way most journalists reported the brutal May 11 murder of Sakia Gunn.” (June 6, 2003) For example, they cite the seeming collusion among reporters to highlight the “scuffle” that occurred between Gunn and her murderer, with the implication being that that if Gunn and her friends had not openly antagonized the men by announcing their sexual orientation, the men would have left them alone. According to Cogswell and Simo, “it’s far more likely that the men only propositioned Gunn and her friends because they knew the girls were dykes, and a sexual advance would provoke some kind of exchange.” Longtime activist Alicia Banks is even more to the point, suggesting that because Gunn “appeared to be masculine, she probably evoked even more hatred in insecure ‘men’ Such gaybashing excuses for real men fear butch lesbians who dare to embrace the masculinity that eludes their own fragile egos and weak sexual identities.”(Femmenoir.net) Ironically, McCullough was raised by his maternal grandmother, who was reportedly a lesbian.
While it is perhaps easy to suggest that Gunn’s murder was an isolated example of gay bashing, such an interpretation obscures the relationship between sexuality and gender. Gay men are often “bashed” because of an affinity to women and lesbians are bashed because they are women. In many regards, homophobia is rooted in misogyny—a hatred of women. Too often, forms of sanitized and user-friendly sexism and misogyny circulate throughout the black community in the silence around black male violence against black women and girls. While Cogswell and Simo suggest that homophobia is the reason that Newark’s black mayor Sharpe James has given only lip service to Gunn’s family and supporters in the aftermath of her murder, or for his unwillingness to intervene on behalf of students of West Side High School in Newark (where Gunn was a student) who were denied the opportunity by the school’s principal to organize a memorial on her behalf, it is not always that simple. Had McCullough been a white man (or a police officer), is there any doubt that Gunn’s death would have been a national controversy?
As legal scholar Devon Carbado describes this reality, black men are “up in arms when white men abuse black women because they want it known that black women’s bodies will no longer be the terrain for white male physical or sexual aggression,” but adds that “when the abuser is a black male, the response is less politically strident because the assault on the black woman (,) even if ultimately criticized and condemned, is sometimes understood to represent an assertion of Black male masculinity, which, is argued, is a response to while male racism.” (Callaloo 21.2, 1998) This explains, in part, why some in the black community have sought to vigorously rehabilitate the images of well-known black men like Mike Tyson, R. Kelly, and even the late Tupac Shakur, when they were accused of sexually abusing black women and girls. It also explains, in part, why stories like that of Sakia Gunn or Cherae Williams, who in September of 1999 was brutally beaten by two NYC police officers after she accused them of failing to intervene in a domestic dispute with her black boyfriend, get pushed to the back pages of our newspapers and journals. Of course it’s not as if young black men and boys aren’t sexually abused by black women and men—we need only look at the tragic circumstances of the young Antoine Fisher. But where Fisher was allowed to tell his story, first in a best-selling book and later on the big-screen, there is the example of film-maker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who a decade after she began work on her documentary NO!, which examines black male sexual violence against women, is still trying to raise funds to complete her film.
And of course the white media is not totally blameless in this silence also. While Cogswell and Simo bemoan the “tendency to blame only white racism for the general invisibility of Sakia Gunn’s murder” the reality is that Gunn’s death has disappeared because the white mainstream at best is generally indifferent to the death of black people at the hands of other black people. At worst, the white mainstream is driven by the racist reality that black life (and death) has little value to them as journalists and pundits—it is not a relevant news story. For example, when Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in June of 2002, her disappearance became a national obsession. Most Americans were unaware that a seven-year-old black girl, Alexis Patterson, had been missing for a month. It would be two weeks still after the abduction of Smart and seemingly minute-by-minute updates by the national news media, that the national media (CNN) would finally interview Patterson’s mother. Nearly two years later, Patterson is still missing.
Kim Pearson, a professor of journalism at the College of New Jersey, has in fact done research comparing the coverage of Gunn’s death to that of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a gay-bias attack in 1998. Using the Lexis-Nexis database, Pearson has uncovered that there were 659 stories in major newspapers regarding Shepard’s murder, compared to only 21 stories—21—about Gunn’s murder in the seven-month period after their attacks. Person also notes that not only were Shepard attackers tried and convicted during that period, but that it took nearly that long for Gunn’s accused murderer to even be indicted. Black folk have of course for a long time understood the indifference of the white mainstream press to our issues, hence the historical importance of the independent black press (and in some cases the independent white press) and this is why it is so disheartening that too many of us (including this writer) have failed to give Gunn’s murder and the implications that it has for our communities the attention it deserves.
I make no claims that I am the product of any enlightened sense of the sexual dramas that confront our communities. I am in continuous struggle with my own homophobia and sexism, but it has been my two daughters, aged five years and 13 months, that have helped me see why it’s important to speak out against attacks, like the one on Sakia Gunn, and to speak back to the silence surrounding such attacks. I have no idea what kinds of sexualities my daughters will ultimately embrace, but it is my hope that they will be able to express their identities, sexual or otherwise, without fear of violent repercussions—physical or rhetorical. I’d like to think that, as young girls and women, they will be able to flow freely through society without being the prey of men, black or otherwise, who have little respect for women. As Alicia Banks suggests, “Living as a woman in a sexist world is to live in constant danger and fear via venomous words and vicious glances” and if we remain silent when those within our communities openly disregard the sanctity of our sexual and gendered identities we are only contributing to that state of “danger and fear.”
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