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The Murder of Sakia Gunn and LGBT Anti-Violence Mobilization

Cory Booker

Cory Booker

The 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old African American lesbian, in a hate crime in downtown Newark, precipitated an outpouring of commemoration and mobilization by her friends and other students in the city’s public high schools, that became a turning point in Newark’s queer history. At 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 11, 2003, Gunn, who identified as an aggressive or “AG” butch, was waiting for a bus at the corner of Broad and Market Streets in downtown Newark. Gunn had returned on the PATH train from Greenwich Village with three friends, also young, out lesbians, and was on her way to her home in Newark’s far western Vailsburg section, where she lived with her mother, Latona Gunn, and grandmother, Thelma Gunn [1].

At the bus stop, two men emerged from a white car and propositioned Gunn. When she refused, saying that she was not interested because she was gay, according to her friends, one of the men stabbed her, before returning to his car and driving off. Gun died in the arms of a friend, while being driven in the car of a passerby to University Hospital nearby.

In an intense week that followed, young Newarkers demanded that civic leaders pay attention to the dangers that LGBT young people faced in everyday life. That Tuesday evening, Gunn’s friends and relatives gathered at the corner of Broad and Market Streets to honor her passing with votive candles, flowers, and a basketball that many of her friends had autographed. On Thursday afternoon, while hundreds of mourners at City Hall denounced her killing and demanded civic action to create safe spaces for LGBT young people, the suspect in her murder, Richard McCullough, 29, turned himself in to Newark police. The following day, an estimated 2,500 people attended Gunn’s funeral. McCullough was charged with murder “with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group because of sexual orientation,” which carried enhanced sentencing options under hate crime laws. In a plea deal, McCullough pled guilty to a lesser charge.

Gays in Newark newspaper

Gays in Newark

In the days and weeks that followed, Gunn’s friends, many of them students at Westside High School, launched a struggle to honor Gunn’s death and to demand policy changes to prevent violence against LGBTQ teens. Older members of the community joined in helping found Newark Pride Alliance, which drew attention to the community’s needs and concerns. The first Newark chapter of Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded, and the national organization established a scholarship in her memory.

In the coming months and years, LGBT Newarkers drew increasing attention to the tragic consequences of stigma, exclusion, harassment, and violence. However, they also repeatedly encountered bureaucratic obstacles and a failure on the part of public officials to deliver needed resources. Mayor Sharpe James promised to assist with meeting the community’s leading demand, the creation of a gay community center, but failed to follow through on meeting this demand. LGBT Newarkers reacted with particular anger to insensitive responses to the tragedy on the part of Westside High School and the Newark Public Schools, which refused to allow students to hold a moment of silence or to wear rainbow colors in her honor to combat invisibility. On the one-year anniversary of the killing, school officials did allow a moment of silence, and sponsored what they called No Name Calling Day. In 2007, however, the Newark schools superintendent removed from the school’s annual yearbook a photo of Andre Jackson, a student at East Side High School, kissing. Superintendent Marion A. Bolden, who had deemed the photo “suggestive,” later apologized [2].

In an interview with the Advocate, the national gay magazine, five months after the killing, Laquetta Nelson, a social worker and longtime community activist who helped found the alliance, complained that Mayor Sharpe James had paid only “lip service” to the community’s needs. Gays and lesbians in Newark, she said, were hamstrung by the circumstances that made it difficult for them to sustain a movement. “They’re outraged. [But] a great majority of them are in the closet, and they are fearful of losing their jobs.” In addition, she complained that in the course of a decade of participation in statewide LGBT activist organizations, her attempts to draw attention to events in Newark “always fell on deaf ears" [3].

Darnell Moore

Darnell Moore

Cory Booker, elected mayor in 2006, was widely seen as more comfortable with LGBT people and sensitive to community concerns than his predecessor. James, the incumbent mayor, challenged Booker’s authenticity and suitability for office using a homophobic slur. Though defeated in 2002, Booker ran again in 2006 and won. In office, he created the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on LGBTQ Concerns, with Darnell Moore as its founding chair. The office of the Essex County Executive followed suit by creating an LGBTQ Advisory Board. Project Wow, a small drop-in center run by the North Jersey Community Research Initiative, offers a supportive environment and HIV prevention materials to teenagers seeking community. In 2007 Booker raised a rainbow flag in front of city hall, alongside Dana Rone, who had become the city’s first out lesbian elected official following her inauguration as a member of the city council the previous year, and June Dowell-Burton, one of the founders of Newark Pride Alliance [4].

Both generational changes in attitude and evolving views among the older generation were evident in Newark; New Jersey state senator Ron Rice opposed marriage equality, but in 2009 his son, city councilman Ron Rice, Jr., endorsed it [5]. Amiri Baraka rethought his own antigay positions, in the wake of the tragic 2003 murder of his lesbian daughter Shani and her partner Rayshon Holmes. His wife, Amina Baraka, a longtime Newark artist and activist, became a founding member of the city’s PFLAG chapter [6].

Frustrations continued, however. Racial division within the LGBT world persisted, though increasingly located between black and Latino Newarkers. Brazilians and Puerto Ricans were two of the fastest growing demographics in 21st-century Newark, and anthropologist Ana Ramos-Zayas noted that Latina lesbians in these groups rarely felt a sense of solidarity with local black lesbians [7]. Garry F. McCarthy, the city’s police director, reportedly instituted sensitivity training for all members of the police force as part of regularly scheduled sexual harassment prevention programs, but according to a 2007 New York Times report, the city had failed to institute data collection on antigay violence. “For us, it’s about survival,” James Credle, a Vietnam veteran and former administrator at Rutgers University, told the Times, “and all this talk of gay marriage is just a luxury" [8]. Indeed, the suburban middle-class town of Maplewood (informally known as “Gayplewood”), next to Newark, had eight times as many same-sex civil unions by mid-2011 despite having only a twelfth of Newark’s population [9].

Gunn vigil

Gunn vigil

Even so, Newark’s Mayor Booker became increasingly prominent nationally as a spokesperson for LGBT rights, especially equal access to marriage on the part of same-sex couples. As mayor, Booker refused to conduct any marriage ceremonies until gay and lesbian couples were allowed to marry under New Jersey law, a goal that activists pursued both in the courts and in the state legislature, which passed marriage equality legislation but had yet to override a veto by Governor Chris Christie in 2012. Booker was chosen by Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT organization, as the first public figure featured in a series of web ads highlighting “American for Marriage Equality.” After the state’s high court signaled its unwillingness to stay a trial court finding that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional, and the Christie administration withdrew its appeal of the lower court’s decision, Booker married nine couples – seven gay, one straight – in a midnight ceremony at city hall on October 21, 2013.

Violence against LGBT young people continues to be a major problem facing Newark residents, one that intersects with the persistent racism, homophobia, and transphobia in the criminal justice system. When 48-year-old Defarra Gaymon was killed, unarmed, in 2010 by a police officer on patrol at a popular cruising site in Branch Brook Park, the officer was not charged, despite an outcry from queer Newarkers.  Gary Paul Wright, executive director of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, in a 2013 op-ed in the Star-Ledger, on the tenth anniversary of Gunn’s murder, complained of continued stonewalling by city hall under Booker. “Activities that were given the green light just two years ago have been thwarted, and cooperation from the city is non-existent,” Wright wrote, referring to the proposal for a city-sponsored LGBT community center, a project that has continued to elude full implementation [10]. However, in October 2013, the Liberation in Truth Social Justice Center opened its own LGBTQ community center to address the urgent needs of many young LGBTQ Newarkers. The center was founded by the Liberation in Truth, a church founded in 1995 and a member of the Unity Fellowship Church (UFC) movement, which was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Carl Bean and predominantly serves African American LGBT people [11].

In another episode that became notorious, and drew attention to the triple jeopardy that lesbians of color face in confronting the criminal justice system, a group of young African American queer women from northern New Jersey who defended themselves against a male attacker on the streets of New York City’s West Village, in August 2006, faced an extremely aggressive prosecution. Demonized as “killer lesbians” by the New York Post and other media outlets, they received harsh prison sentences based partly on “gang enhancements” used by New York City prosecutors. The case of the “New Jersey 7” (later, the New Jersey 4) is the subject of Out in the Night, a documentary film in progress by Blair Doroshwalter [12].

 

Eyricka Morgan

Eyricka Morgan

These tragedies and injustices, along with an ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis that has been largely written off the national political agenda, continue to burden Newark, where the dynamics of the past structure those of the present.  In November 2011, Rutgers-Newark hosted the first Queer Newark conference, with a series of panels organized along generational lines. It was a tremendous success, drawing students, scholars, and community members together to share histories, memories, and future visions. Yet two years later, Eyricka Morgan, a transgender speaker on the youth panel, was brutally murdered in her home in New Brunswick [13].

We dedicate this essay to the memory of Eyricka Morgan, and to her brave sisters and brothers who have faced and still face violence and hostility. It is our hope that the Queer Newark project can, in its own small way, contribute to community empowerment by helping to recover and share queer Newarkers’ stories of everyday courage and dignity, not to mention joy, community, pleasure, and desire, in the face of tremendous odds.



 

Booker raises Pride flag

Booker Raises Pride Flag at City Hall

[1] “A Movement Grows in Newark,” The Advocate, October 14, 2003; Ronald Smothers, “Newark Preaches Tolerance of Gays Year After Killing,” New York Times, May 12, 2004

[2] Manny Fernandez, “School Officials Black Out Photo of a Gay Student’s Kiss,” New York Times, June 24, 2007.

[3] “A Movement Grows in Newark,” The Advocate, October 14, 2003.

[4] Daniel I. Massey, “Gay Pride Flag is Raised in Newark,” Star-Ledger, June 11, 2007.

[5] “Gay Marriage: The Unstoppable March for Gay Rights,” Star-Ledger, December 6, 2009.

[6] Zenzele Isoke, “The Politics of Homemaking: Black Feminist Transformations of a Cityscape,” Transforming Anthropology 19.2 (2011): 117-30

[7] Ana Ramos-Zayas, “Urban Erotics and Racial Affect in a Neoliberal ‘Racial Democracy’: Brazilian and Puerto Rican Youth in Newark, New Jersey,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 12 (2009): 513-547.

[8] Andrew Jacobs, “In a Progressive State, a City That’s Tough on Gays,” New York Times, December 2, 2007.

[9] Arlene Stein, “What’s the Matter with Newark? Race, Class, Marriage Politics, and the Limits of Queer Liberalism,” in The Marrying Kind? Debating Same-Sex Marriage within the Lesbian and Gay Movement, eds. Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 53.

[10] Gary Paul Wright, “Remembering the Murder of Sakia Gunn, and Newark’s Lost Opportunity,” Star-Ledger, May 20, 2013.

[11] Aryana Bates, “Liberation in Truth: African American Lesbians Reflect on Religion, Spirituality, and Their Church,” in Gay Religion, 221-237.

[12] Cara Buckley and Kate Hammer, “Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger,” New York Times, August 19, 2006; “When ‘Petite But Ornery’ Lesbians Attack,” Gothamist, August 19, 2006; Laura Italiano, “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” New York Post, April 12, 2007; Jose Martinez, “I’m a Man! Lesbian Growled During Fight,” New York Daily News, April 13, 2007; Barbara Ross and Dave Goldiner, “Pack Howls – Judge Won’t Bend: Lesbians Rip Sentences in ’06 Attack,” New York Daily News, June 15, 2007.

[13] Linda Ocasio, “Gays in Newark” and “Churches Open Doors,” Star-Ledger, December 11, 2011; Sunnivie Brydum, “New Jersey Papers Refuses to Correct Coverage of Trans Woman’s Murder,” The Advocate, September 28, 2013; Sue Epstein, “Friends Remember New Brunswick Murder Victim,” Star-Ledger, September 29, 2013.