Sakia Gunn.jpg

Sakia Gunn

The murder of Sakia Gunn by Richard McCullough in May 2003 crystallized the plight of Queer Newark. Gunn, a fifteen-year-old black lesbian, was returning home from the Christopher Street Pier in New York, and was killed when she resisted McCullough’s advances. In the wake of her tragic death, queer Newarkers began to mobilize politically and force the city to confront its historical policies of neglect and oppression. Tremendous advances have been made in the past decade, yet the earlier history of Queer Newark remains largely overlooked, despite excellent work already written in different fields.

Sakia Gunn in many ways represents the multifaceted legacy of this history: tragic at times, but also bold, defiant, and resistant. Community could be found in nearby New York, but also locally, albeit in ways that were always mediated by Newark’s fraught history of racial tensions and segregation. As a working-class city with an African American majority since 1965, Newark ’s queer history departs from the more familiar narratives of New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, where white-led activist groups loom large in the historical writing [1]. Allowing the nation’s coastal meccas to stand in for the entirety of U.S. queer history has perpetuated the conflation of gayness and whiteness. Indeed, this conflation has also shaped politics in Newark, where only a decade ago Mayor Sharpe James once called his first-time challenger, city council member Cory Booker, a “faggot white boy,” drawing attention to Booker’s suburban Bergen County roots and his lack of a wife and children, while further insinuating that Booker had ties to Jews, the Taliban, and the Ku Klux Klan [2]. Examining Newark presents both challenges and rewards, and in this short piece we offer a mere sketch of ongoing work we are engaged in collectively as part of the Queer Newark Project, a community-based initiative currently pursuing oral histories, archiving, public art, and more [3].



[1] Kevin Mumford, Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 104.

[2] Andra Gillespie, The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 84; see also Allan Bérubé, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” in Bérubé, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, ed. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 202-230.