Monday, June 9, 2008

Sakia Gunn: When Intolerance Breeds Murder

Sakia Gunn: When Intolerance Breeds Murder
By Krystal Freeman, Special to

I learned to sag my jeans just right by watching the men around me. I studied the way they rocked tilted fitted caps over crisp tapers and deep waves, eyeing my father most intently. He was so precise about matching his kicks with neatly creased jeans and "throwback" jerseys. By fifteen I'd nearly stolen his style and his swagger.

It never occurred to me that having such insider knowledge was enough to get me killed, until I read about the brutal murder of Sakia Gunn.

Five years ago, Sakia, a 15-year old girl who "dressed like a boy," was attacked while waiting for a Newark, New Jersey bus after a night out with friends. The girls were approached by two men in a car who made uninvited sexual advances. When the girls declined, stating that they were lesbians, 30-year old Richard McCullough fatally stabbed Sakia while shouting homophobic slurs. She bled out at the intersection of Broad and Market during the wee hours of Mother's Day morning.

This May is the fifth anniversary of the murder of Sakia Gunn. She would have just celebrated her 20th birthday.

Too few of us know Sakia's name, but we all know girls like her -- young women like me who are often mistaken for teenage boys because we have the courage to dress the way we feel inside. We are your daughters, sisters and nieces. We are also young black lesbians who, in having the courage to live authentically, make our communities uncomfortable.

Sadly, the lives of many black youth have been taken because of intolerance and that very courage. Their names are also unknown. There's Ronnie Antonio Paris, dead at 3 from brain injuries inflicted by his dad who boxed with him so he wouldn't become gay. And openly gay Rashawn Brazell, 19, who's dismembered body parts were found in garbage bags strewn throughout Brooklyn. Simmie Williams, 17. Nireah Johnson, 17. Stephanie Thomas, 18. Ukea Davis,19. And many more. Each and every one of them belonged to someone.

My family doesn't understand why I'm more comfortable in button-ups instead of blouses or why I'd choose a pair of "dunks" over stilettos. Nor are they comfortable with my attraction to women, but I belong to them too. In his bigoted sexual aggression, McCullough never stopped to think that Sakia belonged to someone. She was someone's family member and, more importantly, someone's child.

We may conclude that McCullough was motivated by his own homophobia. But we must also acknowledge that he was implicitly encouraged by our community's typical stance on issues of sexuality. Homophobic beliefs are somehow justified by people like my family and yours, who claim their gay relatives selectively, and stand silent in the company of bigoted conversation that endangers the very gay children they love.

My mother has always bragged to her friends about my academic achievements. My dad loved to tease his friends about how his daughter could "school" their sons on the basketball court. But there were no words of support when it became clear that I was a lesbian.

It was okay that I wasn't crazy about boys, if it meant I focused on school. And my perceived masculinity was tolerable, if it made me a solid competitor on the court. The catch: I wasn't supposed to tell anyone about my attraction to girls.

The silence was crippling.

My family was tight-lipped about same-sex attraction, but what they did say was damaging. As a result, I learned to be resilient in the presence of loved ones who thought being gay was a "white thing" or that I was going through a phase. I still shuffle with unease whenever relatives say things like "I wouldn't mind so much if they didn't put it in our faces." I know that "they" alludes to those "effeminate" men and "mannish" lesbians walking in gay pride parades. I also know that the "they" my family despises includes some part of me.

Almost every time a person is murdered for being gay, they are met with hateful language I've heard my family use - these same family members would be devastated if my life were taken. They advise me to be careful, suggesting that I spare myself by dressing more like a girl. They don't see the harm in refusing to affirm me as I am.

Their position contributes to the climate that allowed for the senseless murder of Sakia and so many others. Their silence endangers me also.

To my family and to my community, I need you to love and claim all of me, even when others speak out against me. You can help prevent another murder like Sakia's. Your voice and your courage can make our communities safer for young people like Sakia, young people like me.

A native New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, Krystal Freeman is a Media Fellow for Communities of African Descent at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She holds a B.A. in Urban & Environmental Policy with a minor in Critical Theory & Social Justice from Occidental College.

For More on how to help keep Sakia's legacy alive go to

Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project
The Sakia Gunn Film Project

Newfest 2008 Scrrenings in NYC

Interview with Chas Brack on Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project

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