By Kim Pearson
Today is the third anniversary of the murder of Sakia Gunn, the 15-year-old African American lesbian from Newark whose killing ignited a movement and led to New Jersey's first bias-murder prosecution.
Gunn was stabbed to death when she and four friends were attacked by two men after rejecting their sexual advances by declaring themselves to be lesbians. .
In April, 2005, Richard McCullough, 32, drew a 20-year prison sentence after admitting that he stabbed the Westside High 10th-grader in the heart while yelling homophobic slurs.
According to poet, scholar and activist Cheryl Clarke,
"[Sakia's] death was symbolic, or emblematic instead, of the psychic and
emotional death of so many of our young people." Gunn did not conform to the
expectations of how she should behave, [her killer's] expectations of what women
should do. For that ... she was slaughtered."
Like the 1998 murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, the killing of Sakia Gunn gave rise to a movement. However, while the effort to memorialize Shepard garned significant press and public attention even three years after his death, the efforts undertaken in Sakia Gunn's memory have been comparatively modest and little noted by the press.
Today, Generation Q, a New York City drop-in center for lgbt youth held a memorial vigil
to remember Gunn. So far, the press has not picked up the story.
I recently queried the Lexis-Nexis database to compare major press coverage related to Gunn and Shepard between the second and third year of their respective murders. I found one story
that referenced Gunn (and Google News supplied another, an essay
about the gender politics of the Duke rape allegations by Mark Anthony Neal.)
By contrast, there were 107 stories in the archive published between the second and third anniversary of Shepard's murder. A quick scan of these stories reveals that many of them are about benefit performances of music, poetry and drama created in his memory. The artistic production signifies the degree to which Shepard had become a mainstream cultural figure by that time.
Readers of this blog may remember that in the first year after Gunn was murdered, on the 11th of each month, I compared the numbers of stories
about her to the number of stories on Matthew Shepard at the same time period after his murder. (The number of Matthew Shepard stories is actually significantly understated because I only counted stories on him from major newspapers.) In the first year after Gunn was murdered, 28 stories appeared on the database. In the first year after Shepard was murdered, there were 735 stories on Shepard, just in major newspapers. The total number of stories is actually in the thousands.
My research into the reasons for the disparity in coverage is summarized in a chapter in the book: News and Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity.
In that chapter, I concluded that the limited press coverage of Sakia Gunn's story was the result of several factors.
First, the murders of poor people, especially poor people of color, are less likely to receive major press attention than those who are wealthier and white. In contrast, Matthew Shepard -- a likable, attractive, upperclass white male -- seemed a more sympathetic victim to many editors. Second, as an "aggressive," Sakia Gunn dressed like a boy. She was on the streets at 3:30 in the morning. Again these factors made her seem a less universal figure than Shepard, in the minds of some editors and reporters.
African American news outlets focused their coverage on same-sex marriage and the debate over homosexuality in the black church, ignoring stories about violence against black glbt people. In addition, Neal and other scholars have argued that black male violence against black women tends to be downplayed. These observers say that this devaluing of black women helps to explain why Aishah Shahidah Simmons struggled for years to get support for NO!
her documentary about that violence.
According to Mick Meenan of Gay City News, the gay press gave scant coverage of the story to Sakia Gunn, most likely because of race and class bias.
This is despite the fact that Gunn's murder led hundreds of Newark's young people to hold vigils and protest rallies in which they told tales of the abuse and harassment they endured in the city's public schools, at home and in their neighborhoods. Newark Mayor Sharpe James promised to work with local activists to create a drop-in cener for glbt youth of color.
Two organizations were formed: the Newark Pride Alliance
and the Sakia Gunn Aggressives & Femmes. The group has held rallies in Gunn's name and social activities for glbt teens. Gunn's family joined forces with the family of Shani Baraka, a Newark teacher and basketball coach who was murdered in a domestic violence dispute in August 2003, to establish a chapter of PFLAG
In 2004, the Pride Alliance and their allies convinced Newark school officials to hold a moment of silence
in honor of Sakia and other school-age victims of violence.
One of those allies, Michigan State University student La Joya Johnson
not only initiated an online petition drive in favor of the memorial gesture, she raised money for a scholarship for an lgbt student of color at her school. PFLAG also created a scholarship
in Gunn's honor.
Like Shepard, Gunn's murder has instigated works of art and scholarhip. A theater piece, "In Memory of Sakia Gunn"
was performed in New York in 2004. Chas Brack has been hard at work on a documentary about Sakia and the movement she instigated. Detroit artist B. Lois Wadas' prose poem, eZekiel's Corner,
imagines the last moments of Sakia's life in graphic detail.
[I am personally at work on a prose and poetry collection, "A Libation for Sakia" that I hope to put out as an ebook by the end of the summer. You can hear the most recent piece for the collection, "Another Poem for Sakia" if you click on the audioblog link up top.]
During Newark's recently-concluded mayoral campaign, violence by and against young people was a major issue, but Sakia Gunn's story did not surface in news reports. Still, the activism carried on in Sakia's name has had some effect, even in Newark. This 18-year-old Newark man reflected on Gunn's murder in this blog post "Sakia Gunn: The Aftermath"
We the people of Newark are frightened by social difference whether its killing
someone whose not like them, like poor Sakia RIP or beating a person up with
words or fist... We should learn [from] Sakia, I mean here's a young lady who
killed for something that was in a actually, none of no one's business. What I'm
saying to Newark is that we must appreciate everyone for their differences and
traits. Not all of us can wear pepe jeans and fitted's and live this hip hop
lifestyle or male and female stereotypes.