Projects bring attention to 3 gruesome killings of gay victims
By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Associated Press Writer
April 1, 2007, 11:21 AM EDT
NEW YORK -- On Valentine's Day two years ago, the dismembered body parts of Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year-old bisexual man, were found scattered in bags across Brooklyn.
Two years earlier, Sakia Gunn, 15, was stabbed to death at a Newark bus stop after she rejected her killer's advances by telling him she was a lesbian.
J.R. Warren died in similarly grisly fashion. Two teenagers beat, kicked and stomped the 26-year-old gay man from West Virginia before running him over with a Camaro.
Rashawn Brazell. Sakia Gunn. J.R. Warren: Victims of three of the country's most brutal killings of gays and lesbians in recent years. Yet their deaths received little attention and their names somehow don't evoke the intense resonance that followed the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay man from Wyoming.
But a documentary maker, an artist and an Ivy League doctoral candidate hope to change that. Separately, the three _ all strangers to the victims _ have created a scholarship fund for college-bound students, an independent documentary, and an art exhibit to not only highlight the killings but also re-ignite larger discussions about homophobia and bias crimes.
"They've done so much to make people aware of what happened and they won't let it drift to the side," Desire Brazell, Rashawn's mother, said of the men behind the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund and Web site. "They've been fantastic."
The memorial projects come as a new federal hate crime bill has entered Congress and other recent anti-gay attacks have also brought new attention to the issue.
Last week, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., interdicted a bill that seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate-crime law and give resources to state and local authorities to investigate and prosecute suspected bias crimes.
Nationally, the number of reported bias crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people remained virtually unchanged in 2006, according to the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. Still, recent assaults and killings across the country disturbed some people.
Three men are facing trial on hate-crime murder charges in the 2006 death of Michael Sandy, a 28-year-old interior designer from New York who met the defendants in a gay chat room. Last week, four men pleaded guilty to assault as a hate crime for attacking gay singer Kevin Aviance last year in New York. In Florida this month, Ryan Keith Skipper, 25, was robbed and fatally stabbed, and police arrested two men on hate crime-related charges.
The Conyers legislation seemed to gain momentum from the case of Andrew Anthos, a 72-year-old gay man from Detroit. Family members say a pipe-wielding man killed Anthos during a bus ride home from the library because he was gay. Investigators now say he died of natural causes, but advocates are suspicious of the surprise turn of events; they do not believe it was an accident.
Advocates want to see the hate-crime bill signed into law, in part, because more than a dozen states, including Michigan and many in the South, have either no hate crime laws or ones that don't protect sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Human Rights Campaign has called Brazell's killing a hate crime, although investigators haven't officially classified it as one and Desire Brazell doesn't believe her son's killing stemmed from his sexuality.
But police have yet to make an arrest. And an official cause of death, like the motive, is unknown _ blanks that deny Desire Brazell closure. The case will re-air this year on "America's Most Wanted," show officials said.
Larry Lyons, 25, had never met Rashawn Brazell. But when he heard about the case, he was so "repulsed" that he began blogging about it. From blogs, vigils and meetings came the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund, which will award its second $1,500 scholarship in June to a New York City student committed to fighting homophobia, racism, sexism or other forms of injustice, Lyons said.
"It's crazy there's someone out there who can kill and dismember a young man and spread his body parts and not be found and walk the streets among all of us," said Lyons, an English doctoral candidate at Princeton University. "It boggles my mind.
"It's disappointing it's not a more high-profile case."
The 2000 murder of J.R. Warren made TV and newspaper headlines but attention abated after two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. The killing didn't qualify as a hate crime under West Virginia or federal laws.
Still, artist Rory Golden decided to create an exhibit to stir debate over the definition of a hate crime and bigotry.
In "See Related Story: The Murder of J.R. Warren," the Ohio native used wax and mulberry paper to create 52 two-sided images evoking the feeling of a disturbing dream or memory. The exhibit was recently on view at Fairmont State University in West Virginia.
Curator Marian Hollinger said she "had expected someone to get upset or unnerved, but no." The overall response, Hollinger said, was "amazingly positive. People asked sensible questions, enjoyed it and were moved by it."
Golden, 40, hopes to take the exhibit to other college campuses and other venues across the country.
Like Golden and Lyons, Chas B. Brack never met the subject of his project. But despite funding challenges, Brack hopes to finish a documentary this year about Sakia Gunn.
In 2005, Gunn's killer acknowledged calling the teenager a "dyke" and pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter with bias intimidation. He was sentenced to 20 years.
Brack believes his film will help reverse the "continuing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people of color," an invisibility Lyons and Golden believe shrouded the Brazell and Warren killings. Gunn, Brazell and Warren were black.
"I don't think any of them have received the attention that they need," Brack said.
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