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Thoughts on the Murder of Sakia Gunn
By J. K. Jaffe (From the IMC Newswire)The Christopher Street piers look a lot different than they did eight years ago, when I slept on them after I ran away from home. The cement and barbed wire have been replaced by a grassy lawn and tables and chairs alongside the grayish water.
Technically I didn't run away from home, I ran from high school. Some friends and I started a gay student group at my upstate New York school in 1993 after the big gay march on Washington. We called it Visibility. Little did we realize how visible we'd be.
When most of my allies graduated the following year, I received the full glare of that spotlight. I was name-called, threatened and chased home numerous times; my locker was defaced and my home prank-called; and near the end of my senior year, a carload of boys tried to run me over, swerving to swipe at me in the shoulder of the road, shouting "Dyke!" as I hastily scaled a nearby tree.
And here I was, eight years later, mourning Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old dyke brutally murdered May 11 in Newark. Had anything changed?
There are the obvious differences. Sakia Gunn was a poor black teenager, targeted and killed; I was a middle-class suburbanite who eventually escaped to college. But both of us were punished for an unwillingness or inability to hide who we were.
Gunn and friends had just come back to Newark from a late night hanging out in Greenwich Village, probably on the piers, and were waiting for a bus home when propositioned by Richard McCullough. They rejected the advance by calmly explaining that they were gay, and then McCullough stabbed Gunn to death.
But beware of blaming Gunn by imposing a cause-and-effect framework on this scenario. "The implication is that if the girls had politely said, 'No thank you, not tonight, sweethearts,' and then skeedaddled, the disappointed men would have left them alone," write Kelly Cogswell and Ana Simo in the online magazine The Gully. "Judging by photos and TV footage, the girls couldn't pass as straight even if they'd wanted to... in fact she [Gunn] was a target before she opened her mouth."
Gunn was targeted for looking masculine; whether she compounded the danger by admitting to be a lesbian is dubious if not ridiculous. It's sex, not sexuality, that's at stake here, though trying to distinguish the two is often like trying to distinguish water from other water in the same river.
These attacks are about maintaining gender behavior. In high school, I was singled out not just because I said I loved women - I wasn't the only woman doing so - but because I stepped up to arguments, spoke up in class and wore baggy clothes (except for my rainbow fishnets - paired with combat boots, of course). I was punished for being a lousy girl.
All women are subject to the gender police. Imagine running from a would-be rapist in heels; and then being asked what you were wearing, in the aftermath of him catching up with you. Ostensibly there is some magic balance of traditionally feminine yet tough, sexy yet modest, friendly yet not inviting advances, by which a woman can keep herself both blameless and safe; but I don't know anyone who's found it.
And as long as someone can be targeted for existing on the outskirts of gender, all women are going to know exactly where the boundaries are and feel anxiously restricted by them.
Yet this is rarely seen as one struggle. When feminine women are attacked it's called violence against women; when masculine or trans women are attacked it's called violence against queers. Either way most people don't think it's their problem.
There were a few hundred people at the vigil on the Christopher Street piers, mostly young and black like Gunn and her friends. Where were the women's groups? Why was the Feminist Majority in such a minority? Had NOW decided to come later?
Where was the rest of the gay movement? A search of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's website - arguably one of the largest, and left-est, gayrights groups in America - turned up nothing on Gunn. Few of the Chelsea boys and gym queens I saw on Christopher Street made it out to the pier.
And when I'm one of the oldest people I see at a rally, I worry - I was teething under Reagan. Are we afraid of our movement's more ragtag elements? And what about the left? The pro-U.S. jingoists have it right for once when they say to support the troops overseas and at home. There's a war going on right here, and most of its soldiers can't go AWOLto Manhattan or San Fran.
It's possible that people just didn't hear about the murder or the community response. Much has been said about the racism behind the corporate media's burying of the story. Black people are killed in this country every day (speaking of domestic wars), and rarely make the news unless shot more than forty times. If they kill each other, heck, they're just doing the state's work, and what's newsworthy about that?
Plus this isn't the sort of story the mainstream gay community tries to trumpet. Matthew Shepard, white, pretty and Midwestern, was a palatable symbol, but a black butch dyke might skew our P.R. in Dubuque. They might think we all look like that, and then they'll never let us get married.
The struggle won't move forward in any useful way until we realize the true scope of its dimensions. This is cause not for despair but hope. It means we are all allies. We all deserve to live, and to flourish. But first we need to start with those most in danger: young, poor, genderqueer queers of color. If the world is not safe for everyone, it's not safe at all.
Comment by Marilyn Hacker
Thanks for keeping Sakia Gunn's name in our minds, and for your pertinent and necessary analysis.
Comment by Garuda
The West Village, despite the efforts of RID and some in the queer establishment, is a place where it's at least okay to be queer, if not trans, or a person of color. The murder of Sakia is disturbing. How many of us go to the West Village from much less accepting (if not outright intolerant) neighborhoods, and find some sense of empowerment there? And how many of us go back to our neighborhoods, whether by PATH or by subway, and feel an even more rapid disempowerment? The brutality that one can face uptown is just as bad as that which happened to Sakia Gunn in Newark.
From my interviews in and around the West Village, I heard a lot of disappointing things. Almost across the board, those who were not participating in the march and vigil were able to identify the incident that they read in the papers - but they weren't able to identify the person. It's as if we accept our own mistreatment as the norm, unchallenged. One can argue that the people I talked to didn't know Sakia Gunn personally - but how many people in New York know people in Laramie, Wyoming?
All the safe spaces in the world can't save us if we still have to come home off of trains and deal with the armed prejudice of the world.