Sakia Gunn was trying to get home.
She was 15, hanging out on the piers, laughing with the other kids, queer and colored, their teenage arms embellished with rainbow-colored bracelets. But the way home for queer kids is often littered with hateful words and other hazards, and so it was for Sakia in May of 2003. At a bus stop, a man stabbed her and fled. The girl bled to death in her friend’s arms.
In October of 2002, Gwen Araujo had also tried to go home.
She was 17, transgender, dressed up to celebrate the birthday of her namesake idol, singer Gwen Stefani. But Gwen never made it home from the party. A group of men beat her repeatedly with a shovel, strangled her with a rope and buried her body in the woods near a campground. Her killers went to McDonalds for breakfast.
Slain just seven months apart, the two girls became the fleeting poster children of homophobia turned to murder. Little though was said about the coincidence that the two teenagers—one a lesbian who loved basketball, the other a transgender girl who favored Shiseido makeup—grew up in Newark. Sakia in Newark, New Jersey and Gwen in Newark, California. The two places couldn’t be any more different.
The largest city in New Jersey and half an hour from downtown Manhattan, Newark is still best known for its 1960s riots. A black-majority city now, it is steeped in gang violence, Baptist churches and politicos desperate for gentrification. Schools observe a moment of silence a few times a year for their murdered students.
By contrast, Newark, California, is a middle-class suburb of San Francisco, a town with one main strip, liberal jargon and a population almost evenly split between whites and immigrants. It has Afghani restaurants, Mexican party shops and a large shopping mall.
Big city and small town Newark had one thing in common: Neither could offer Sakia or Gwen or any other queer colored child the safety of home.
Parents, teachers, and community activists agree that children are coming out at younger ages, but few cities have responded. For all the queer eyes in Hollywood, there was no gay center in either Newark, no visibility of queer life.
The murders of Gwen, who was Chicana, and Sakia, who was African American, were not isolated incidents.
In 2001, Fred Martinez, a Native American two-spirit teenager, was viciously beaten and left to die in a Colorado canyon. In 2002, two black trans girls, Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas, were shot 10 times in the head in Washington, D.C., and last year black trans teenager Nikki Nicholas was beaten and shot near Detroit. Violence against black queers increased across the country by 16 percent and against Latinos by 2 percent last year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The number of offenders who were African American and Latino (and one presumes being imprisoned) each increased by about 30 percent.
Since Gwen’s and Sakia’s murders, organizations have sprouted in both Newarks, along with marches, rallies, gay proms and sensitivity trainings for cops. Much seems to have changed and even more has stayed the same.
Newark’s mayor in New Jersey doesn’t return the local gay group’s calls about starting a gay center in the city. In California’s Newark, students made a video with a clip about beating up “the fags.”
As both cases go to trial, queer kids of color living in both Newarks talked about coming out and how communities can choose to respond.
Not in Newark, California
As a child, D’emond Sladen was resolved about his gender identity, and it wasn’t the black girl body he was born into.
Now 14, he has cut his shoulder-length braids, making the naps as short as any other boy’s. He wears thin silver-framed glasses and is shy at first. But he concedes that yes, he was surprised that last year his freshman English class voted his essay on being transgender “the best.” Some students have called him brave. That’s not how he feels though when walking alone with his dog.
“I don’t know if it might backfire,” D’emond says.
The same students who don’t comment on his gender identity at high school, he says, could change their attitudes on one of the Newark’s tree-lined streets.
Perhaps that’s what Gwen thought that night: that it had all backfired.
According to her mother and newspaper reports, she had been living as a girl since she turned 14, getting her nails done, finding in her Mexican family a warm acceptance. She had been pushed out of the local schools but no worries. She and her mom had talked: Gwen would find a job to help pay for beauty school. It was all working out somehow. She even knew these guys, Michael and Jose, who had taken an interest in her.
But on Oct. 3, 2002, they turned on her.
According to court testimony, the two men, who had had sex with Gwen, suspected her biological gender and attacked her with two other men at a house party. The other partygoers left the house, chalking it up to a guys’ fight. No one dialed 911, even as the men punched Gwen and hit her across the head with a kitchen skillet. She bled profusely, and they told her to get off the sofa because she was bleeding on it.
In her last hours, she must have thought of her mother, her sister, her brothers. She begged, “No, please don’t. I have a family.” The men beat her with a shovel and strangled her.
Michael Magidson, Jason Cazares and Jose Merel, all 24, went on trial this spring, accused of murder. A fourth, Jason Nabors, 21, pled guilty, reducing his jail time in exchange for testimony against his friends. But the trial ended after the jury deliberated for 10 days and deadlocked on whether the men were guilty of first or second degree murder. The case will be retried in May. In the meantime, Cazares has been released on bail.
The murder shook the small town of Newark.
Young people who had known Gwen protested at city hall and the town held a community meeting but left it at that, local activists say. So Paul Clifford, a white gay man, co-founded Not in Newark, a group of parents and community residents. They met monthly, crafted their demands and presented them to the city council last September.
In May, the council adopted some of the suggestions including changing Newark’s municipal code to comply with state law that forbids discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation in hiring and contract bids. In the spring, police officers were trained on how to respond to hate crimes and met with some of the town’s queer residents.
Patricia Skillen, president of the local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), recalls that at the training, officers were placed in small discussion groups and some asked why a gay person would put gay insignia on their vehicle.
“What’s the purpose for it?”
They were told that rainbow flags mean that LGBT people are proud of who they are, Skillen says.
It’s not exactly Stonewall, but it’s a start.
Because Newark is small, it is easier to change in some ways, says Clifford. Yet it also makes it easier that Newark is wealthy, that 71 percent of those who live there own their homes. Where other towns are responding to gangs or poverty, Newark has the resources for other problems. In the fall, city employees will also undergo sensitivity training, and Not in Newark has obtained funding to also train teachers and run local ads addressing self-esteem among queer kids of color.
These inroads, of course, have their limits.
Gwen’s mom, Sylvia Guerrero, has not been able to return to work and has been evicted from her home. She doesn’t shop for groceries in the daytime. She knows people still say that Gwen misled the men who killed her, that Gwen was “asking for it.” Guerrero holds many people accountable, including the town of Newark for pushing her daughter out of school. Students repeatedly attacked Gwen with rocks as easily as they did with vulgar words. She had a high absentee record as a student.
“Who would want to go to school if you were getting beat up?” says Guerrero.
By the time she was 16, Gwen was in a continuing education program. Then Newark refused to place her in any classroom, Guerrero says, putting the teenager on a waiting list. Harassment didn’t just come from students. School administrators had insisted Gwen use the boys’ bathroom, making her more vulnerable to assaults, Guerrero says.
For Alvyn Prasad, a 19-year-old gay Fiji Indian who graduated from the local high school this year, the murder and subsequent media coverage of queer issues hasn’t made it easier for his family.
“To them it was like, there is no gay Indian. This is all in your head. Stop hanging out with those friends,” says Alvyn. His mom has come around, entering counseling with him, but his father remains silent on the subject.
Alvyn came out as gay to his family after Gwen’s murder. He didn’t know Gwen but the two lived within two miles of each other. Her murder “scared the hell out of me,” he said. He found community with the Not in Newark group, but he had to quit his part-time job after a coworker chased him into the parking lot, calling him a faggot. The manager did not intervene, Alvyn said.
Two years after Gwen’s death, the harassment continues along gender and race lines.
Paul DeWitt, now a retired teacher from Newark Memorial High School, surveyed close to 600 of the school’s students last year and found that they heard name-calling based on sexual orientation 228 times a day and racism 275 times a day. In the spring, a student showed Kevin Bishop, an openly gay teacher at the high school, a video they were producing in a media class. One clip showed students, their faces covered with sweaters, saying “We should shoot the fags.”
By the time D’emond arrived at Newark High School, a year after the murder, students were focused on gender identity and not necessarily in a good way. “I was sort of scared,” he says. “They were wondering who was and who wasn’t [straight].”
Early in his first year though, D’emond also noticed the sign behind Bishop’s desk that read: “Let’s get one thing straight, I’m not.” It gave the teenager some ease and he joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance group.
D’emond also joined the track team last year though he was still relegated to girls’ bathrooms. He spent his first year of high school changing for gym class right after lunch when he knew the girls’ locker rooms would be empty.
Newark Pride, New Jersey
Jai is a homebody. It’s safer that way. “I don’t go out. I go to school. I come home. Me and Sakia were total opposites. She was the type to go out and hang out.”
The two were girlfriends at Westside High School in Newark, New Jersey and they weren’t the only ones. Jai, who graduated from the school and asked that her last name not be used, said people don’t talk about it but, “there’s like a huge crowd of gays in school.”
Sakia, a sophomore, liked basketball and wanted to play for the WNBA one day. She was living with her grandma and considered herself an aggressive (or AG) and Jai, her femme. Like many young people in Newark, Sakia boarded the Path train on weekends for “the Vill,” the West Village, Manhattan’s mecca of gay shops and bars. Not old enough for the bars, she hung out with friends on the piers along the Hudson River in Manhattan.
She was returning home with friends in the early hours of Sunday morning on May 11, 2003. At the corner of Broad and Market streets in downtown Newark, they were waiting for the bus. The police booth nearby should have been staffed but wasn’t.
A man in a white station wagon began harassing one of Sakia’s friends. The teenagers said they weren’t interested, that they were lesbians, and the man got out of the car. He tried to choke one of the girls, but the scuffle ended when he plunged a knife into Sakia’s chest and fled in the car his friend was driving. Sakia bled, dying on the way to the hospital. It was Mother’s Day.
Richard McCullough, 30, turned himself in later that week. The father of two children, he faces six charges, including murder, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation. He is being held on bail at the Essex County Jail.
The murder sent an unexpected ripple through Newark. If its queer youth had a tenuous acceptance with the city—never holding public rallies, always leaving for the Vill—Sakia’s killing ended that as an estimated 2,500 mourners, many of them young black lesbians, attended her funeral.
It also mobilized Laquetta C. Nelson, a black lesbian and veteran of the state’s Democrat gay organizations, to help form the group Newark Pride Alliance. Initially, she and the group tried to work with the city’s longtime mayor, Sharpe James, who said the city would staff the police booth where Sakia was murdered and also look into opening a center for the city’s gay youth.
While the booth is now sometimes staffed, the promise of a center hasn’t materialized. “I’ve written letters, gone down in person but no one can see me,” says Nelson. (The mayor’s spokesperson Pamela Goldstein didn’t return phone calls for this article.)
Like the city’s young people, who have a deep-rooted mistrust of institutions, Newark Pride has eschewed the mayor in search of its own solutions. They marched in the African Heritage Parade this spring, the first time the rainbow flag flew in that parade. At the end of the school year, they organized a gay prom for about 50 young people.
But the city largely remains difficult terrain for its queer youth.
“Publicly very little has changed since the murder,” says Adolph St. Arromand, program manager of Project WOW Youth Center, which largely serves young gay black men. “The administration, the public officials, are having trouble acknowledging that there’s gay young people walking the streets.”
In July, as several cops were shot by gangs, the city started a “Safe Havens” campaign whereby police and churches will patrol streets and provide after-school activities. It is unclear what haven it will offer queer kids since one Baptist reverend, Elijah Williams, said he’d treat those youngsters “like any other sinner.”
The little sinners have fewer places to go these days.
A popular gay party at Newark’s African Globe Theatre has ended, at least temporarily. The piers in Manhattan are not as welcoming either. The Christopher Street piers in the Vill where Sakia hung out have now been converted into a park. Rickke Mananzala, an organizer with Fierce, an organization of young queer activists of color in the Village, says the piers are under the enforcement of park police who are imposing earlier curfews, closing the pier’s public bathrooms and arresting organizers who give out safe-sex materials.
All of this drives the queer kids of color out of the area, says Mananzala. The sole drop-in center that once catered to these kids was shut down in the ’90s and reopened in another part of the city.
Back in Newark, Nelson is getting Newark Pride Alliance its nonprofit status so they can accept donations for their goal: the Sakia Gunn Community Center. Her vision is every teenager’s dream, queer and straight: a place to hang, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a place for anyone who feels different. But for now there is the tedious work. She needs to find an accountant for the organization and the grant money that would make the center a reality.
Jai though thinks a gay center won’t keep the kids safe because acceptance isn’t made of brick or mortar. It happens over time like it did it for the West Village, so that even the crackdown there is not a deterrent for kids.
“No matter what they do [in Newark], they’re going to go to New York,” she says. Why? “Because they think they’re accepted in the Vill,” she says, sighing, a bit exasperated. “It’s the Vill.”
Nelson, for her part, has faith in the idea for a center. Her deep soothing voice quivers when she says that the murder of Sakia and other young black lesbians and transgender girls are indictments of communities where the abuse of girls is still permitted and the reluctance to speak about queer life continues unabated.
“The old folks figure that if you don’t address it, it’ll work itself out or it will go away,” says Nelson about being queer. “But that’s not reality of what’s happening to our people.”
Published: ColorLines, 2004