12 Crimes That Changed the LGBT World

The Advocate has covered the LGBT community for 45 years, and these crimes won’t soon be forgotten.




Fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn wasn’t unlike a lot of local teens. She loved to play baseball, got good grades, dreamed of playing in the WNBA, and spent time hanging out with friends. But Gunn, a junior at Newark, N.J.’s West Side High School, also identified as an Aggressive  (or AG) — a gay butch woman of color who dresses in masculine clothes but doesn’t really identify as transgender or lesbian. Her girlfriend Jai was a femme.

On May 11, 2003, Gunn and her friends were waiting at a Newark bus stop after visiting New York’s Chelsea Piers along the Hudson River, an area where scores of young LGBT people would gather on the weekends. Two men in a vehicle pulled over and began asking the girls to come to their car. The girls told the men they weren’t interested in their sexual propositions because they were gay.

There was a police booth within shouting distance, but like many aging police booths — literally security stands, built after the 1960 riots, where police officers could look out and monitor the neighborhood activity — it wasn’t staffed that night. Newark, a heavily African-American city, is no stranger to violence, but Gunn and her friends had walked these roads before and were only minutes away from home.

But one of the men in the car, Richard McCullough, didn’t like rejection. According to Democracy Now, he jumped out of the vehicle and began choking one of the girls. Gunn and her friend Valencia* tried to stop him and Gunn hit McCullough. He turned and stabbed her in the chest before running back to the car and fleeing the scene.

A passing motorist gave the girls a ride to the hospital. Though reports differ, Gunn died in her friend’s arms either en route to or shortly after arriving at the local hospital. It was Mother’s Day.

Gunn’s friends created a makeshift memorial where she had been killed, and hundreds of lesbians showed up nightly. Nearly 3,000 people, many of them young queers, attended her funeral. Her death galvanized the local black queer community, and Laquetta Nelson used that mobilization to start the Newark Pride Alliance. “Sakia and her friends didn't mean anybody any harm that night,” she told reporters at the time. “They were coming back from having fun at the pier in New York, a place where they felt safe to be who they were.”

Lesbians nationwide, especially butch and masculine women, felt for Gunn. How many women had turned down sexual advances from men only to face violence?

“Sakia's murder was, in so many ways, the one that hit the closest to home,” says Renna. “As a self-identified AG, as a butch lesbian who has not infrequently been in the position she was — having men proposition or taunt a more feminine girlfriend or companion — I saw myself in this 15-year-old African-American youth from Newark. My heart broke when the New York community did not respond in nearly the way it did for Matthew Shepard, when Newark was a mere PATH train ride away. I was one of only a small handful of people who were not African-American at her funeral, and seeing the pain in the faces of the thousands. it pained me to not have the larger LGBT community gather in anger, protest, and grief as they did on the streets of Chelsea for Matt. I say this as one who was in Laramie for Matt.”

Indeed, the media, even the LGBT media, gave Gunn’s murder short shift. Professor Kim Pearson from the College of New Jersey did a study comparing media coverage of the Gunn case to 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard using the Lexis-Nexis database. She found that there were 659 stories in major newspapers about Shepard's murder, compared to only 21 articles about Gunn's murder in the seven-month period after their attacks. Pearson also reported that Shepard’s killers were arrested and convicted during that period, but it took almost that long for Gunn's killer to even be indicted.

One only had to do the math, Renna says, to understand why the lack of interest. “Poor. Person of color, gender-nonconforming. Who cares?” Renna says. “Well, we did, and while I was at GLAAD we fought for The New York Times and CNN  to cover her death, which still haunts me, since I would have reacted in exactly the same way she did in her situation. Meeting another accepting and loving family who could not give voice to their grief was painful.”

Some local activists also indicted the black community of Newark, arguing that homophobia kept the mayor and black political leaders from doing more to help LGBT youth and from paying attention to a bias murder where both the victim and the perpetrator were black. Kelly Cogswell and Ana Simo asked in The Gully, “Where are the professionally outraged activists like Al Sharpton who always appear en masse to hold politicos accountable when young black people are cut down by hate and no one is doing anything? After all, he didn't let white censorship and racism stand in the way of protesting the murder of Amadou Diallo in New York, or Timothy Thomas hundreds of miles away in Cincinnati. The reason why Sakia Gunn was killed, and why her murder has faded from the headlines, is that both whites and blacks wish young black queers would disappear. Until things change, they will, thanks to violence, AIDS, and hate.”

As with Shepard, and Brandon Teena, Gunn’s life was memorialized on film in Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project, a powerful doc that dissects both the homophobia that caused this murder and questions the lack of media coverage of her murder.

Today, that police booth on the corner near where Gunn was killed is staffed 24 hours a day, a promise former Newark mayor Sharpe James made in 2002.

* Last name withheld.