Sakia Gunn (May 26, 1987 – May 11, 2003) was a 15-year-old aggressive (masculine-identified) Lesbian from Newark, New Jersey. Gunn was stabbed while waiting at a bus stop in Newark, New Jersey on May 11, 2003 after she told the two men that were sexually harassing her and her friends that they were Lesbians. Gunn has become an icon in the African American LGBTQ community for her bravery in the face of harassment, the tragedy of her death at such a young age, and the indifference of the media concerning her murder.
The narratives surrounding the murder of Sakia Gunn differ according to who tells them, and to whom they are told. Accounts taken from her friends who survived the attack, however, are fairly consistent: the girls (between 15 and 17 years of age) were returning to their homes in Newark after spending the day across the river in Manhattan, New York. They were hanging out in Greenwich Village at the Chelsea piers, known as a meeting place for LGBTQ teens of color. While they were waiting at a bus stop in Newark on their way home, two men in a car pulled up to the girls, made inappropriate sexual advances at them, and tried to get them into the car, allegedly to go to a party. Gunn told the men that she and her friends were Lesbians (alternative accounts in the media: she said they were dykes, or they said they were Gay). The two men attacked the teenagers, punching one girl and putting another in a headlock. One of the men put a switchblade at Gunn’s neck. When she broke loose and fought back, he stabbed her in the chest. Gunn was pronounced dead at University Hospital on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2003 due to stab wounds suffered from the attack.
The man who stabbed her originally pled not guilty, testifying he did not know Gunn was female, that Gunn attacked him, and that she accidentally ran into the knife he was holding. In March 2005, he pled guilty in exchange for a plea bargain, reducing his murder charge (which would have put him away for life) to aggravated manslaughter. In April 2005, he was given a 20-year sentence, with eligibility for parole in about 17 years.
Gunn was buried in a cemetery next to Westside High School, the place where she went as a tenth grader. Her favorite basketball (she had dreams of playing for the Women’s National Basketball Association) and a rainbow flag were buried with her. 2,500 people, many of them young Latin and African American women, attended her funeral, and vigils were held for her in cities across the USA. In an essay that describes the Gunn murder and its aftermath, Professor Kim Pearson at the College of New Jersey reported that the grief and anger at the funeral was palpable:
…observers such as Rev. Keith Taylor…noted the diversity of the mourners, including “thugged-out straight boys.” Despite their differences in sexuality and gender identity, Taylor said they were united in their grief and fear of more murders. Some of the young people later told stories of being harassed and physically attacked in their schools, homes, and neighborhoods because of their actual or perceived sexuality. Some were convinced that the only way to protect themselves was to be prepared to fight and die as Sakia had, because school officials, police officers, and other authority figures were unable or unwilling to protect them.
Among the vigils and protests held in Gunn’s honor was one in Manhattan that started in Sheridan Square, continued with a march from Greenwich Village to the Chelsea piers, and ended with a rally. The Chelsea (or Christopher Street) Piers were a place for Queer youth to take refuge when, as in Newark, their presence in public spaces could get them killed. In his essay, “Corroding Our Quality of Life,” Justin Rosado describes the memorial:
We gathered in Sheridan Square. We…held our signs and made our voices heard; even in the pouring rain, which fell relentlessly, could not stop us from marching to the Christopher Street Piers. When we got to the Piers, we held a memorial and candlelight vigil for Sakia Gunn. Friends of Sakia and other members of the community read poetry for her, sang, and cried for her. We brought Sakia back to the pier where she felt most safe, where she felt she could be herself.
Lack of Media Attention
Gunn is representative of a growing list of young people whose lives were taken but whose stories, for one reason or another, did not get the press their communities believe they deserved. The murder of Sakia Gunn was noted by activists for the dearth of media coverage her story received in the Gay, African American, and mainstream media outlets as compared to coverage on the 1998 hate crime against Matthew Shephard, a young White Gay man who was tortured, left hanging on a fencepost in Wyoming, and died the next day. There was relatively little attention paid to the Gunn hate crime, despite the stark circumstances of her murder, outrage of the LGBTQ community in Newark, and several vigils held across the USA for her.
Where coverage existed, there was often a subtext that implied the girls were in some way responsible for the unprovoked violence. Many of the stories characterized the attack on the girls as a scuffle, and imply that the girls were culpable because they announced themselves as Lesbians. There is also the subtext of butch teenage girls who were out on the street at much too late of an hour. In this way, the official discourse resembled the initial media reaction to Shepard’s murder as well, variously characterized as a drug deal, a robbery gone bad, and Shepard cruising for sex, thus asking for trouble.
Noting the media’s reluctance to adequately cover the Gunn story, Professor Pearson became an unofficial Sakia Gunn news authority. Her blog was one of the few places that had accounts of the story as it developed. Pearson also conducted a media analysis of the reporting that followed Sakia Gunn and Matthew Shepard’s deaths. Her findings suggest that contributing factors to modest news coverage of the Gunn tragedy include her socioeconomic status, her race, her sex, and her gender identity. As a Black and clearly non-conforming female, Gunn did not command headlines the way the story of Shepard, who was White and identifiably male, did.
A year after the murder, students called for a moment of silence to be held at Westside High School on the anniversary of Gunn’s death, but were initially refused by school district officials. A compromise of sorts was reached. When the anniversary was officially named “No Name Calling Day,” a moment of silence was held at mid-day, with a reading of the names of Gunn and other students who had died due to accidents or violence since 2002.
The Newark Pride Alliance (NPA) was developed shortly after Sakia’s attack. Since her death, its members have been advocating for an LGBTQ community center for Queer youth. LaQuetta Nelson, one of the founders of the NPA, spoke about the situation LGBTQ youth face in Newark:
We realized in observing everything that took place following Sakia’s murder that there was a need in the African American LGBT community in Newark for some organization that would address the needs of that community. Hence part of the larger problems that resulted in Sakia’s murder is that young people feel as though they have to go to New York to have a place where they can feel accepted and safe. In Newark there is no place for young gay and lesbian folks to gather where they can feel safe, accepted, where they can be nurtured and cared for. Many of them have said that they don’t feel comfortable going to the YM/WCA where a lot of kids go or whatever recreational centers are still open. They don’t feel comfortable going there because the other kids make fun of them, call them names or beat them up. Many adults do not do anything to protect them. They really have nothing and no one that cares about them.
Gunn’s friends and allies formed Aggressive’z and Fem’z, a Lesbian teen group. In Los Angeles, an organization was formed, Sisters of Sakia (SOS), with the following statement on its MySpace page: “SISTERS OF SAKIA Exists to Empower Specifically Address the Needs of Young Queer Women of African Descent.” In March 2009, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and other LGBTQ organizations rallied, holding the local school board and the mayor accountable for the insensitivity shown to her friends and the community that mourned her. In addition, director Chas Brack has made a documentary, Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project. Brack described his reason for the documentary:
When I saw Sakia’s very brief news story on the local news, I was immediately alerted to the gender issues not mentioned in the story. I wondered, is Sakia a girl or a boy? Of course, nothing was said in the news story about whether this kid was lesbian or gay and to me that was egregious. Because in my heart of hearts I knew she was killed because of her sexuality. As Black or Gay people when we walk out into the world we walk out into a hostile environment – the world isn’t safe for us. This is true especially for Black GLBT. The less a part of the mainstream you are, the less safe you feel… I remember being Sakia’s age and the angst caused by my ambiguous gender. I remember feeling like I was cut off from amongst my people. My father had great disdain for me and my girlish ways and figure, on which he and my brother freely commented. No child should be subjected to the kind of fear and loathing I experienced, and no child should be murdered because of who he or she is.
Invisibility of Murders Within the LGBTQ Community
The Gay press, African American news outlets, and the media in general have been criticized for ignoring Gunn’s murder, the outrage it sparked, and the issues that continue to put Queer youth at risk. Scott Hall of Gay American Heroes, an organization dedicated to honoring those who are attacked for real or perceived non-heteronormal orientation and gender expression, expressed frustration over the ease by which the LGBTQ media ignores hate crimes in order not to offend their client base:
It’s discouraging that a lot of the publications overlook stories dealing with hate crimes against our people, such as what happened to Sakia. I’ve been told by a publisher in the Gay media that his readers don’t want to know about all the violence. People think Matthew was the last horrible hate crime, and that’s not true. If the Gay media is not willing to make this an issue, how do you expect the Straight media to do so?
Pearson, Kim. “Small Murders: Rethinking News Coverage of Hate Crimes Against GLBT People” in Castañeda, Laura and Shannon B. Campbell, News and Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: 2006.
Keen, Lisa. Out Law: What LGBT Youth Should Know About Their Legal Rights. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
Rosado, Justin Anton. “Corroding Our Quality of Life” in Sycamore, Matilda Berstein, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2004.
Wright, Kai. Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York. Boston: Beacon, 2008.
Zook, Kristal Brent. Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain. New York: Nation, 2006.
Brack, Chas. Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project. www.sakiagunnfilmproject.com