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The LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Sakia Gunn

This entry is part 39 of 53 in the series lgbt hate crimes project

One of the things that surprised me after starting the LGBT Hate Crimes Project is the amount of email I get. Much of it is from people who knew, or were related to the victim. Sometimes I’ve heard from family members who didn’t know the outcome of their loved one’s cases. Sometimes it’s from people who want to let me know about cases that they think should be on the site.

In the latter case, I usually take them and research them, unless they’ve been covered in depth elsewhere. If, for example, they’re already covered in depth on Wikipedia I may decide not to duplicate efforts. I started this project on Wikipedia, by the way, but stopped posting entries on Wikipedia when it became clear that their notability guidelines would cause many of the cases I was writing about to get deleted, because one editor or another didn’t think they were noteworthy enough. In one case, one person asked me “What makes this different from any other crime story?”

I thought I’d scream, but it got worse.

Basically, I had someone say to me that if a hate crimes case didn’t get widespread coverage, didn’t spark large protests, or catalyze new legislation, then it wasn’t noteworthy enough to warrant its own entry. Well, part of the reason I started the project was because so many cases don’t get the kind of coverage that a Matthew Shepard or Brandon Teena gets. In fact, many don’t get coverage beyond their local areas, and don’t spark huge protests in part because the victims are already members of marginalized groups; people we tend to care even less about in death than we do in life.

The Sakia Gunn story is a prime example. Professor Kim actually compared the number of stories about Shepard’s death to the number of stories about Gunn’s death. Two months after Gunn’s death, there were about 11 news stories about it, compared with 507 two months after Shepard’s death. A year later, there were 28 stories about Gunn, compared to 735 stories about Shepard’s murder.

Initially, I decided to put off writing about Sakia Gunn’s murder, because it already had a Wikipedia entry

Wikipedia entry Initially, I decided to put off writing about Sakia Gunn’s murder, because it already had a Wikipedia entry, but after a reader sent me an email recommending her addition, I took a closer look and decided that there wasn’t any reason not to cover it. I wont’ compare this entry to the Wikipedia entry, because I’ve kind of adopted a different format for the stories I research, and I’ve put Gunn’s story into that context.

Besides, there cant’ be too many stories told about what happened to Sakia Gunn.

Sakia Gunn (May 26, 1987 – May 15, 2003), a 15-year-old African American was stabbed to death in Newark, NJ, by Richard McCullough after she and a friend refused his advances by declaring that they were lesbians.

The Background

Gunn, 15, lived in the Vailsburg section of Newark, NJ, with her mother and grandmother. She came out to her mother as a lesbian at age 11, and found acceptance at home.1) She was a 10th grader at Newark’s West Side High School.2) Gunn, known as “T” to her friends, liked to play basketball, and was a member of her high school team. Her mother, LaTonna Gunn, said her daughter dreamed of playing in the Women’s National Basketball Association. Gunn made extra money by washing and styling her friends’ hair.3)

On the night of May 11, 2003, Sakia Gunn and her friends travelled from Newark to the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. After their evening out, the young people took the train back to Newark, walked to the bus stop and waited. A white station wagon pulled up with two men inside. The men started harassing the young women, asking them to come closer to the car. The young women declined, explaining that they were gay.4)

The Attack

.One of the men, Richard McCullough, 29, got out of the car and attacked the young women, grabbing on of them in a chokehold. Gunn and another young woman started fighting McCullough. Gunn hit McCullough. McCullough grabbed Gunn, and when Gunn broke loose McCullough pulled a knife from beneath his shirt and stabbed her in the chest.5)

Gunn laid bleeding as the men fled the scene and her friends flagged down a passing motorist to ask for help.6) Gunn was taken to University Hospital in Newark, where she died of her injuries on May 15, 2003.7)

The Aftermath

Police obtained an arrest warrant for McCullough, after investigators identified him as one of the men who had fought with Gunn.8) On May 16, McCullough – accompanied by his lawyer – turned himself in at the Essex County prosecutor’s office. He was arrested and charged with, murder, weapons possession, and bias intimidation.9) On November 24, 2003, McCullough was indicted on a charge of murder “with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group because of sexual orientation.”10)

On March 3, 2005 McCullough pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in Gunn’s death. Originally indicted under New Jersey’s bias-crime statute, McCullough faced more than 110 years in prison if found guilty, due to stiffer penalties for bias crimes. In exchange for McCullough’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to reduce his charge to aggravated manslaughter with bias intimidation, reducing his potential sentence to 20 to 25 years in prison. During the hearing, McCullough admitted to calling Gunn a “dyke,” but claimed she ran into his knife.11)

Community Response

On May 14, 2003, about 200 people gathered for a candlelight vigil organized by Gunn’s friends, Jaimekai Johnson and Esh Walker. Gunn’s uncle – Anthony Hall – and her girlfriend – Jamon Marsh – addressed the crowd.12) About 2,500 people attended Gunn’s funeral, Newark’s mayor Sharpe James among them. Gunn’s mother said James approached her at the funeral and pledge support for a community center targeted at gay and lesbian youth, but three months after Gunn’s funeral no meeting had been set.13)

On June 11, three months after her murder, 300 people gathered at Sheridan Square in New York’s West Village for a memorial in her honor. 14)

Gunn’s murder and its treatment in the media caused some activists to criticize the lack of coverage compared to the murders of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. A professor at the college of New Jersey compared the number of newspaper and broadcast stories in the first two months after Gunn’s death with the the number of stories in the first two months after Shepard’s death, and found 507 stories about Shepard compared to 11 about Gunn’s murder.15) Seven months after Gunn’s murder, those numbers had increased to 659 about Shepard’s murder compared to 21 about Gunn’s.16)

Some cited racism and classism as the reason for the lack of attention to Gunn’s murder, because she was a black woman from a working class community. Others working in the city’s black communities pointed to intense homophobia as one reason for the lack of progress.

Filmmaker and student Chas Brack, moved by Gunn’s launched The Sakia Gunn Film Project, and directed and produced a documentary, Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project.

Series NavigationThe LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Jimmy Lee DeanThe LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Shanesha Stewart

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