ActivismBody PoliticsCulture

black gay deaths still need answers

August 21, 2019
69 Picks

The grief and tragic energy around any murder can make one forget the political potential each person possesses. And in the wake of recent heightened media attention around cis-heterosexual black male deaths due to state-sanctioned violence or recent high school shootings, many are being reminded of the inherently political nature of taking a life.

We live in a moment where any time a gun is fired, pundits and political actors seize the moment to create a movement. It’s also become apparent what type of violence continues to go unnoticed and what bodies we don’t see as viable to create change around. Murders that become media spectacles are political — yet, the murders that are silenced and hidden are just as political. The silence around these killings provides insights both tragic and profound, and the silence around the recent string of murders of Black gay men has been louder than any cries for their lives.

Gemmel Moore’s death got brief coverage, but quickly faded into the background. The young man was found dead at the home of Ed Buck, a powerful California Democratic party donor. The relationship between Buck and Moore is suspected to have been sexual and centering on money. Buck would allegedly pay Moore for sexual services, and it has been claimed that it was a part of Buck’s erotic fantasy to feed Moore copious amounts of drugs at his West Hollywood apartment. The story broke late last year and seems hardly discussed or remembered in today’s conversation. Moore’s death is yet to evoke a mass political movement around sex workers and the drug crisis in America, even as investigations continue with no answers or arrests in sight.

Dexter Pottinger was a Jamaican activist, warmly known as the face of Jamaica Pride. In September 2017, authorities found Pottinger stabbed to death in his Kingston home. Neighbors heard his screams, but none called the police. In fact, the only reason his body was found was because of missing person reports filed with police by friends and professional peers. In Jamaica, as in many other Caribbean islands, homophobia is more than words, and more visceral than systems designed to dominate you; it can lead to assault and murder. Pottinger’s murder is suspected to be a result of homophobia that served as a type of political warning to all gay citizens of Jamaica that may desire to be visible with their sexuality. The murder of Pottinger did not spark a popular dialogue or a protest about asylum for queer folks looking to escape brutal and homophobic environments.

Fourteen-year-old Giovanni Melton’s name may remind readers of the novel Giovanni’s Room by the iconic Black gay author, James Baldwin. The novel is about two men navigating homosexual attraction and romance. In the novel, Giovanni dies poetically and tragically. But Melton’s death was not as poetic as the death Baldwin was able to pen decades ago. The young student who was far younger than Baldwin’s character, found his death arriving at the hands of his father, for just being gay. And this incident, also like the others, did not cause national outrage or start a conversation about patriarchal violence against young Black gay men, domestic violence or gun control. Instead, it changed nothing and was quickly forgotten.

The link between all of the deaths beyond the identities of each victim is the fact that shame keeps each death from being a part of a larger mainstream conversation. The shame brought to Black people invested in religious, patriarchal doctrine that says any expression of queerness is a sin or abomination against God. And the shame created in mainstream culture against men, especially Black men, that fail machismo expectations. This creates a space where the community that Black gay men come from has denied them due to shame, and the mainstream media has ignored them due to disinterest. The gay identities of these Black men force them to fail respectable standards of who can be mourned publicly in both the media and the larger cis-heterosexual Black community, and whose death can be politicized as a tool for change. Queerness is too shameful to be spoken of. The hyper-masculine trope of Black men is too loud to be disturbed by corpses which may not have desired women romantically or sexually in life.

Once a Black man is dead, he is at best a symbol that can be used for political movement and inspiration for the movement around Black life. Since at least Emmett Till, Black death has been politicized and used as a type of moral appeal to the general public and to the state as a possible tool of transforming the conditions that made the death possible. It is sad to think that there is only a singular Black identity that inspires and moves people with his death, and it relies on masculinity and heterosexuality. The search for the perfect victim — heterosexual, cis, and male – has rendered many deaths forgotten and just as many political/moral causes unimportant. This particular kind of ignorance makes the conintued murders of Black gay men not only possible, but highly probable.

Jeffrey Dahmer, a cannibalistic serial killer who mostly victimized Black gay men, may have fetishized those bodies for psychotic reasons. But it’s also likely that Dahmer knew these were the individuals whose families had rejected and society had dismissed, which made is easier to get away with his killing spree. Nobody searches for a hunter if his prey is undesirable. Jeffrey Dahmer is dead, but the culture that facilitated such toxicity is still alive and even more sophisticated.

Murder is a hungry thing. When people decide to murder, often they devour people who they believe will be forgotten, not believed, or who are constantly rendered invisible. The silence makes it possible for blood to spill, and often as a society we do not attempt to address these issues until those who we could have saved have already been swallowed by death. Murder is also cyclical. If a group has been marked easily preyed upon, they will be preyed upon again and again. Sadly, the only time this changes is if the media is interested in spotlighting certain deaths.

The shift from dead heterosexul bodies to homosexual ones is a detail that promises Black gay deaths will continue — but not just Black gay deaths. It promises that the deaths of people whose marginalizations intersect, or with identities that are even more ostracized in society, will continue, because they fail to reach a respectable standard of discussion, and grappling with them stirs up too much of the shame informed by societal ideals. And to those respectable eyes, these lives are unworthy of becoming the face of a movement, or a discussion about Black life and justice.

Shame births silence, which allows violence to happen without it being deeply interrogated and confronted. Black gay men continue to perish with no discussion on why this continues to happen. In March of 2018, Ta’Ron Carson was killed in a shooting that was first speculated to be a hate crime and is now reportedly as having nothing to do with his sexuality or gender performance. Still, with this knowledge, a larger conversation about gun control or gang violence cannot be born from this tragedy, because Ta’Ron was a Black man that loved men and who also wore makeup. And until we begin to see Black, queer bodies as vehicles for radical change, and media produces a discourse on how to stop the massive systems that seek to destroy us all, this epidemic will only continue, and these stories will continue to go unheard.