The grief and tragic energy around any murder can make one forget the political potential each one 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 unnoticedand what bodies we don’t see as viable to create change.
While the murders that become a media spectacle are political, equally as political are the murders that are silenced and hidden. The silence around these killings gives us political insights that are 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 last fall, 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 is said 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 is hardly discussedor rememberedin today’s conversation. And his death has yet to evoke a mass political movement around sex workers and the drug crisis in Americaeven 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 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.
Jamaica, and in many other Caribbean islands, homophobia is more than words and more visceral than systems designed to dominate you. Homophobia can be brutal; it can assault and murder you. It is suspected that Pottinger’s murder was the 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 case is still unsolved. In Jamaica, homosexuality is outlawed, so it does make sense that acts towards prominent gay people done in the country might be swept under the rug or even a part of a political conspiracy to keep the heterosexual status quo.
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 literature fans 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 studentwho was far younger than Baldwin’s characterfound 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 menespecially black menthat fail machismo expectations. This creates a space where both the community that black gay men come from has denied them due to shame and the mainstream potential platforms have also turned their back on them due to shame and 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 who can be politicized in death in order to be 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 that 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 Emmett Till, black death has been politicized and used as a type of moral appeal to the general public and to the state to possibly transform 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 relaxes on his masculinity and heterosexuality.
The search for the perfect victimone that is heterosexual, cis, and malehas rendered so many deaths forgotten and just as many political/moral causes unimportant. This particular kind of ignorance keeps the murder of black gay men as not only possible, but highly probable to continue.
Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a serial killer and cannibal who mostly victimized black gay men, may have fetishized those bodies for some psychotic reason. Dahmer could have also known that these were the identities that both the family 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 a toxic person 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 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 the dead bodies being heterosexual to homosexual is the one detail that promises black gay deaths will continue and not just black gay deaths. It promises that the deaths of people with even more intersecting marginalizations or with identities even more ostracized in society will continue to persist because they fail to reach a respectable standard to be talked about and grappling with them stirs up too much shame informed by societal ideals about what a good man and worthy life looks like to ever make them 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 had 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 who also wore makeup.
And until we begin to see black, queer bodies as places for radical change and sites to produce discourse on how to stop the massive systems that seek to destroy us all, this epidemic will only continueand their deaths will continue to go unheard.