Skeleton in Newark's Closet
THE GULLY: What was your first response when you heard Sakia Gunn, a young black lesbian, had been murdered?
LAQUETTA C. NELSON: When they first announced it on the news, they didn't say anything about her being a lesbian. I felt sad thinking another little girl had lost her life, but I just let it go because it happens so often in our community. You just stop a minute and feel sad.
That was on a Sunday. Tuesday, I called a friend of mine and he said, Did you hear about the 15 year-old lesbian that got killed? And when he said that little girl was a lesbian, my heart sank to the bottom of my feet, and then I had to know the circumstances. I had to know if who she was contributed to her death. When I was able to get all the information together, that because she rebuffed these guys' advances she ended up dead, I just knew I had to do something.
I cried first. Then I went to the vigil the next day. And to see what was going on. The first thing I noticed was that it was mostly kids. There weren't any adults except for a few from the lesbian and gay community who were there to support the kids and mourn the loss of Sakia. I learned from her cousin that Sakia's family didn't have the money to bury her, so I went to some folks I had just met at the vigil, from GLAAD [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] and the Anti-Violence Project [AVP], and told them they were going to bury Sakia in a potters grave and asked if they could help. And they did what they needed to do to give Sakia a decent funeral. They buried her with her grandfather who loved her very much. Now AVP is assisting her family in getting a tombstone for her.
How did the Newark Pride Alliance come about?
At the funeral on Friday [May 16th], some of us talked to Newark Mayor Sharpe James about getting a meeting date to set up a lesbian and gay advisory council, as well as a community center in Sakia Gunn's name. So I got a group of community leaders together and we named ourselves the Newark Pride Alliance.
As of yet we have not been able to get that meeting. The mayor turned it over to Cathy Cuomo-Cacere, the director of health and human services. We don't know why he handed it over to her, or when we're going to have this meeting.
When we call her office she's always waiting for this person and that person to be able to attend. We're asking for help from state Democrats to make the meeting happen. New Jersey Stonewall supported Governor McGreevey, now we're asking him for help on behalf of the gays and lesbians here to begin the work of healing and growth for our community in Newark.
The young people are having the most trouble. They're having trouble sleeping. They were having trouble going to school, especially Valencia, the young girl who held Sakia in her arms as she died. Apparently, the city of Newark thinks that this is okay. This is how young black kids are expected to deal with it. Just get over it. In white schools, in Columbine, immediately after the shootings they had a mobile crisis unit there.
Students at Sakia's high school weren't allowed to hold a vigil. And the kids wearing the rainbow flag were being punished like they had on gang colors.
What are the priorities now for the Newark Pride Alliance?
At last Friday's meeting we discussed ways to help the young people, and there's going to be some picnics and outings. We want to give them something positive to do, give them opportunities to talk about Sakia's death, gain their trust. Rev. Jacqueline Holland of the Unity and Fellowship Congregations, and Adolph St. Arromand who works with the HIV project WOW in Newark are going to divide up working with young women and young men, and at some point bring them all together. The Liberation in Truth Congregation is also involved.
Our five biggest priorities that we want to talk about with the mayor are to get a LGBT community center, a safe space in the city. We want to get summer jobs for LGBT youth, and counseling for them. We want an investigation into principal Ferdinand Williams of West Side High School, what he did and said, and what he didn't do that Monday following the death of Sakia. The students there said he made slurs against Sakia, he refused to let them have a moment of silence. We believe them and we want him fired. We also want to get two policemen on patrol at the Penn Station/Broad Street corridor where Sakia was killed.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in lesbian and gay organizing in Newark?
I first got involved in lesbian and gay organizing back in 1992, when I was serving as a district leader in the city of Newark District 28, central ward. I got involved with the New Jersey lesbian and gay coalition, and served on their executive board off and on for years. I also served on the executive board of the national Stonewall Democrats, and founded the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats.
Working with the national coalition, I saw a lot of things there in the majority, mostly white, community that didn't exist in my community, the African American community. And I wanted to take what I learned there, and the things I had access to there, and make it benefit my community in some sort of way.
One of the biggest differences is access to information. The information that existed there didn't exist in my community, as to what was going on in the gay and lesbian community. Information isn't filtering back about gains in civil rights or social gains.
Like in Manhattan they have a gay and lesbian pride center, and they've tried to get folks from Newark to come there, but folks from Newark need something in their own area. It's too far to go. And kids shouldn't have to go all that way to hang out on the pier to feel okay. They should be able to do it right here. If they could, perhaps Sakia would still be alive.
Over the years, I've tried many times to get meetings with Mayor Sharpe James. I would call and leave messages and they never got returned. I tried to get them to acknowledge and respect us, but they turned their backs on us. But we're going to be relentless this time. We want an advisory council, and a center in Newark where everyone in our community can gather and feel safe to be who they are.
At the City Hall rally June 3rd, Corey Booker, who challenged Sharpe James in the last mayoral race, was present in the heavy rain with us. He spoke out against the silence and apathy expressed by the mayor's office, as well as by the people of the city of Newark, for their lack of response to this.
The church people were quiet. All of them were quiet. There was nothing from the NAACP, nothing from any of those types of organizations. What kind of message do they think that sends to the young gay people of Newark? That their lives mean nothing to them.
I've got some people coming to me and saying we shouldn't be airing the problems of the African American community in public. We tried to work quietly before, and look where that has gotten us. Nowhere. We still have all the same problems. We've got to be relentless this time.
How is the LGBT community responding?
When I first began organizing in New Jersey I had the idea of acting as a bridge to try and bring all of the sectors of the gay and lesbian community in the state together, which was very difficult. I've on occasion been able to do it, but not in a lasting and meaningful way.
Prior to the June 3rd demonstration scheduled for election day in Newark, I had sent out a call to all the organizations in the state and in New York, and across the United States to come together and let the mayor and city know that the LGBT community is united in our efforts to tell them that no longer will their hateful, violent acts of bigotry be accepted or tolerated in the city of Newark.
Well, it poured down rain that day, so it wasn't what I'd hoped it to be. But we still had 100 to 150 people. A lot of organizations sent representatives. I even received emails of support from as far away as France. We got emails from Atlanta, Georgia, Washington, D.C.
It's difficult. There are so many people here in the closet, so many of the African Americans, and Newark is very homophobic to be the largest city in the state. It's shameful.
The next meeting of the Newark Pride Alliance is June 20, 6:30 p.m., Paul Robeson Center on Rutgers University campus, Newark.