Cathy Renna

Telling Sakia's Story

Filed By Cathy Renna | October 08, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: hate crimes against LGBT people, Matthew Shepard, Sakia Gunn

I have spent the last month working with reporters who are re-telling the story of Matthew Shepard's murder. Which, on some level, makes sense. A college student at an event where Judy Shepard spoke this past Monday said to me afterwards "You know, I was eight when this happened." It reminds me that his story must be re-told. And this is what Judy and her family have done for the last decade. She has spoken to over one million people, transforming her grief to action with her story. Her main messages: get active, get involved, tell your story. She is a hero, a friend and an inspiration.

And she is absolutely right. So I will tell you a story. It is a story you may not know. It is a story that will shock you. It is the story of Sakia Gunn.

Sakia was a 15-year-old self described "ag" (for aggressive) African American lesbian. She lived in Newark, NJ, and was out to her family and friends, had a girlfriend and also clearly had a tremendous amount of courage.

Early in the morning of May 11, after hanging out in Manhattan, she and her friends returned to Newark. While waiting for a bus, two men in a car made sexual advances towards her and her girlfriend. She made it clear they had no interest - they were lesbians. One of the men, Richard McCullough, got out of the car and stabbed her. Repeatedly. Sakia Gunn died in the arms of her best friend, Valencia.

When reports of the murder came to us at GLAAD, I immediately mobilized the appropriate staff. It was not only difficult to get the local media to really care, it was almost impossible to get the local LGBT community to do something. In New York city, where we have one of the largest LGBT communities in the country, I was appalled at the lack of response. I also felt, more than in any other hate crime I have dealt with "There but for the grace of God go I." How many times had I rebuffed comments from men towards me and my girlfriends. How was it that I got lucky and never had one of them lash out in violence?

We did the right thing. We got on the PATH train, went to the vigil, worked with the local anti-violence project to offer support to her family and friends. One of the best LGBT papers in the country, the Gay City News, did an extraordinary job documenting and following the story. They were the only media outlet at Sakia's funeral. Over 2000 students and friends attended the viewing prior to her funeral. I was one of a handful of activists - and white people - there. Mick Meenan of Gay City News, Jim Fouratt, my partner Leah and me. After a number of weeks of advocacy, we worked with some great producers at CNN, who came to Newark to film a protest at City Hall, interviewed Sakia's family and friends and was able to get the story on Anderson Cooper's program.

As it always has, it felt like an honor and a huge responsibility to work with Sakia's family. Her mother, LaTona Gunn, was always supportive of her daughter and was a visible and vocal advocate. She continues to be. If only she had the platform.

There is a film you need to see, to really get all the details of Sakia's life and death. This is a story that needs to be told and Charles B. Brack has done it, with the production of "The Sakia Gunn Story." Go to The Sakia Gunn Film Project and see if it is coming to an LGBT film festival near you. Order a copy for your local community center. Let Sakia tell her story.

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Please explain her identity. Matthew Sheppard was immediately identified as "GAY" and we in the LGBT community all rushed in to help the best way we could. The film biography states that Sakia did not identify as a lesbian but as an agressive homosexual rapper.
"Sakia was a 15 year old charismatic, dynamic young woman who was out and proud about being an 'aggressive' – according to the GLAAD web-site, a homosexual woman of color who dresses in masculine attire but does not necessarily identify as either lesbian or female-to-male transgender. Many of these young women mimic the esthetics of male rappers that are seen on the popular television programs for young urban youth of color."

It's also important to mention the connection between Sakia Gunn and the New Jersey 4.

I'd like to know more about "ag" too.