By Gary Paul Wright
May 11 marked the 10-year anniversary of the murder of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian girl. The milestone went fairly unnoticed by the local media, including The Star-Ledger, as well as the city of Newark itself. Gunn’s death was undoubtedly the turning point for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning activism in Newark, which led to the creation of the Newark Pride Alliance and more. It was reason enough for the city to create the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on LGBTQ Concerns and the Essex County Executive’s LGBTQ Advisory Board. It was also reason enough for city leaders, at that time, to promise a community center for LGBTQ youth.
In realty, Newark has done little more than offer lip-service to its gay community. As a commissioner and an advisory board member, trying to get the ears of City Hall to listen has been futile. Activities that were given the green light just two years ago have been thwarted, and cooperation from the city is non-existent.
A March to Remember Sakia was held on May 11, and the Liberation In Truth Social Justice Center was remade as the Sakia Gunn Center for LGBTQ Resources for the day, with most local LGBTQ organizations participating. These included the African American Office of Gay Concerns, Unity Fellowship NewArk, Garden State Equality, North Jersey Community Research Initiative, and others. There was a viewing of Chas Brack’s “Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project,” a documentary that included footage from the sentencing of Sakia’s killer, Robert McCullough. The viewing also featured a Q&A session with the film’s director, and remarks from members of Sakia’s family.
This day was surely a teachable moment for Newark that was missed. Instead, it shows just how the LGBTQ community in the city has once again become invisible, and under the radar. Sadly, only one legislator turned up to support us, Congressman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who wished us well in our efforts to open an LGBTQ Center.
What’s remarkable about this is that, nine years ago, on the first anniversary of Sakia Gunn’s death, current and future candidates for mayor, Cory Booker and Ras Baraka, assured the community that a center was needed in Newark, especially for our youth, who have nowhere to go to openly congregate with each other in safe spaces other than HIV/AIDS organizations.
True, we now have the Hetrick-Martin Institute’s after-school program, but it is limited in scope with respect to age and hours of operation. Even talk of creating a high school for LGBTQ youth has been stymied. Indeed, I predicted publicly at that time that there would be a hockey arena in Newark before any kind of LGBTQ Center. Sure enough, the city signed a deal to bring the New Jersey Devils to Newark a short time later.
It is time for Newark leaders to heed to cries of its LGBTQ constituents. Having a commission in name only does not help. How can we give advice to those who are not listening? Taking one day out to raise the rainbow flag over City Hall does not empower young people who still have to go into New York City to socialize. Where are the programs that were promised to the 2,500 young people who gathered for Sakia’s funeral in 2003?
As a member of the LGBTQ Commission and the Essex County Advisory Board, I am experiencing the frustration many feel — that we’ve been thrown a bone. While we make the city and county look progressive and diversified, this is really not the case. As executive director of the AAOGC, I am saddened that, for all my involvement in moving this community ahead, the lack of funding, continued social detriments, stigma and exclusion still remain a reality.
Gary Paul Wright is executive director of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, Newark. Have an opinion? Share it at njvoices.com.