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When I was home in the DC area for winter break, I met up with a good friend who had recently moved there from Indiana. The first thing he told me was that a professor in his department had been murdered. “Whoa, that’s crazy!” I said, not sure what else to say, and then turning back to look at the books in the “lesbian interest” section of the queer bookstore we were browsing. I had no idea how tragic the story really was, nor that it would quickly become national (to some degree, even international) news. On December 28th, Indiana University Professor Don Belton was stabbed to death by Michael J. Griffin. Griffin used a 10-inch-long knife to stab Belton five to six times, later telling police that he had done so because Belton had sexually assaulted him twice and showed no remorse. Belton’s department, IU Department of English, has expressed their sadness about for the loss, and members of the community have also come together to express their sadness and demand for justice for his murder.
I am surprised to say the last thing I predicted I would hear about Belton’s death was reference to the “gay panic” defense for attacking a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person. But, because of Griffin’s claim that he was sexually assaulted, some, including CBS, have speculated whether this ugly defense will rear its head in this tragedy when it goes to court. Griffin has pleaded not guilty to the murder, and, it would seem pretty far-fetched for him to claim “gay panic”: that he momentarily went insane because of an exposure to homosexuality. Belton’s personal diary denotes excitement about a new relationship with “Michael”; further, Griffin went to Belton’s home with a 10-inch-knife and an extra set of clothes. (He fled the scene and disposed of his bloody clothes.) That sounds like a slam dunk for premeditated murder to me. Right?
A Hate Crime?
This weekend, back in Indiana, a good friend and I discussed the murder. He stated that this should be tried as a hate crime, as it could be argued that Griffin planned and carried out a murder of a gay man, with whom he had at least two romantic encounters, claiming that he had been sexually assaulted by the man. My quick rebuttal was that Griffin himself, by virtue of his sexual relationship with Belton, could not be accused of a hate crime. But, very quickly, my friend pointed out his own sexual orientation and/or behavior is irrelevant – if he killed Belton because of his hatred for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, he has committed a hate crime. This point transcends this case, as there have been rumors that one of the men who killed the late Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1997 in Wyoming because of his gay sexual orientation, is bisexual. In both of these cases, a gay man has been murdered and blamed for his own murder because of his supposed sexual advances toward a heterosexual-identified man – a reality that can only be true in the eyes of someone who holds inaccurate stereotypes and hostile feelings toward gay people: a hate crime.
“Gay Panic” And Hate Crimes Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin
If you do the math, the end result is the same. With a “gay panic” defense, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation. With a hate crime conviction, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation. These two pseudo-legal conceptions are strangely two sides of the same coin; however, with the “gay panic” defense, the homophobic attacker is not faulted for their own actions – they were so overwhelmed with someone’s gay sexuality that they temporarily lost touch with reality and attacked the supposed source of this psychosis. For this defense to be successful, which I believe it has had some, society, culture, and the law must accept that lesbian, gay, and bisexual sexualities are bad and that it is reasonable to be afraid of them; thus, both the “gay panic” defense and anti-LGBT hate crimes stem from homophobia.
Remembering Don Belton
A memorial service is scheduled for Belton tomorrow, January 15that 5pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2120 North Fee Lane in Bloomington, Indiana. There was a large vigil held in town on January 1st, as well. And, Inside Higher Ed reports “And Josh Lukin tells me that he is proposing a session called ‘Remembering Don Belton’ for the next MLA — a panel ‘engaging his scholarship, art, journalism, and pedagogy.’ Possible topics might include ‘his writing and teaching on black masculinity, Baldwin, Brecht, Mapplethorpe, Morrison, Motown, jazz, cinema, abjection,’ to make the list no longer than that.“ It is my hope that Belton’s murder will spark a more in-depth and complex understanding of the way prejudice operates, and that society, culture, and the law will progress to reflect it.
Update (03-10-2013): In revisiting this post after the recent murder of Marco McMillian, a gay Mississippi politician, this discussion remains relevant. Again, a murder has been justified as the result of being sexual assaulted by a gay person, or panicking after consensual same-gender sex.
Also, I wish to make explicit my intentional skirting of violence against trans* people. Though I referenced “anti-LGBT” violence, this post mostly reflected homophobic violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. This was not the negligence of referring to all LGBT people when really meaning gays and lesbians only. While homophobia affects the lives of trans* people, the reality of transphobia and cissexism cannot and should not be subsumed into discussions of homophobia and heterosexism.
Thus, I did my best in this post not to conflate ‘LGB’ with ‘T’ and homophobia with transphobia. It is important to acknowledge prejudice, discrimination, and violence against all sexual and gender minorities, while also being certain to acknowledge and address the unique complexities of homophobia (anti-gay and anti-lesbian), biphobia, and transphobia. (Thanks to my friend, Aubrey, for asking for clarification on this!)