A Murder of Passion or Hate? A Call for a Summit on Homophobia and Justice

Friday's article in the Clarion Ledger regarding the ongoing investigation revolving around the murder of Marco McMillian is disturbing. The reporting suggests that the police have already decided to not even investigate his murder as a hate crime under state law, as Mississippi hate crimes law only addresses "actual and perceived" gender, but not sexual orientation. However, in pursuit of justice, can not the Coahoma County Sheriff's Department seek to involve the federal government in an attempt to get their case classified as a hate crime utilizing the federal definition of a hate crime? If we are to believe the reporting to be accurate, then, it is obvious that a potential hate crime occurred.

New reports from CNN suggest that there are now varying versions of hypothesized events regarding his death -- varying from a possible burning to being dragged to death (in addition to strangulation).

It is also transparent that community members in the area seem to want to deny the sexual orientation of Marco. Several people have posted on his Facebook page, comments laced in bigotry and discrimination, asking questions such as "what does his sexuality have to do with his murder?" Others have posted comments leaving the clear implication that Marco was a positive influence, and meanwhile, media reports of his sexuality are negative.

As if being gay is something to be ashamed of.

This concordance of details allows for injustice to occur because people and institutions are uncomfortable with homosexuality.

The reality is, Marco's sexuality could have everything to do with his murder. Rumors abound now that Marco allegedly 'hit on' his alleged killer. The speculation goes that the reaction -- resulting in Marco's strangulation and murder -- is being labeled a crime of "passion." It's been framed in local media reports as a "personal" crime, according to police.

The framing of his murder as "personal" and a crime of "passion" is an affront to all who have labored for civil rights since the beginning of time.

There needs to be an immediate national education summit on the implications of homophobia. At such a summit, we need to convene a national dialogue that addresses homophobia's negative impact on achieving justice for victims of civil rights atrocities. We also need to seek to eliminate barriers to developing policy outcomes that advance civil rights protections.

The recent local news coverage of the investigation of Marco's murder in Clarksdale, MS indicates the immediate need for such a summit as events continue to unfold that mischaracterize issues surrounding the cross-cutting identities of being black, gay, and a candidate for public office.

First, a candidate for public office need not be pushing LGBT issues to identify as openly gay. To be openly gay, does not mean one necessarily screams from the rooftops that they are, in fact, gay. No, to be openly gay is simply the antithesis of being closeted. In other words, despite everyone not knowing about Marco's sexual orientation, it does not mean that he was not openly gay.

I had the same concerns when I was elected president of the Worcester, MA NAACP chapter in 2011. Because I did not campaign on LGBT issues, everyone did not know I was gay, and many were surprised to find out. However, I was definitely openly gay. Simply because a non-heterosexual candidate for public office does not announce their sexual orientation does not mean they are not open, proud members of the LGBT community.

Marco was gay. Or as he said, we were "kinfolk." We discussed collaborating together to "deal with Black male sexuality and the church" (those are his words). We talked about his trip last November/December to the International LGBT Leadership Conference hosted by the Victory Fund, which features "hundreds of openly LGBT leaders in government, politics, advocacy, business and community organizations."

But, now given Marco's death that matters less.

My purpose is not to assert his identity. My purpose in sharing that information is to foster a conversation about Marco as a dynamic candidate for mayor in Clarksdale. For Marco, what mattered were Clarksdale residents. He was keenly focused on reducing crime, improving education, and creating more opportunities for all Clarksdale residents to move forward. He believed in change. He lived it. But that doesn't mean he campaigned on his sexual orientation. Nor should he have! He campaigned, rightly so, on the issues that mattered (and still matter) to Clarksdale residents. He did what any bright, young, ambitious politician should have done. He focused on the people.

He also said to me clearly that he wanted to "break barriers" and "transform Mississippi."

A second impetus for a summit on homophobia and its implications on justice concerns how unfortunate it is that there are those who think Marco's sexuality as a national storyline is disparaging to his reputation. This is quite troubling, particularly, given that, through their push to hide his sexuality, they could also be hiding and covering up the motive of his murder.

We need to discuss Marco's example and other examples through the country that confront how homophobia, even postmortem, can prevent justice from being realized.

The fact that it is now rumored that Marco died as a result of a "mixed signals" encounter with his alleged killer should be enough to open a hate crime investigation. If the rumors that Marco 'hit on' his killer have any validity, one of two things may have happened. Either his alleged killer, though closeted himself, was involved in some mutual relationship with Marco and decided to kill him after such alleged advances. Or Marco's alleged killer is heterosexual, Marco allegedly 'hit on' him, and was subsequently murdered.

In either scenario, a clear possible hate crime is evident and should at least be investigated. In each scenario, the act of being 'hit on' by a gay man led to that gay man being murdered.

Similar tragic events occurred in the Matthew Shepard murder and aftermath from which The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 gets half of its name.

The act was designed for cases like this, where ironically the act's namesakes' identities fit the multiple identities of Marco McMillian -- black and gay.

According to the FBI, a hate crime is a "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation."

It should be apparent to any who seek justice in Marco's death that his death should at least be investigated as a hate crime to determine if such charges can be filed. To preemptively decide to not investigate his death as a hate crime is inconsistent with the American ideals Marco fought for -- civil rights and equal opportunity for everyone.

To not investigate Marco's death as a hate crime, in some bigotry-laced attempt to keep 'hush' the fullness of Marco's life is nothing but a travesty and an injustice. Clearly, the state of Mississippi needs to update their definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation.

It might not be socially convenient in the rural south to investigate his death as a hate crime, but it is the right thing to do given the recent media reporting based on police statements.

To do anything less is to say to Marco: your life -- spent fighting for equal opportunity, equity and freedom for everyone -- was in vain.