Vester Flanagan, Black Gay Men and When Violence Repeats

Vester Lee Flanagan II

Vester Flanagan, Black Gay Men and When Violence Repeats

Keith Boykin unpacks the recent trauma out of Roanoke and beyond.

Published August 28, 2015

The scene was eerie. On a hot summer day, someone pulled out a gun in public and shot his sworn enemy, a prominent public figure, in broad daylight. By the end of the day, the shooter, a Black gay man who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, was dead himself.

The scene I described was not just the story of Vester Lee Flanagan, the 41-year-old former WDBJ reporter, known as Bryce Williams, who shot and killed two ex-colleagues in Roanoke, Virginia on Thursday. It was also the story of Othniel Askew, the 31-year-old Black gay man who shot and killed New York City Council member James Davis in the summer of 2003.

On July 23, 2003, Askew smuggled his weapon into New York's City Hall building and fired at Davis in the balcony of the council chamber before he was shot dead by an off duty police officer who responded. The gruesome public murder took place while dozens of people watched in horror.

As a Black gay man, both these stories caused me to worry about a potential backlash from critics who might exploit the tragedies as an excuse to attack others in the community. Black gay men still bear the burden of representation that unfairly assigns to them the problems of any member of the community. This was precisely how the overhyped "down low" story came into vogue a dozen years ago to demonize Black gay and bisexual men as predators.

In response to these community accusations, some choose to engage in the fruitless politics of respectability, in which members of a group try to prove their worthiness to outsiders by self-policing so-called bad behavior. But the stories of Askew and Flanagan, and others, still lead me to worry about unresolved mental health issues in our community.

Surprisingly, there's little evidence that Black gay men suffer from mental health issues more than other groups. In fact, a Columbia University study in 2007 found that Black lesbians, gay men and bisexuals had "significantly fewer disorders than whites." And another study in 2008 found "Black lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals had lower prevalence of all disorders than did Latino and White individuals."

But many of us in the Black LGBT community worry about the impact of racism and homophobia on a doubly disenfranchised minority. Although society has become increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians, Black LGBT people often don't enjoy the same opportunities, privileges and access to resources as their white counterparts. Yes ,we can get married and serve openly in the military now, but many of us continue to suffer the indignities of racism in a social system built on white supremacy. At the end of the day, Black gay men are still Black men, and it's not always easy being either, or both.

There was a time a few years ago when I led a Black LGBT organization and hardly a week passed when I didn't receive a letter or email from a young Black man, woman or teenager who was struggling with his sexuality or identity. Many told me they were not accepted by their own families because of their sexuality, while others said they were not treated fairly within the gay community because of their race.

The trauma is real. Over the years, I've had a few alarming personal experiences with people in our community who were mentally unstable. Friends and I have quipped about who to look for if we turn up missing, but only because we were not equipped with the language to address the underlying problem of pain and hurt.

Nearly 70 percent of all hate crimes are based on race or sexual orientation, and Blacks and gays are often the targets, suggesting that Black LGBT people are even more endangered than others and more likely to be victims of this type of crime than perpetrators of these incidents.

But violence doesn't have to bear a label to cause deep pain. Ten years ago, my friend Wanda Alston, a prominent Black lesbian activist in Washington, D.C., was killed by a neighbor in her building. Twelve years ago, I sat in a living room in Newark to interview the family of Sakia Gunn, a Black lesbian teenager who was killed on the streets of her hometown. Thirty-five years ago, my uncle, a Black gay man, was shot and killed in his own house in St. Louis.

I celebrate my 50th birthday today with a sense of wonder that I made it to this milestone while so many of my friends and family members were not so fortunate. The sad truth is I've seen too much violence in my life. But when you combine lingering prejudice and a violent society with too many guns that are too easily accessible and too little interest in helping people in need, tragedies like the one in Roanoke will continue to occur.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(WDBJ-TV via AP) 

Written by Keith Boykin


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