Thursday, December 8, 2011

Reflections on the Death of a Young Black Lesbian Athlete

It is difficult to put my white, middle class, middle-aged and lesbian feet in the basketball shoes of a young black lesbian athlete from the projects. I know nothing about what Tayshana Murphy’s life was like. I do know something about keeping secrets. I hid my own lesbian identity for years before coming out in my 20s. However, I had the advantage of class and race privilege to help buffer the effects of the homophobia I faced as a young lesbian athlete. I did not live with violence in my neighborhood on a daily basis. I lived in a home where my parents were comfortably able to provide for my brother and I. When I looked around at my classmates in school, most of their faces were white like mine and their families also enjoyed similar middle class status. Most of us assumed we would go to college. I could afford to be oblivious to the challenges facing the few classmates of color I had.

I wrote about Tayshana's murder in early October when I first learned about it. In this insightful article, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan invites us all to ponder the effects of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia and their interconnected impact on young black women athletes from the projects. The tragedy of Tayshana’s senseless murder is evident in the loss of a talented young woman athlete who had the potential to leave the cycle of poverty and violence that most of her classmates will never escape. The hidden tragedy that Mecca Jamilah Sullivan invites us to think about is that Tayshana’s murder is largely unnoticed outside her local community.

She asks, “What are the relationships between athlete culture and LGBTQ identity for youth of color in 2011? Why does the principle of the open secret persist for youth athletes, even as institutional structures like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ long convicted in the court of public opinion, have finally fallen away? And what are the roles of race in all of this? We know white men’s lives and deaths get wildly disproportionate media coverage, but what happens when responsible journalism means frank discussions of sexuality, outness, and homophobic violence? If Murphy had been white, or male, would we know more of her story? And would more people know about her in general?”

Advocates for LBGT athletes and coaches must make a commitment to think beyond our own personal experience. Men must understand the role of sexism as it affects the experiences of lesbians and bisexual women in sport. White people must examine how racism mixed with homophobia make the experience of LGBT athletes and coaches different from those of us who can ignore racism even as we benefit from it. Those of us who have enough food, safety, shelter and access to financial resources need to ask ourselves what we are going to do in response to Tayshana’s death? How will we make sure this kind of tragedy never happens again.

We can make all the “It Gets Better” videos in the world, but how will they touch the lives of young women like Tayshana who probably don’t even have access to a computer to watch them? Every time we speak out, we need to consider how race, class and gender filter the experiences of young LGBT people and make sure our interventions take into account the challenges they face. We owe it to the memory of Tayshana and to the future of her sisters whose names we do not even know.


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Wyman Stewart said...

What incontrovertible proof do you have that Tayshana Murphy was a "lesbian"? I've read a number of articles about her and about her death. Innuendo, mention of a girlfriend (a non-specific, general descriptive, too often), and post-death graffiti are used to imply she was gay, but isn't proof.

Does her basketball coach uncle, mother, brother, or "girlfriend" say she was lesbian? Is there a gay pipeline that knows this, that's outside of the family and news media? I'm just curious. No matter what, she should be alive today. But it also concerns me she may be labeled something she would never wish to be labeled as; its own form of desecrating the dead.

The prosecutor will only charge her killers with a hate crime if sure he/she can prove this in court. Taking the news media at face value, it's reporting eyewitness statements that say there is no evidence she was killed for being a lesbian. (Skipping media accuracy.) Absent self-defense, to kill her is murder. No reports exist of self-defense by the killers.

In researching her life, she had been involved in a fight, which forced her, for her own safety, to transfer to another school. It's unknown if this has some connection to her death. It's unreported if she had a history of fighting or being involved in fights she did not provoke. She was noted for her physical toughness on the court, yet no word if that carried over into her daily life. I'm sure it did at some level worthy of examination to determine if it played a role in her death.

Once white-class people of your socio-economic background or Kennedys, Bloombergs, and Rockefellers move into areas like Tayshana Murphy lived in, then become engaged in those areas; then things will change.

The pontificating and wringing of hands from a distance never ends. These are literally terrorist camps and war zones called by other names.

Wyman Stewart said...

"If Murphy had been white, or male, would we know more of her story? And would more people know about her in general?”

Within the past 10 years, although I am not certain of the time, there was a black high school player in Chicago, who may have been 6'8" or 6'9", considered a Top Ten high school player nationally, killed; gunned down. His story was in the news for a day or two. If you can find his story, that somewhat refutes the idea a "guy" would get more national coverage. Last year, I believe two white boys in Oregon died in a drowning accident as part of a school outing, getting only one day of national headline, which I almost missed. I think both were white.

Lousy as the coverage of her death has been, Tayshana Murphy is being immortalized by comparison. Fine with me, especially if it brings an end to violence in all the most violent places major cities have.

Pat Griffin, I didn't grow up quite the way you did. I wasn't as unfortunate as Tayshana Murphy, either. I sometimes went to an all white school of middle class and poor children, but I also experienced going to school with black children at different times. I went through desegregation in two different school systems. I was both victim and recipient of unintended consequences of desegregation; mostly negative.

It didn't taint my overall beliefs, but I could easily ask, where are my rights? When will justice serve me? How many opportunities must I miss out on, so one class or another can claim something they call their "right" at my expense? In that sense I can relate to the tragedy of Tayshana Murphy.

When you do an "It Gets Better" video, who has to accept an "It Gets Worse" life? There is very little responsible journalism. Almost all of it comes with an angle, an agenda, a goal, or some intent. When you win your victories, for right or wrong, you will; how will you handle that power? Will it be with generosity and magnanimity? Or will you be far less noble? Not so much yourself, but the whole movement.

There is much sad about the story of Tayshana Murphy. But for her death, I doubt I would've ever known her. She is, in death, being celebrated more for her perceived Lesbianism, than for what she was most of all: a fellow human being. That troubles me. Yet, I don't doubt you care.

E Leb said...

WS, I question your analysis and take issue with the thought that calling Tayshana a lesbian is akin to desecrating the dead. Calling someone a lesbian is not a violation of their humanity or a slur (unless you're homophobic). We may not have evidence that she was a lesbian, but we do know that LGBT lives are often erased by media who don't acknowledge girlfriends as lovers.

I mourn Tayshana's death as a human being, as I'm sure Pat does as well. I also mourn the loss of her as a black, poor, lesbian athlete.

And as to your theory that the projects will change once middle-class and owning-class people move into them and become engaged, well, this is called gentrification. It definitely leads to change - all the poor people have to move out because housing and consumer prices increase. Meaningful positive change in poor communities requires increased social services and support for community engagement from within, not rich people coming in from the outside.

Wyman Stewart said...

E Leb, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You and I, indeed, disagree on what constitutes "desecrating the dead."

I cited 4 witnesses to her life, whose word I would be willing to accept, that she was Lesbian. Short of one of these people saying she was Lesbian or an honest witness saying that Tayshana said she was a Lesbian, I should take such a claim with a grain of salt. It's unreliable information. Now, "desecration of the dead" comes into play, if the person would object to being labeled something they are not.

Since I never care for being labeled something I'm not, I assumed Tayshana may have felt the same way during her lifetime. Since she is no longer living and can't offer an objection to being labeled, this to me is "desecrating the dead."

(Obviously, we don't know her feelings, so this turns on personal opinion. Thank you for that reminder. There may even be other opinions, as well. You helped me see my opinion is not an irrefutable idea, but personal opinion only. Heartfelt, though it is.)

Allow me to give an example you may better understand. Say all 4 of the above come out to say, Tayshana was in fact a Lesbian. If the regular news media and probably the courts as well, choose to ignore this truth, without reporting it or even denying it, in the media's case, then this too, in my mind is "desecrating the dead." Again, my opinion.

(I believe I covered why the courts may choose not to prosecute the case as a "hate" crime, even if it was. I admit, that would be sad.)

I came very close to trying to find out if Tayshana was a Lesbian, but decided not to trouble other people to get the truth.

One does not need to be homophobic to feel a certain respect for the dead.

I also accept, because grafitti was found on walls near her apartment, after her death, describing Tayshana as Lesbian in negative terms, the Gay community is within its rights to embrace her, mourn for her, and stand up for her. That's fine and honorable.

To me, Tayshana's death, even if because she was a Lesbian, is a subset of a much larger problem in many Black communities; Black on Black violence, especially among young people, even more particularly Black males.

Since Tayahana's death, nothing has been said here about two Black athletes, who were gunned down in separate states; the last being in Mississippi, as I recall.

Does the Gay community care about this or are you tied strictly to your own agenda? Could Tayahana, viewed as a Lesbian, simply be a frivilous excuse for more Black on Black violence, where almost any imagined slight has become a reason to kill? Should the Gay community ignore this possibility?

Wyman Stewart said...

E Leb my "Projects Theory," let us call it, was not meant to be exactly what you describe, but I accept your reply as the truth.

I was taking a good-natured poke at Pat's "class" and "race" privilege remark. I'm sure there are ways around the gentrification you mention, but the "privileged" have no intention of giving it up for the whole team.

("Meaningful positive change in poor communities requires increased social services and support for community engagement from within, not rich people coming in from the outside.")

Granted times have changed much, but I never saw anything close to the fulfillment of your above quote in the 3 years I lived in a housing project as a kid. Granted, it was a "white project" in those days. Then there was the "other project." Both knew not to mix. Neither one as bad, as what I would bet, Tayshana lived in.

Also, what do you mean by your words "support for community engagement from within"?

I assume you mean all the things that have been tried, but still seem to fail miserably, although it does "support" a huge bureaucracy funded by taxpayer dollars.

Not that I am ready to stop trying. Nor do I think it's easy. Education, training, and opportunities are 3 keys, but inner cities have turned into war zones. Schools are ticking time-bombs today too. But to the Gay community, these may seem like tangential issues.

Still, it was nice of you to respond to that part of my comment too. You have earned my respect. Forgive me, if I got carried away a little. I enjoyed your intelligent replies to my thoughts.

Wyman Stewart said...

A PLEA TO PAT: Could you add "homophobic" to your list of words people should not call others. I wish to nominate it for consideration. I wince now, anytime I hear the word used. It is being used as an intentionally derogatory label to place on a person(s), with whom one disagrees.

The word has its critics when used in its professional sense. Yet, common use has ruined whatever value it's had.

E Leb above used the word in a context I can understand and was not offended by. However, E Leb reminds me, this word is used constantly in negative contexts by less literate people or people with derogatory intent.

Thank you for considering adding this word, as a word people should resist using.

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Wyman Stewart said...

Above are 4 follow-up links I found, as of June 4, 2014. The links clear up or clarify a few of my own questions. The links, in my opinion, confirm some of my past statements.

I am inclined to wonder and ask, did her Lesbianism arise as a survival instinct, given the war-zone mentality of the area she grew up in? Granted, it's an impossible question to answer, now. However, had she lived, I believe she may have turned straight as an adult--or more likely, bisexual. Maybe she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, almost from birth. Just speculation, but one worth study by those who study such things.

To close, I am disappointed Pat did not do a follow-up on this story. I hope the links above will be helpful to anyone wishing for an update to Pat's post.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Tayshana Murthy's sad death is revealing she has not died in vain. There are results. There's a chance some change for the better is coming. God watches over all.