Pop quiz: Who was James Craig Anderson?
If the name sounds vaguely familiar, let’s refresh your memory. Anderson was the 48-year-old Black man who was beaten and robbed by a group of racist, white Mississippi teenagers in June 2011. And the coup de grâce: Anderson was deliberately run down by one teen—shouting the n-word and “white power”, no less—and driving a pickup truck. The only thing missing from this nightmare scenario was a Confederate flag and the Rush Limbaugh voiceover.
For the next two months, Anderson’s tragic fate became a trending topic on Black Twitter, heavily shared across Facebook, and a heavily-commented topic on wesbites such as The Grio, The Root, News One and AOL Black Voices. Until … the New York Times reported that Anderson was openly gay and raising a daughter with his longtime partner of two decades.
That’s when reporting and interest nosedived across Black media. By the time 19-year-old Deryl Dedmon plead guilty to capital murder in March—Anderson’s name and his tragic story were nowhere to be found across much of Black media. Poof. Gone. Vanished.
Coincidence? Probably not.
Fast forward to November 2011. Twenty-six-year-old Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion died of blunt force trauma after he was pummeled by more than a dozen fellow band members during a hazing ritual. According to the lawsuit later filed by Champion’s family, their son was beaten so brutally, he suffered “severe bleeding” and was reportedly vomiting.
Champion’s narrative across Black media and cyberspace followed a similar trajectory. Hazing has long been a problem in marching bands at historically Black colleges in the South, where spots are coveted and members are awarded virtually the same status as athletes. Much of the online discussions focused on the extent of the hazing and the parent’s search for answers. Until—you guessed it!—Champion’s parents told the New York Times and Orlando Sentinel in January that their son was gay. Their attorney Chris Chestnut speculated that Champion's sexuality could have been “among” the reasons why he was beaten so viciously during the attack. “The former band director, Julian White, who was fired after Mr. Champion’s death, suggested that this might have been an isolated case of homophobia,” the Times added.
Champion’s case had become a cause célèbre among the Black e-telligentsia, Black gossip blogs and news portals. After Champion’s parents announced that their late son was gay? Not so much.
Reporting on the case virtually disappeared across Black cyberspace between January and May 2012. Several outlets—such as The Grio—published the AP’s report on Champion’s sexuality and never mentioned it again until last week’s announcement that 13 people had been charged in connection with his death, most facing felony hazing counts. Just as well, because many of the posted comments around Champion’s sexuality were hatefully heartbreaking. “This is some truly bizzare $het!,” wrote one spell- and IQ-challenged reader. “Nasty to da bone, let otha niccaz spank his bootee up like he was a broad.”
Blaming the victim much? But very telling that some people show compassion when they believe Black male victims were straight. If they were gay, well, hey, it’s their fault.
James C. Anderson and now Robert Champion have become just the latest examples of what many in the Black gay and lesbian community describe as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Black community. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin—Dr. Martin Luther King’s right-hand man and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington—and the trailblazing political icon Rep. Barbara Jordan also suffered the same fate.
“It’s our community’s way of saying, ‘Of course we know what you are, we just don't want you to talk about it and we won't either,” says the Rev. Kevin E. Taylor, the veteran BET producer and openly gay New Jersey-based senior pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of New Brunswick, a predominately Black LGBT denomination. “The story of Robert Champion continues to show how Black media is uncomfortable championing LGBT issues when they show up in our own community.”
Of course the biggest question surrounding the Champion case—EBONY.com contributor Zerlina Maxwell brought it up last week—is how much his sexuality factored into the brutal hazing that was actually a vicious beat down. We may never know the answer. Unfortunately too many people in our community don’t want to have a much-needed discussion—some “real talk”—on sexuality.
Rod McCullom is a multimedia journalist who has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and whose writing has appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, Out.com and many others. Check out his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom.