Bloomington Mourns the Death of Don Belton and Keeps a Critical Eye on Our Homophobic and Racist Justice System.
“Are you serious?!” That’s what I said when I first learned what happened to Don. The deep sense of bewilderment and disbelief I felt seemed to be shared by many. It was a tragedy in the true sense of the word.
Don was an openly gay, African-American professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. On December 28th he was found brutally stabbed to death in his home. Police later arrested 25-year-old ex-marine Michael James Griffin for the crime.
The story of Don’s life and death has reverberated throughout our community and the nation, reaching much national news attention.
He will be remembered as a loved friend, respected community member, and adored teacher. It seems like everyone knew Don. When there’s a sudden loss of someone, we cope by speaking about them, in whatever capacity we can. We tell stories and accounts of meeting them for the first time, about chatting with them in the produce section of the co-op, about listening to them speak at author readings, about learning from them. We tell stories of this man that was warm and compassionate who will be deeply and truly missed.
Don was also a very gifted writer, often speaking of race, sexuality, and the intersection of these identities.
As grotesque as it may sound, many homophobic and racist things were written on message boards and blogs after Don’s death. There are wider concerns over how the mainstream media has covered the facts and portrayed this story. Mis-information often fuels the fire of hatred. Between the lines of reporting exist missed opportunities to discuss overt and subtle heterosexism prevalent in our society, and how to work against that hatred. Homophobic and racist prejudice runs deep in corporate media, and Don’s story shows no exception.
Don Belton (top) & candlelight vigil downtown Bloomington January 1st, 2010 (above)
In another terrifying development, Don’s identity will reportedly be at the forefront of the murderer’s defense strategy. Though Griffin has confessed to the murder, he will reportedly be using the “gay panic defense” to plead not guilty.
Griffin alleged that Don sexually assaulted him on Christmas day. Two days later, Griffin took his knife to Don’s house to demand an apology. Bloomington’s Herald Times reported that when Don would not accept Griffin’s accusations, Griffin stabbed him several times, “until he quit moving.”
“In the ‘gay panic’ defense, the defendant claims that he or she has been the object of romantic or sexual advances by the victim. The defendant finds the advances so offensive and frightening that it brings on a psychotic state characterized by unusual violence.” (definition from Wikipedia)
Translation: the “gay panic” defense blames the victim, something that’s totally fucked up and an unfortunately typical theme within our society and justice system. You’d think the “gay panic” defense should reveal to any rational individual and group as unjust victim blaming, harkening to archaic values. Of course, our current justice system sees it otherwise.
As recent as 2009, a Chicago man Joseph Biedermann successfully used the “gay panic” defense and was acquitted for the brutal murder of his neighbor Terrance Hauser. Biedermann stabbed Hauser 61 times after he allegedly made a sexual advance.
Rather than being exposed for the victim-blaming it is, the “gay panic defense” has become an eerily standard explanation for hate crime. Acquittals like that of Joseph Biedermann are all too common and I cannot believe that in 2010 we not only still face such inexcusable crimes, but also terrible administering of justice for those crimes. Let’s hope this serves as a disturbing reminder of how flawed and homophobic our justice system can be, a wake up call that structural prejudices are not just a problem of yesteryear, or perhaps a fire beneath individuals looking to fight for justice.
Throughout Bloomington and the extended community that heard of Don’s tragic death, we are reminded of the preciousness of life, of friendship, and of community. It all just seems crazy and unimaginable. Like this could never happen – not in this town. But maybe, in our own humble ways, perhaps we can seek opportunity from this tragedy—a discussion among friends about homophobia, a quiet time in a classroom to reflect on our own lives, a kindled feeling of duty to speak up and take action against these injustices and never let them happen again.
Along with candlelight vigils and other activities honoring Don, many groups are keeping a critical eye on how the case is taking shape. Please visit these sites to get more information and to do something about it.
Justice for Don Belton: http://justicefordonbelton.com/
Racialicious Article about Don Belton:
Further reading about “Gay Panic”
National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs