Friday, April 18, 2008

Inteview with Chas Brack

Telling Sakia Gunn's Story

Director and producer Charles Brack is in the final, frenzied stages of completing a feature-length documentary about the 2003 bias crime murder of 15-year-old Newark resident Sakia Gunn. Media coverage of Gunn's murder was paltry compared with that of Matthew Shepherd -- though Gay City News was a notable exception -- raising questions about the way race and gender play out in discussions about bias crimes against queer people.

Brack, 48, who is called Chas by his friends, grew up in Chicago and has youthful memories of the disorder during the 1968 Democratic National Convention there. The June day he left Ohio's Antioch College in 1983 with a degree in communications, he drove through the night to arrive in New York for the Gay Pride celebration.

Brack worked for the New York City Commission on Human Rights in its Lesbian and Gay Discrimination Unit and later the AIDS Discrimination Unit as a human rights investigator, eventually becoming an associate producer in the Education Department.

In 1992, he joined Gay Men's Health Crisis where he was the co-coordinator of the Media Unit and associate producer of the "Living with AIDS" cable news magazine program. In 1996, he returned to the Commission on Human Rights, in its Community Relations Bureau, where he worked closely with the police on bias cases.

CHARLES BRACK: Sakia was a 15-year-old so-called "aggressive" [defined on the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's website as a homosexual woman of color who dresses in masculine attire], living in Newark, New Jersey, who was killed by a gay basher. Sakia and her friends were returning to their homes after hanging out in Greenwich Village when they were approached by men making sexual advances. Words were exchanged and a fight ensued. Sakia was stabbed and bled out on the streets of downtown Newark. The assailant turned himself in to authorities and is currently serving an approximately 20-year sentence.

CM: What was the impact on you when you first heard about the murder?

CB: When I saw the report on television, the picture of Sakia said more to me than the newscaster. It was clear to me that there was a gender and/ or sexual orientation slant to the story that was not being reported. The person that the media described was a 15-year-old black girl, but I saw a 15-year-old black boy. I knew that there was more to be revealed.

CM: When did you decide to make the documentary?

CB: I was approached by a colleague about doing the film, so I jumped at the chance to do what I do, which is to try to lift up black LGBT people. I was the co-founder of Lavender Light Gospel choir, a charter member and ordained clergy in Unity Fellowship Church --NYC, as well as involved in other community-based organizations in New York City. I don't know, I just love my people.

CM: How is a documentary going to impact the course of events?

CB: I hope that LGBT youth will know that my generation is watching. Although we've been through a different struggle, we care about them. I hope that the film will signal to the larger LGBT and black communities, respectively, that they are not disposable. I hope that Sakia's name will become widely recognizable and that her death was not in vain.

I believe even in this time of morally and ethically declining media coverage of important issues, that media is still a powerful tool for social change, if wielded well. I have learned a lot about the issues that LGBT youth face on a daily basis. I thought that we'd come farther. Sadly, obviously this is not the case.

CM: At what point in the process is the film?

CB: We are in the post-production phase of the film, meaning that we have a rough cut. We hope to be finished in time for upcoming film festivals and New York City's Pride month. It's been a long road but well worth the travel.

CM: How can people support the film?

CB: Donations always help! Just a few more dollars will allow us to actually pay the very generous editor, who has been working for pennies to take out any audio glitches, which can occur when filming off set. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money out there for this kind of work, but we have managed to get this far. I want the film to serve Sakia's memory well. It needs to look good and sound good in order to get noticed in the vortex of pejorative drivel that is passed off as good representation of black LGBT people.

CM: How did your interest in human rights come about?

CB: I have always been interested in diversity and social change from the time that my little Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago started visiting synagogues and nunneries. I can remember my first Seder at age 10. I guess that explains my past proclivity for Jewish men.

I knew that there was a world outside of the ghetto where I grew up. But I had no idea that that world would be so hostile to a little sissy boy with thick glasses who was accused of being uppity because I spoke proper English. So, all of my educational and employment choices have reflected that initial introduction to multiculturalism.

CM: What do you think LGBT people need to know about human rights and bias crime in our own community?

CB: We need not believe the press on our community. The fight is far from over. Even if we win the fight for gay marriage, it will not be a social panacea to cure all the remaining social plagues inside as well as outside of the LGBT community, like homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism. We need to know that most incidents of bias go unreported. We need to know that simply being gay is not a point of departure for our quest for diversity, we still have to do the work to make our community unified.

CM: What else do you have going on?

CB: I am currently working at Third World Newsreel as the operations director. Third World Newsreel is an alternative media arts organization that fosters the creation, appreciation, and dissemination of independent film and video by and about people-of-color and social justice issues.

CM: Do you think you could have been friends with Sakia Gunn?

CB: For many years when I was a kid, I was mistaken for a girl. Let's just say that I was not the butchest boy on the block. So, yes, I think we would have been running in the same circles.

I too grew up in a big city that did not have a clearly established place for black LGBT youth. But like Sakia and many others, we created locations and activities where we could just be ourselves. Our relationships were valued and solid. We cleaved to each other. Although it was a very different time when I was 15, we still encountered the same prejudices that queer youth of color face today.

CM: Are there personal reasons why this murder moved you?

CB: When I was young I even faced the disdain of my father, brother, and community because of my obvious feminine ways and appearance. It was a rough and simultaneously joyous time. Thank God for the Black Church! Despite their effort to cloak us, we are in force there.

But that little thing inside me, that I guess some would say was my spirit, would not be squelched. It's the same spirit that made Sakia and her friends strike back at their assailants.

CM: Can you explain the tangled interplay of homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism in Sakia's story?

CB: It's as simple as the cards being stacked against you. For as with many minority groups, the struggle is more complicated. But, being a man of faith I now know that these so called burdens have only proven to make me stronger.

So, for instance, while the straight black community and the white gay community stand on the precipice of the ongoing discourse about who is the most tortured protected class, black LGBT folk exist in a crevasse where we know that none of us is free until all of us are free.

I tire of the question, "Which is worse: being called a nigger or a faggot?"

For more information about Charles Brack's documentary film about the murder of Sakia Gunn, visit

©GayCityNews 2008

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