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Degrees of Hate

The beheading of a gay man last month near James River Park is attracting national attention. So why haven't we heard a peep about this here in Richmond?

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On March 1, a couple walking their dog across a concrete foot bridge near James River Park made a grisly discovery: the severed head of Eddie Northington, a 39-year-old gay, HIV-positive, homeless man, carefully placed in the middle of the bridge.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Northington's head was found near "the rocks" off Texas Avenue, one of the city's heaviest cruising areas for liaisons between gay men.

RELATED LINKS

The Village Voice -- Cover story on the beheading.

Despite the fact that Richmond Police say there is no evidence it's a gay hate crime, many people say the unusually gruesome killing is obviously one, and a chilling message in blood to the gay community. Yet, there has been no outcry from gay activists in Richmond and relatively little attention given to the crime in local media since it happened. (This is Style Weekly's first mention of the killing.)

Few folks, if any, on the streets of Richmond are talking about the brutal act committed against an obscure, loudmouth, alcoholic drifter who often got kicked out of local bars.

Why is Richmond seemingly ignoring it? That's the topic of a huge cover story in New York's Village Voice this month, believe it or not. "When is a hate crime not a hate crime?" the Voice asks. "Maybe when it happens in Richmond, Va."

Voice staff writer Guy Trebay concludes that conservative Richmond likes its skeletons — and gays — safely closeted. "(Northington) sometimes called gay people faggots and black people n----rs and, unlike a goodly number of his Richmond neighbors, he did not do so exclusively behind closed doors," writes Trebay.

The Voice isn't the end of the national attention, though. The murder's also been written about in the gay publication The Blade, and gay groups around the country are disseminating the story over the Internet, labeling it without hesitation a hate crime in the vein of the Matthew Shepard murder, a gay college student who was beaten and died while tied to a fence last October in Laramie, Wyo. Northington was also cited in a study of the rise in anti-gay violence recently released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an organization devoted to reducing gay hate crimes.

So why are Richmond's gays so quiet? Mainly it has to do with a lack of details from police, say some leading area activists.

"I'm not saying it's not a hate crime, but there's not enough information known yet," says Loree Erickson, president of VCU's Sexual Minority Student Alliance and a member of the Lesbian Avengers of Richmond. "It could be a class issue since he was homeless, you know?"

Shirley Lesser, executive director of Virginians For Justice, a gay-rights group, says though national groups are ready to make Eddie Northington a "cause celebre" and martyr, "I think in Virginia people are more conservative than that and are waiting for more evidence or something from the police before we call it a hate crime."

Jennifer Rakowski, a spokesperson for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, says for gays in her home city of San Francisco, the beheading is a topic of conversation. She can understand Richmonders not wanting to make their city's name synonymous with hate and fear, she says, but "the challenge for the local community is to realize that there is not shame in naming hate violence. The shame is in not responding or covering up the hate that is so widespread in this country."

Not all Richmond gays are reluctant to label the beheading a hate crime, though. Sarah Chinn, a lesbian activist who teaches American literature at Randolph-Macon College and is director of the women's studies program there, says she's "enraged" by the attitude of some local gays who would say, "This guy is a homeless wino and so I don't give a f— about him because it's getting in the way of my gay, minivan existence."

But Chinn says she believes there are a couple reasons why local gays are not quick to embrace Northington. One, he doesn't make an attractive symbol for gay hate crimes like Matthew Shepard, a handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed college student. And in a repressive state like Virginia with anti-sodomy laws still on the books, she says, gays are worried about anything that takes away from their respectability. "He's not someone the community here feels comfortable claiming," Chinn says. "He doesn't make us look good."

Also, in Richmond, gays are concerned with maintaining the status quo and passing as straight. That's with good reason, Chinn says, given police persecution such as a recent crackdown on gay men trespassing in the parks and the postcards sent by police to their homes announcing their arrests and telling them to be tested for HIV.

Similarly, Chinn worries that police may not be motivated to solve the murder of a gay homeless man: "How can you expect a police officer to arrest this man one day and investigate his murder the next? To see him as a pervert and a criminal one day and a victim the next? It's sad to me that people aren't making these kinds of links."

Lesser is also concerned about that. She says she's bothered that police aren't publicizing the case more. "I would hope the reason isn't because they have discarded him because he's homeless and gay," she says.

Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine says it's "not illogical or irrational" for gays or lesbians to look at the killing of Northington and wonder if it's a hate crime, but he also believes it's a "real overreaction" to think that police could be covering up information that it is an anti-gay crime.

Richmond gays and lesbians are not passive or docile, Kaine says, and he hasn't heard any concerns about the way police have handled the Northington case from his friends in the gay community. However, Kaine adds, "If [City Council] ever got the feeling that anybody was laying down on the investigation or not taking it seriously because of homophobia or discrimination against gays and lesbians, we would take that very, very seriously."

Wanting to clear up "misperceptions" about the case, Richmond Police Capt. Art Roane says it's wrong for people to think the police won't fairly investigate a crime against a gay man just because the police department arrests gay men in the parks. "I like cops," Roane says, "but if one of them breaks the law, I'm going to arrest him and do the best job I can to send him to the penitentiary."

So far, Roane says, police have received many leads. The FBI has created a suspect profile and State Police divers have searched the river, though they found nothing.

Roane hopes the case will be on Crime Stoppers next month and says the police are still actively searching for information about Northington's last week. Police have also increased their presence near the area where the head was found.

"At this point, we do not believe it was a hate crime or a serial killer or anything of that nature, but we haven't ruled out anything," Roane says, adding that while police do not have a specific suspect, "we are looking at a couple folks."

Despite the baffling nature of the crime, Roane still believes it's solvable. However, he acknowledges there are a lot of unknowns, such as whether the person who killed Northington in a concrete tunnel about a mile down river from the foot bridge and left his body to float in shallow water, is the same person who carried Northington's head to the bridge.

Roane also says rumors printed in the Village Voice, such as that a note was found in Northington's mouth that could explain the killer's motivations, are untrue.

Despite the national clamor, Roane says, "I want the whole world to know we investigate all crime with as much enthusiasm and all the resources we have at our disposal. It doesn't matter if you're from the gay community ... we're here to serve the citizens of Richmond."


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