Love and Death in Indiana

A black, gay professor is murdered in cold blood in Bloomington. Scott McLemee looks into a hate crime.

January 13, 2010

I have been reading with sadness and horror about the murder of Don Belton, an assistant professor of English at Indiana University, whose body was found in his apartment in Bloomington on December 28. He had been stabbed repeatedly in the back and sides. A novelist and essayist, Belton had taught creative writing at a number of institutions and was the editor of Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, a landmark anthology published by Beacon in the mid-1990s. He was also gay, which is not an incidental detail.

Around the time police were getting their bearings on the case, the girlfriend of a young ex-Marine named Michael Griffin contacted police to tell them she thought he was involved in Belton’s death. Griffin was soon taken into custody. According to a detective's affidavit available online, he said that Belton had sexually assaulted him on Christmas. Two days later, he went to Belton’s apartment to have a “conversation” which turned into a “scuffle,” resulting in the professor’s death.

These words, which sound so mild, sit oddly in the narrative. The affidavit then goes on to say that Griffin stated “that he took a knife, called a ‘Peace Keeper’ that he had purchased prior to going to Iraq while in the Marine Corps, with him....” He also thought to bring a change of clothes. The bloody ones went into a white trash bag. Griffin “then went about and ran several errands,” the report continues, “before he eventually discarded the bloody clothing into a dumpster.... Mr. Griffin then returned home where he stated that he yold his girlfriend what he had done.”

I heard about the case from my friend Josh Lukin, a lecturer in the First Year Writing Program at Temple University -- where, as he used to say in the contributor's note for his publications, "he and novelist Don Belton occasionally bemuse the staff with their renditions of classic show tunes," back when they both taught there. Josh recalls his friend as a sweet-natured and brilliant colleague, but one whose many gifts did not include the ability to lift heavy objects.

Belton was 53 years old while the man charged in his death is 25. The idea that he could violate an ex-Marine (and not once but twice, according to his statement to the police during interrogation) would be funny if it were not so grotesque.

In his affidavit, the Bloomington detective who investigated the case reports finding “a journal kept by the decedent ... in which he writes in the week prior to Christmas 2009 that he is very happy that an individual by the name of Michael has come into his life.” Benton had joined Griffin and his girlfriend for Christmas. Indeed -- and this is in some ways the most troubling thing about the story -- the relationship seems to have been very friendly until it turned vicious.

It is easy to speculate about what may have happened. In fact we do not know. But the circumstances track with a familiar pattern -- one common enough to have a name: “the ‘gay panic’ defense.” This rests on the idea that the wave of disgust created in a heterosexual person at exposure to gay sexuality can create a state of temporary psychosis. The panic-stricken victim loses responsibility for his (for some reason, it always turns out to be “his”) actions.

This is an idea that should be retired to the Museum of Deranged Rationalization as soon as possible. But it seems far-fetched to imagine that Griffin and his counsel will get through trial without invoking it. (Despite his confession, Griffin has pleaded not guilty to murder.)

On the other hand, the “panic” defense touches on an issue that was of vital interest to Belton himself. He wrote the introduction to a book edited by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Her work on queer theory includes a sustained inquiry into the complicated and damaging way certain institutions have forged intense bonds among men while also obliging them to police one another for the slightest trace of homosexuality. This contradictory demand makes for paranoia and volatility.

In Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990), Sedgwick writes, “The historical emphasis on enforcement of homophobic rules in the armed services in, for instance, England and the United States supports this analysis. In these institutions, where both men’s manipulability and their potential for violence are at the highest possible premium, the prescription of the most intimate male bonding and the proscription of (the remarkably cognate) ‘homosexuality’ are both stronger than in civilian society – are, in fact, close to absolute.”

As it happens, Belton had reflected on this ambivalent, anxious, crazy-making dimension of social reality in an essay that appeared in the journal Transition in 1998. Reflecting on a book about gay Marines, Belton reflected on his own very complicated effort to sort out mixed messages about race, sexuality, and violence when he was growing up in the 1960s. The machismo of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver had been both appealing and problematic – given that it rested on a belief that, as Franz Fanon had put it, “homosexuality is an attribute of the white race, Western civilization.” This was another version of the cultural logic that Sedgwick had identified: Solidarity among African-American men being forged by excluding gays as race traitors.

Belton’s vision was broader. He had been friends with James Baldwin and lectured on him at the Sorbonne; the influence of the novelist and essayist on his own work was not small. One of his friends has quoted a passage from Baldwin that seems to epitomize Belton’s work: “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." Although I did not know the man himself, this touches the heart of his writing, which suggests a desire to go beyond, or beneath, the prescribed roles and rules governing “identity.”

This is easier said than done, of course. It is also dangerous; love can be dangerous. Belton wrote in his journal (to quote from the detective’s statement again) “that he is very happy that an individual by the name of Michael has come into his life.” It is not necessary to use pseudopsychological terms like “gay panic” to describe the response this created. Keep in mind that the killer brought his own special knife and a change of clothes. Arguably another vocabulary applies, in which it is necessary to speak of evil

One of the remarkable things about the response to Belton's death is just how much of it there has been. Hundreds of people turned out for a vigil on New Year's Day (see video). There is a website called Justice for Don Belton. An open letter from the chair of his department has appeared on the departmental Web site. A memorial service will be held in Bloomington

And Josh Lukin tells me that he is proposing a session called “Remembering Don Belton” for the next MLA -- a panel "engaging his scholarship, art, journalism, and pedagogy." Possible topics might include "his writing and teaching on black masculinity, Baldwin, Brecht, Mapplethorpe, Morrison, Motown, jazz, cinema, abjection," to make the list no longer than that.

"The guy's range of interests was huge," Josh says, "and he kept surprising me with his knowledge of critical texts, both recent ('Bowlby, Just Looking? Great chapters on Dreiser.') and more traditional ('Why not talk about Morrison using R.W.B. Lewis, American Adam?')."

I have no idea how decisions about such proposals are decided. But this would be a good session to have on the schedule for next year. To move from sorrow to celebration is not easy; the effort should be encouraged.


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