Sakia Gunn: Newark renames street after murdered lesbian teen

Sakia Gunn Way, Newark, New Jersey

The city of Newark, New Jersey has officially renamed one of its streets after hate crime victim Sakia Gunn, who was killed in 2003.

Locals gathered on Saturday (29 October) to mark the renaming of what was once Academy Street, but will now be known as Sakia Gunn Way, marking the spot where she was fatally stabbed 20 years ago.

Gunn, a Black lesbian, was just 15 when she was killed in an anti-gay crime in May 2003.

The teen had been waiting for a bus with a group of friends when two men, Richard McCullough and Allen Pierce, pulled up in a car and made sexual advances toward the young girls.

Sakia Gunn
Sakia Gunn was 15 when she was stabbed and killed. (Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project)

The girls rejected the men’s propositions, telling them that they were all lesbians and not interested.

Both men then got out of the car and attacked the young girls. When Gunn fought back, she was stabbed in the chest by McCullough.

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The two perpetrators fled the scene, and Gunn’s cousin Valencia Bailey flagged down a passing driver who took her to University Hospital.

Gunn died in Bailey’s arms on their way to the hospital.

McCullough pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation two years after the attack and was sentenced to 30 years behind bars. He had also been charged with bias murder, but this was dismissed as a result of a plea bargain.

Over 2,500 people attended Gunn’s funeral and local students marched out of school in the late teen’s honour.

Bailey was present at this weekend’s renaming ceremony, and told local newspaper The Record that it “meant the world.”

“It’s an acknowledgment,” she told the publication.

“It’s showing that my cousin’s legacy will never die, it’ll forever be here. Everyone will know who she is. 

“No matter if you don’t know anything about her or her situation if you walk down the street and you see that sign … you get online and everything’s out there.”

Both Gunn and Bailey came out as lesbian when they were 12 years old, and were known locally as two of the few openly LGBTQ+ people in the community.

Sakia Gunn's cousin Valencia Bailey
Sakia Gunn’s cousin Valencia Bailey was at Saturday’s renaming ceremony. (New Jersey Spotlight News)

At the renaming ceremony, Gunn was described as “the martyr that started the modern LGBTQ+ movement here in Newark”, by Reginald Bledsoe, the director of the Essex County Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs.

Bledsoe, who was 13 when Gunn was killed, remembers how Newark, New Jersey had been toward LGBTQ+ people 20 years ago, when being out wasn’t mainstream and queer people gathered in secluded spaces.

“I feel like the strides we’ve made at the school level and local level, we’re starting to see a difference,” he said. “We have spaces where we can gather together in fellowship and love each other and support each other.”

Bailey, who has also been able to watch Newark’s slow but sure transformation following her cousin’s tragic death, helped to make this street naming a possibility, not just for Gunn, but for other young queer people in the community.

“The cause is not for me … the cause is to keep my cousin’s memory alive and to prevent future Sakia Gunn incidences,” she said.

“We’ve been here; we’re always going to be here. There’s always to be a new generation of the LGBTQ+ community.”