Despite Anti-Gay Graffiti, Media and Police Ask the Wrong Questions in Teen Athlete’s Murder

By Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

I didn’t know Tayshana Murphy was gay. I’m from Harlem, and I like to think I’m tapped into important conversations among New York’s LGBTQ people of color communities. I learned of 18-year-old Murphy’s murder early on September 11th of this year—heard about it, in fact, from an auntie of mine before I heard it on the news. Both framed it as a modern-day Sophoclean tragedy, in which someone else’s vice brought on the fall of a rising star. Murphy, a promising athlete, was shot to death by three young men in a stairwell in the Grant housing projects in Harlem, or, as some like to say, “Morningside Heights.” Many news sources reported that she was mistakenly implicated in a dispute between Grant residents and a group of young men from the nearby Manhattanville projects. The news, like my auntie, reported Murphy’s name and that she was a star basketball player. They said that she ranked 16th in the nation, that she was singing and dancing just before her murder, and that she did well in school. They never said she was gay.

But then, three weeks after her murder, the Manhattan district attorney identified violent, homophobic comments and drawings about Murphy on the wall of the stairwell where she was killed. The D.A.’s indictment press release doesn’t mention the homophobic comments or the possibility that anti-gay hate played a role in the crime. Even the New York Times article on the Grant-Manhattanville feud, which quotes another 18-year-old woman as Murphy’s “girlfriend” leaves the issue of homophobic hate silent, focusing instead on Murphy’s foreshortened basketball career. One exuberantly homophobic blog even goes so far as to say that the love of basketball turned Murphy gay. The message of all these sources is clear: Murphy wasn’t really a black lesbian; she was an athlete. And her loss should be mourned accordingly.

Murphy’s story begs a set of questions that have needed answers for a while now. What are the relationships between athlete culture and LGBTQ identity for youth of color in 2011? Why does the principle of the open secret persist for youth athletes, even as institutional structures like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, long convicted in the court of public opinion, have finally fallen away? And what are the roles of race in all of this? We know white men’s lives and deaths get wildly disproportionate media coverage, but what happens when responsible journalism means frank discussions of sexuality, outness, and homophobic violence? If Murphy had been white or male, would we know more of her story? And would more people know about her in general? The homophobic hate scrawl, deemed too derogatory to be repeated in public media, was found at the scene of Murphy’s murder well over a month ago, and still this story is conspicuously absent not only from news sources, but also from Facebook and all the other social forums many depend on to know what’s going on in the world. Even as we gather to Occupy economic hegemony across the hemisphere; even as we demand responsible criminalization of sexual violence and harassment through SlutWalk and take to task figures such as Herman Cain and the Penn State coaches; even as, just a year ago, we videoed, Tweeted, lit candles and cried to remind LGBT youth—and perhaps to convince ourselves—that epistemic, psychic and physical homophobic and misogynist violence somehow ‘Gets Better,’ at least for some; even with all that, still this black woman’s death and life are absent from the conversation. And that’s a problem, regardless of how Murphy identified.

I didn’t know Tayshana Murphy was gay, but many folks still don’t know a thing about her—that she was killed, who she was, that she had ever lived.

Reprinted with permission from The Feminist Wire.

Photo from Flickr user VJnet under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. how sad 🙁

  2. I’m not trying to flame, or anything, but from what I can see the homophobic slurs were done AFTER the crime — just because there are bigots now, doesn’t necessarily follow that bigotry was the reason for the original attack. If there’s anything I’ve learned living in the same town as the Westboro Baptist Church, bigots seem to smell out anything involving a gay person and show up to bash.

  3. I don’t think this article is so much about whether Tayshana Murphy was gay or not. I think it is focused more on the absence of investigation and concern about the deaths of young black women. We always get the back story and emotional spin on the deaths of white women or men but Tayshana Murphy was just a footnote in the news and filed under black, basketball and death. The way the news covers these kinds of stories just feed into larger archetypes about black youth and the complexities of what it is to be human and feel the loss of human life is just loss. Bravo Ms. Sullivan. I hope you promote this story and others.

  4. first: how horribly sad to hear of another bright youth taken down. it is truly disheartening that so many young people have been cut short. every life lost is nothing less than a tragedy.

    that said; do we know that this was, in fact, a hate crime? if there is the possibility that it wasn’t then wouldn’t it be irresponsible of the media to call it such? could the media or police have been holding back certain aspects of the crime for some legitimate reason? was this young woman out to her community? might her family have wanted to keep certain aspects of their daughter’s life private, if only for a little while? i think there are several important questions that should be asked about this situation.

    as disgusting as it is, often when a death is reported as a crime against an LGTBQ person a segment of the population can tend to write it off. many people stop caring when they hear the victim was gay. some even celebrate (i’m repulsed by that thought, but it’s true). possibly the detailed description of this young woman’s life coming out before the information about her orientation could hook some people into caring about her before they find something to fault her with.

    i don’t know. i just feel like there’s some information missing here and for me it’s easier to build outrage once all facts are known than to reign it in.

  5. Thanks so much for your comments. Arie and Kendra, thanks for reading. I agree, Kendra, that Murphy’s story is relevant across lines of sexuality, and speaks to a larger lack of attention to black women’s stories and the specificities of black women’s lives.

    Sarah and Ashley, thanks for offering your thoughts. It’s certainly not my intent to state that Murphy’s murder was a hate crime, but rather to call attention to an extremely important element of the story that went under-reported in mainstream media. There is a good deal of missing information, as you say, Sarah. And for me, that’s precisely the problem.

    Again, thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.


  7. I knew Tayshana, her close friends and family called her chicken. she full of life and had love for everyone. Every day she is on my mind and in my spirit, she is in the hearts of others as well. basketball was her dream and it was taken away from her faster than a cat winks it’s eye. I miss her so much and even 3 months it still feels like it was just yesterday. R.I.P CHICKEN

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