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Friday, July 23, 2010

Dean Gaymon and James Hannaham's God Says No

No one alive, aside from the officer that shot Credit Union of Atlanta CEO DeFarra "Dean" Gaymon, knows exactly what happened in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ last Friday. The version of events offered by acting Essex County prosecutor Robert D. Laurino and published by the New York Times, though, tells the story of an unarmed man being shot and killed in a gay cruising spot.

From the New York Times:

The officer and his partner were patrolling the park in plain clothes, part of an operation that has been going on for years, said Mr. Laurino, the prosecutor.

Around 6 p.m., after chasing down a man and arresting him, the officer realized he had lost his handcuffs in the pursuit and went back into the woods, alone, to retrieve them, the prosecutor said.

“The plainclothes officer was bending down to retrieve his handcuffs,” Mr. Laurino said, “when he was approached by Mr. Gaymon, who was engaged in a sexual act at the time.” Words were exchanged that the prosecutor said “would lead one to believe that” Mr. Gaymon was propositioning the officer.

“The officer pulled out his badge, identified himself as a police officer and informed Mr. Gaymon that he was under arrest,” Mr. Laurino said. Then, he said, Mr. Gaymon shoved the officer to the ground and ran, ignored the officer’s demands to stop, and repeatedly threatened to kill the officer if he approached. The officer cornered Mr. Gaymon beside a pond and tried to handcuff him, Mr. Laurino said, but again Mr. Gaymon resisted.

“Mr. Gaymon reached into his pocket and lunged at the officer in an attempt to disarm the officer,” Mr. Laurino said. The officer, “fearing for his life,” the prosecutor said, shot Mr. Gaymon once, and he died at the hospital three hours later.

Gaymon, an Atlanta resident, was a married father of four. His family and others have expressed outrage over the incident. DeKalb County's chief communications officer, Sheila Edwards, called the incident "murder" in a letter to the AJC.

We'll almost certainly learn more in the coming weeks and months, but, while trying to understand the few details available, I couldn't help but be reminded of a novel published last year, God Says No by James Hannaham. Gaymon's story is by no means the same story as Hannaham's novel, but, on occasions like this when facts are few and speculation rampant, literature has the opportunity to tell us something, to possibly fill in some of what might have been.

The book tells the story of Gary Gray, a young black Christian married with a child. Gary cruises bathrooms and restaurants for awhile, looking for other men like himself who identify as straight and consider homosexuality a sin despite their sexual acts.

It's a long and sprawling novel that eventually follows Gary into a period of "out" life in Atlanta and later to a "pray away the gay" type ministry. While cruising, Gary experiences joy and heartbreak — many of the short encounters feel bittersweet. In Atlanta, when a guy from Piedmont Park takes him home and makes breakfast for him in the morning, "it feels like winning a contest."

The nuance of a novel like Gods Says No is that it doesn't sensationalize Gary's life or sexuality. It doesn't use it to prove any political points. Rather, Hannaham's novel offers subtle insights — that Gary's choices are understandable, that they make sense to him, that he's simply living the only way he knows how.

At the time of reading the novel, I remember being struck by the occasional violence Gary experiences while cruising: His wallet is stolen in Piedmont Park and he hears more than a few racial slurs in bathrooms. If the character had been shot by a undercover cop, it would have seemed unfathomable, a contrived twist for a novel. Tragically, that's the sort of thing that's only barely believable in real life.

Perhaps a novel like this could shed some insight into Gaymon's life, perhaps it has nothing to do with it. In either case, God Says No grants a crucial yet calm glimpse into the lives that may pass through places like Branch Brook Park.

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