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Gay Indiana prof murdered
by Sam Worley
2010-02-01

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Indiana University ( IU ) professor Don Belton—an academic and novelist who wrote extensively about the Black experience, queerness and masculinity—was murdered in his home in Bloomington, Ind., Dec. 27. Michael Griffin, an ex-Marine who was apparently a friend of Belton, was arrested and charged with the murder.

According to a probable cause affidavit released by the Bloomington Police Department, Griffin confessed to stabbing Belton in the chest "until he quit moving."

A vigil took place Jan. 1 in front of the Monroe County Courthouse to commemorate Belton's life and to ask local prosecutors not to accept Griffin's allegation that Belton sexually assaulted him two days before the murder. Another vigil is planned for after students return from their holiday break.

Griffin has claimed that Belton assaulted him on Christmas Day. When Griffin confronted Belton about it two days later, according to the affadavit, Belton was "not in any way forgiving and … he did not show or express any type of feeling that what had taken place was a mistake." Griffin said that a scuffle ensued that ended with Griffin stabbing Belton to death with a knife he had purchased prior to going to Iraq, where he served in the Marine Corps.

Police found an entry in a journal that Belton kept in which he had written, shortly before Christmas, that he was happy about meeting an individual named Michael. The entry led police to Griffin, who has been pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Belton, who taught at IU since fall 2008, was a former reporter for Newsweek. A prolific writer, Belton authored the novel Almost Midnight and edited a volume on black masculinity called Speak My Name. Prior to going to Indiana, Belton taught at the University of Michigan, Macalester College, and the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature in the United States, over the course of his life Belton maintained friendships with writer James Baldwin, filmmaker Marlon Riggs and poet Essex Hemphill.

Marlon Bailey, a professor of gender studies as well as African-American and African Diaspora Studies at IU, said that Belton's work was interdisciplinary—"he was really in the realm of the public intellectual." Bailey, who met Belton when they both taught at Macalester College in the 1990s, emphasized "how huge Don was in African-American literature—how important his work was and what kind of prominence he had.

"He was prolific and his work was very community-engaged," said Bailey.

Professor Alyce Miller, who teaches in the English department at IU, said that Belton had "a very eclectic, intellectual, and creative imagination.

"Don was not someone who fell easily into categories," Miller said.

Bailey noted that Belton's death is one in a series of murders of black gay intellectuals to occur recently; others have included the killings of University of California's Lindon Barrett and St. Mary College's John Dennis. "This is … at a moment of a wave of homophobic violence," said Bailey, pointing out that many victims of such violence are queer and trans people of color.

Friends and allies of Belton have set up the Web site JusticeForDonBelton.com, which promises to monitor media outlets and the judicial system as they respond to Griffin's claims that Belton sexually assaulted him. The introductory text to the Web site reads, in part, "we do want law enforcement to understand that there is a long, established history of suspects invoking a claim of sexual assault and/or a 'gay panic' defense to get charges reduced or to win over a jury when the victim was a gay person."

Part of the reason for the Web site and the vigil, said Marlon Bailey, is to "create a counter-discourse—to anticipate the attempt to demean Don's character" and to refute such claims.

The so-called "gay panic" defense has been employed by defense attorneys in some high-profile slayings of LGBT people, including unsuccessfully in the trial of Matthew Shephard's murderers. Last year in Illinois, a Cook County jury acquitted Joseph Biedermann, who stabbed his neighbor Terrance Hauser sixty-one times after Hauser apparently made unwanted sexual advances. Biedermann claimed that the stabbing was done in self-defense.

According to his supporters' Web site, Belton had been friends with Michael Griffin and his girlfriend as far back as last summer. Editors of the Web site criticized Bloomington media sources for suggesting that the relationship of the two men had been "brief" and "conflicted"—a suggestion, the Web site said, "not supported by evidence."

"The person that murdered him was someone Don considered a friend," said Alyce Miller.

Miller said that the circumstances surrounding Belton's death were intertwined with the intellectual interests of his life. As somebody who had worked "so much, and so tirelessly" to examine the contradictions and tensions within masculinity, Miller said, "my guess is that Don would also see this as a huge tragedy."


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