Friday, January 1, 2010

Don Belton's Death

Trigger Warning: The following paragraphs contain mention of, and links to vivid accounts of, fatal homophobic violence and ugly defenses thereof.

I. The Death. Don Belton was found dead in his house just under a week ago. Within a couple of days, Bloomington police had arrested a neighbor of his, twenty-five-year-old Michael Griffin. Griffin waived his Miranda rights and said that Belton had come to his house as a guest on Christmas day and twice sexually assaulted him in front of his girlfriend [ETA: Her presence is not mentioned in the police report, only by the local Fox affiliate's anonymous source]. Griffin then, by his account, had gone to Belton's house that weekend seeking an apology; when Belton denied having done anything wrong, Griffin took the ten-inch military knife he'd been carrying with him and "stabbed him until he stopped moving," then discarded his bloody clothes and put on the change of clothes he'd brought along. Police were led to the suspect by finding Griffin's address and phone number in Belton's rolodex, a recent journal entry in which Belton said "I am so happy to have Michael in my life," and a call from Griffin's girlfriend, who said she suspected him of the killing and worried about the safety of her baby. Griffin has plead not guilty and is being held without bail; his girlfriend seems to have fled. More about the killing here, with largely warm comments, including a couple of reminiscences of Don.

II. Possible Outcomes. I think there's plenty of reason to be hopeful that Griffin will be incarcerated for first-degree murder. A "gay panic" defense would be difficult to mount, as it's not a crime passionel if you wait two days. But. There's enough homophobia around to have made it possible for Joseph Biedermann's gay panic argument to have gotten him acquitted earlier this year of having stabbed Terrance Hauser sixty-one times in self-defense; and there's the possibility that playing the Decorated Marine card could help the defendant. Five years for aggravated manslaughter is not an impossibility here.

III. Bad Reactions. Although I see very little sympathy for Griffin's actions being expressed in the news media and the blogosphere, there are some nasty remarks being made about Don. The initial flurry of comments at Andy Towle's blog took the Fox affiliate's use of the term "rape," saw a picture of Don, and said more or less, "Of course he raped the young man: he's a Negro! Bastard got what he deserved." A single commenter at Rod McCollom's blog and a single commenter at The Advocate said that for a middle-aged man to have pursued a man of twenty-five is, like, being a child-molester; both commenters were roundly denounced, but the one at The Advocate was very persistent. It's really sad to see gay guys make moral condemnations of someone's sexual object-choice. The Advocate commentary also includes, believe it or not, someone who says "This guy couldn't have been such hot shit: he'd written for Newsweek and The Advocate, and he didn't have tenure." I thought it was impressive that a guy who'd written for those venues had also signed the petition condemning the New York Times' treatment of Jacques Derrida: Belton was at home in a lot of worlds.

Unexpected disappointments, to me, showed up at Pam Spaulding's blog and Melissa McEwen's. Pam's commentariat were just a little too full of "Don't let this happen to you" advice, which can start from the straightforward "Looks like a lonely guy made a bad decision" and slide into victim-blaming, specifically victim-blaming of the sort that feminists have been decrying for forty years. Melissa, thanks perhaps to her own experiences, is all "I can't make any judgments without more information"; but however much you try to be anti-narrative, narratives do creep in. I was quite troubled by one commentor's
But...if this had been a young female student who had allegedly been assaulted by her older male professor, would we be as quick to say RIP Dr. Belton? Would we be going, "Look at all these books he wrote and his wonderful contribution to the world?"
The comment pretends that gender and sexual orientation make no difference in such narratives; but, taking it at its word, let's imagine: if Henry Louis Gates Jr. were single, and a white female Marine of twenty-five had killed him and offered the same account of events, would "we" still celebrate his contribution to the world and want to see his killer prosecuted? I hope "we" would. But when the killer's story is so self-incriminating, I just feel that saying "We don't know what happened, and he might have been provoked" is too much like saying "We don't really know what Emmett Till did to Caroline Bryant."

I'm really not moved one way or the other by the blog comments that say "OMG Michael Griffin is HAWT," but maybe they're a good corrective to the "Belton should never have come close to that man" posthumous finger-shaking.

IV. Generous Reactions. Many great counter-narratives to the "Bad Reactions" have sprung up. Most of the online comments, even at mainstream news sources, infer (and argue persuasively) that Griffin suffered "buyer's remorse" after a consensusal encounter and committed premeditated murder out of self-hatred and shame. Not enough, to my taste, blame Rumsfeld and acknowledge that this seems to be a guy who was very fucked up by the war and needs treatment for that; but I guess some people worry that such an argument could be used to mitigate a prison sentence for a guy who really needs to be taken out of circulation. Only a few note that what Griffin perceived as "sexual assault" could be anything, down to an arm around the shoulder or a request to see his penis. But most suggest, credibly, that an itty-bitty professor who could not lift heavy objects probably did not assault the young veteran, and that if the guy believed at the time that he had been assaulted, he would have called the police or, if shame and pride prevented that, done violence to Don right then and there. Friends' reports of the fact that Don hated being around boozers also help to challenge the rumor that the assault occurred when Griffin was incapacitated by heavy drink.

There's often bigotry in discussions at Pharyngula, but PZ Myers offers some nice ridicule of the idea that Griffin was forced to use his knife when threatened by Don's "horrifically gay shoulder blades"; and his commenters are pretty compassionate on this one. Indeed, PZ's own expression of anxiety about "brain-damaged" Indiana juries is the worst bigotry I see -- remember that Tina Brandon's killers were put away by a rural Midwestern jury, while Biedermann, IIRC, was acquitted in sophisticated Chicago. We should not forget that for the police (Hoosiers themselves) to take the case seriously and make an arrest so efficiently would have been inconceivable not too long ago, but they did all that.

The nicest Generous Reactions are all the reminiscences that are showing up around the web. This heartbreaking one's from a Rod 2.0 commenter:
I am a straight 67 year old female friend of Don's from Central Pa. I am a bookseller and sold books to Don from my store when he taught at Shippensburg. It is very sad for my family and I right now because he spent Christmas with us 2 years ago. This is the man that loved and collected etiquette books and gardening books, the man that always brought flowers when coming to dinner, that insisted that if my dog had a favorite author it would be Ayn Rand; a man who had gone to a Friends School as a youth in Philadelphia, a man who insisted on reviewing the people I was meeting on line before I dated them (so I would be safe-in fact he helped me pick the man I am going to marry) I feel Gentle Don was suckered in by this guy, and it saddens me.
Many of the reminiscences are showing up in comments threads at Justice for Don Belton. Here's an example:
[Don's office at Indiana contained] a big old sofa, mostly covered in books. I asked him why he didn’t clear it off, and he said “I want people to feel comfortable here, but don’t want them settling in to nap while I’m trying to write!” I begged him to clear it off so I could do exactly that, and he said “don’t you have work to do?” One day he brought an alligator skull in to his office. He had it placed up high on a bookshelf. I said it belonged on the couch to scare people away. He said “man, you’re mean.” From the first time I met him I was struck by his humor, his warmth, and the depth of his gentleness and sweetness. I will sorely miss the sight of him coming down the hall in one of his great jackets and ties, looking dapper and unique and like someone you want to get to know. I will miss his smile.
Justice for Don Belton also contains some very good refutations of media distortions that we've seen in the past week, notably some of the more sensational headlines.

[ETA: My friend "Derrick from Philly" offers a comment on Rod 2.0 that's just amazing:]
I knew Don when he taught here at Temple University. He was gentle and kind.

Temple is located in the heart of North Philadelphia--right near a housing project (the neighborhood that both Don and I grew up in--we didn't know each other back then).

One summer Sunday afternoon Don came into to his campus office. Obviously, the campus was deserted--it was summer and it was a Sunday. Don witnessed some young guys trying to rob another guy. He stopped them with the most unusual tactic I've ever heard tell of: He told the would be robbers, "why are you doing this? You'll only end up going to jail...I care about you...I don't want to see you go to jail." The young robbers must have been stunned by Don's plea--they let their victim go.

Being a cynical b_tch, I just sat and stared at Don when he told me about that incident. He said that he was trembling as he walked away, and that the words just came out of his mouth automatically. Don was never cynical, he was sincere.

Don Belton was brave, but he couldn't get aggressive with a kitten--let alone some 25 year old piece of trade.

I enjoyed every conversation we had, and every moment we spent together.
In addition to the candlelight vigil in Bloomington, plans are afoot for a memorial gathering in Philadelphia; and I'm looking to determine whether anyone's up for organizing memorial panels and journal issues in the academic sphere. Here's the best (albeit still incomplete) account I've seen yet of Don's artistic and intellectual achievements; it omits, I believe, some of his great personal essays and one or two short stories.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent post. As one of the moderators, I am very happy to see such a thoughtful, generous response to what has happened not only to Don's life, but to his good name and reputation in death. I was especially appreciative of the comments regarding Michael Griffin's good looks, and how many are speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this one, talking about how "hott" he is while condemning any attraction that Don may have felt (and of course, we don't really know what Don felt toward Michael, other than friendship). It's that kind of hypocrisy from within the LGBTQ community that I find most appalling.

Brandon Lacy Campos said...

Thank you for this. I knew Don, and I was one of the earlier bloggers that covered this story. Thank you for humanizing him in the face of the bullshit from Towleroad's blog.


Cyndi said...

Thank you for a well thought out piece. One issue you don't touch on is this idea that no one could possibly sexually assault someone physically stronger. Rape is often more mind games than physical force and yes it is possible. BUT everything I've read about this case tells me the murderer is either lying or has such a distorted view of things that you can't take his claims at face value. Especially when you see things like these "assaults" supposedly happened "in front of his girlfriend" and she doesn't call the police for that but does call to turn her boyfriend in for murder and because she fears for their child. Belton is the victim here and I am shocked (though not surprised) to see people justifying the murder. The facts will come out in time and then we can see if there are mitigating circomstances, but I just don't see that at this point.

Josh said...

Yes, Cyndi, I tried hard to get that "probably didn't assault" sentence right -- to report that there were a bunch of reasons being suggested for Griffin's claims not being credible, but not to sound (to those who didn't know Don's character) like some kind of Anita Hill critic who denies that a person could be assaulted or coerced under such circumstances. It was a difficult line to toe, and I'm glad you remain suspicious of Griffin despite your reservations about that part of my piece.

Anonymous said...

Well, my reaction to "OMG Michael Griffin is HAWT" has three parts: (1) That's the type of trash comments that are encouraged on Andy Towle's trash blog, so why are we to be surprised, (2) shades of Truman Capote supposedly being sexually titillated by the "nasty boys" he wrote about in In Cold Blood (in other words, we have seen this phenomenon before ...) and (3) finally, there might be thousands of gay men out there that might like to comment that Don Belton was HAWT! ... if only we didn't have better manners ... but Griffin has made that observation moot, sent Belton to a place where he can't give me a decision about whether he might like to spend Christmas Day 2010 with me.

Everything ... everything ... I read about Don Belton gives me the impression that he was a totally lovable man, might have been the boyfriend or life companion I never got the chance to meet ... not likely, but now I'll never know. P.S. I'm white and gay and very close to Don's age.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I am a former student of Don's and did not know about all of this until just now. Very sad that his good name is being trashed. Don had already had such a hard family life, to see this happen to hims is heartbreaking. He was an amazing professor and I will miss him dearly.