Overkill

The Grand Guignol Murder of a Gay Man In Virginia

Richmond, as Miller goes on to say, is a tolerant city within certain limits. The shape of those limits, though, is not always clear. The state of Virginia still maintains a 49-year-old statute making a felony of that "crime against nature" involving carnal knowledge of another person by or with the anus or mouth. But antisodomy laws are the least of it, really; Richmond is a " 'You don't tell me your business and I won't tell you mine' kind of town," says Miller, not so much a closeted city as a muffled one. It is a place where the local ladies clubs that maintain plantings beneath an equestrian statue of Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson buy their flowers from gay florists because, as Miller also notes, "the best caterers in town are gay, and the best florists are gay, and the best haircutters are, and everybody knows it, but they don't make it into a big deal. It's a conservative town, but it's not a hate town."

During the days I spent in Richmond, a death-penalty trial was getting under way in another conservative town that is not a hate town several thousand miles west. While the killing of Eddie Northington merited a total of four stories in the Richmond press, the national media had descended on Laramie, Wyoming, to report on jury selection in the first of two proceedings to try the alleged killers of Matthew Shepard. There was extensive real-time coverage of the Shepard case on Court TV and live feeds to the networks. While the press routinely referred to the trial of Russell Henderson as the "Gay Bashing Trial," none of the 71 Wyoming jurors summoned to the courthouse that first week of proceedings would ever hear the words homosexual or gay. "They used code words," reported the Court TV correspondent. "They said 'lifestyle' instead." Defense attorneys told potential jurors that "this is not a hate crime. This is not about hate." The presiding judge had the courthouse lawn cordoned into sectors. One was for gay demonstrators who, as it turned out, never arrived. Another was for parishioners from Reverend Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who rarely miss an opportunity to appear on national television waving placards that reiterate the message on their Web site (www.godhatesfags.com) that AIDS CURES FAGS.

Richmond is the husk of a once beautiful and soulful old city. Most of its late neoclassical buildings are oriented to the locks and canals of the broad James River. Plainly its center was once a prosperous place. Just as plainly something drew down the core population until the old buildings fell empty and the grand department stores on Broad and Grace streets were gradually shuttered. Now, in place of fancy spring suits, the windows of Miller & Rhoads, the town's largest emporium, are painted with chalky murals depicting the city's Bread Riots. Where shops with Art Moderne facades and marble bolection moldings once sold whatever passed in these parts for the latest fashions, there's now a place called Sixth Street Marketplace, a shedlike multifloor urban conversion whose retailing message is unyieldingly low-end.

Judging by the number of wig and barbershops on Broad Street, it's a town that takes serious interest in things tonsorial. But, of course, there's a subtext in all the barbershops, in the shoe stores selling $18 pumps and the emporia offering bargain mud cloth and frankincense. There is not enough incense in the world to support prime urban retail space; downtown Richmond is what a Southern city looks like after 30 years of white flight. That the people who filled in the vacancies left along Grace and Broad streets would certainly have had no place in downtown Richmond's glory days almost goes without saying.

There are three gay bars on Grace Street. Each also operates, according to local liquor laws, as a restaurant. The largest, Casablanca, has three high-ceilinged rooms with wood booths and buttoned red vinyl stools and ferns in wall planters and two mannequins in the windows dressed in Ray-Bans and baseball caps to look "gay." There is a wall-hung TV in the front room that, on the afternoon I visited, was tuned to Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Although I couldn't quite tell with the sound off what Robertson was saying, superimposed over his image was a quote from the prophet Isaiah: "They will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders."

Until he was banned one night a year ago, Casablanca was Eddie Northington's favorite bar. On that occasion the six-foot-four-inch Northington apparently came on so persistently to a local bodybuilder that, said a patron who was there that evening, "the guy finally said, 'If you put your hands on me one more time, I'm gonna punch you out.' " Northington took offense. "You don't want to talk to me, huh?" he said. Later that night the same bodybuilder showed up at Fieldens, and, the eyewitness said, "Eddie came in. As soon as Eddie came in, whether he knew it was the same guy or not, he went right for him. And the guy just decked him. It was a movie punch. He punched his lights out."

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