Death by Outing


His gay posse knew him as Neil, a sweet and sexy guy with a problem. “He didn’t want to be gay,” says one close friend of Othniel Askew, the man who killed City Council member James Davis. “For years, he talked about, ‘I’m leaving this. I’m going to meet a woman and have a child.'” Sometime last year, Askew announced that he had done just that: “He had a baby, a little baby daughter.” The friend was surprised to learn that press accounts of Askew’s life never mentioned the child. “Every time I saw him I was, like, ‘I want to see the baby.’ But you know what? I never did.” The reason may well have been that the child didn’t exist.

Askew wasn’t above fronting about a number of things, including his religion (referring to himself as Jewish, though he’d been raised a Jehovah’s Witness) and of course his sexuality. To his friend, this duplicitous streak stemmed from growing up in a faith “that made him feel he was shit”—and from intense loyalty to his family. “He didn’t talk about his father much. Anything he said was about his mother and brother. I feel they had a close relationship. Maybe they knew, but it was a secret.”

This is not a unique situation for a gay man on the down low. But in Askew’s case, the same forces that propelled him to create a double life led to a fixation on control. He was a jealous lover and sometimes a violent one. In 1996, he was arrested for battering his partner with a hammer, leaving a police record that would come back to haunt him. Such a man might be capable of murder, especially if his target was a rival who threatened to expose his sexuality for all the world to see.

Davis’s strategy was to coopt an opponent, and Askew was no exception. According to him, Davis promised a job and political entrée if Askew called off his campaign. But the carrot came with a stick. Just hours before Askew drew his gun, he called the FBI to complain that Davis had threatened to out him—and reveal his rap sheet. Investigators believe that, on at least one occasion, Davis actually visited Askew’s family. As the campaign heated up last month, Davis replied to a question about Askew by insisting, “I’ve never heard of him—or her.”

It seems unlikely that a politician wouldn’t know about someone gathering petitions to run against him—and Davis was a master pol. It’s quite possible that he was not above outing an opponent. Askew reportedly waited to file his petitions until just past the deadline. Perhaps he had weighed Davis’s threats and decided at the last minute to withdraw. By then, his fragile personality was crumbling into paranoia. But, as the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies.

On the eve of the killing, Askew told a friend he was being played by Davis, who had declined to sign a letter guaranteeing him a job. He had sabotaged his own campaign; he felt betrayed by a man who had posed as his mentor; he was in terror of having his deepest secret revealed—even to his family. Askew had always been a control freak. Now he was a bomb ready to explode.

This is one explanation for Askew’s deadly outburst. But it doesn’t fit the irresistible image of the homicidal homosexual. Ever since Tom Brokaw used those words to describe Andrew Cunanan, they’ve become a staple of stories about gay killers. Flamboyant madness and kinky inclinations are part of the type—and AIDS is icing on the cake. To the New York Post‘s headline writers, Askew was an “HIV ASSASSIN.” The paper blithely declared that “HIV AND FAILURE FUELED HIS RAGE,” though there was no evidence to support this claim. When a gay man commits murder, every aspect of his identity is tarted up to create the portrait of a pervert.

Even the fact that gay porn was found in Askew’s “fastidiously neat” apartment showed up in the Post as implicit proof of his twisted mind. His seductive look in beefcake photos, intended to promote him as a male model, took on a predatory vibe when blazoned across the front page of the Daily News. A single frame from a TV interview, in which Askew seemed to be staring pop-eyed at the camera, became the “WILD EYES OF A KILLER” in the Post.

No reporter delved into Askew’s struggle with the closet or the impact of his fundamentalist roots. Though this case vividly illustrates the catastrophic effects of dragging someone out of the closet, no commentator dared to call it wrong to out a political opponent. Instead, Davis’s conduct was dismissed as typical hardball politics. How can the media take a critical look at indiscriminate outing when they are prone to it themselves?

It’s hard to criticize a murdered leader, especially one as popular as Davis was, even in Fort Greene’s vibrant queer community. He had helped the mostly gay Unity Fellowship Church find a new home in his district. He had sponsored a pride event honoring local gay activists. He had signed on to a bill that would require private companies to offer domestic-partner benefits to their gay employees, and he had voted for transsexual rights. These gestures were courageous, but also logical steps for someone with political ambitions—and Davis had spoken to at least one Brooklyn gay activist about running for mayor.

He wasn’t always so gay friendly. When Davis ran for the City Council in 2001, he failed to respond to a questionnaire from Empire State Pride Agenda (which subsequently stayed neutral in the race). He angered Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats by traveling to Zimbabwe with Councilmember Charles Barron, despite its dictator’s vicious homophobic policies. (The club had endorsed one of Davis’s opponents in the 2001 race.) But he patched up these differences, and at his death many gay activists sang his praises. “He was always sympathetic,” says Edgar Rodriguez, former president of the Gay Officers Action League, who met Davis as a student at the police academy. “When we saw each other, he gave me a warm embrace, and our conversation was real. I felt like I had a bond with him.”

Davis had that effect on a lot of people—including his killer. In the tabs, there was speculation that Askew had mistaken these good intentions for flirting. The truth about this relationship will never be known. All we have are clues too easily assembled into the portrait of a martyred hero and a homicidal homosexual.

Research assistance: Matthew Phillp

Related Stories:

The Visible Man: Davis Touched All the Bases in a Volatile Brooklyn District” by Rivka Gewirtz Little

From the Voice, September 6, 2000: “Selling Himself—What James E. Davis Does Best” by James Bradley