Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin was met by dozens of supporters, friends, and family Thursday as he walked into a Manhattan courtroom to have his fate handed down by a judge.
The 42-year-old, draped handsomely in a brown kurta, was handcuffed and escorted into court by six officers—what seemed to be an extra precaution taken for 6’6”, 280 lb El-Amin, or perhaps for the crowd that came to support him. El-Amin was there to learn exactly how much of his freedom he’d lose to the American criminal legal system. Despite that daunting prospect, he appeared in good spirits as he sat before the judge and scanned the room for familiar faces.
The folks there were a mix of black and brown. They wore touches of blue, ribbons they’d tied around their arms and necks as a sign of solidarity with El-Amin. These were mostly queer people of color who’d showed up to protest the injustice of El-Amin’s conviction, some of whom didn’t know El-Amin personally. Why? Because they had to be; because others weren’t. Their silent courtroom protest was as electric as the shade of their ribbons. Other blues filled the court, of course—darker ones, expectant and carrying a voltage endowed by the badges they wore.
It all started last Cinco de Mayo. El-Amin, Jonathan Snipes and Ethan York-Adam were dining separately at a Chelsea-area Dallas BBQ restaurant that night. Words were exchanged between El-Amin and the couple. Those words escalated to a physical altercation that ended with El-Amin hitting the other two men with a chair. Video of the incident circulated online and news media, aided by Snipes’ and York-Adam’s claims that they were victims of a hate crime.
“Appalled by LGBT hate crime in Chelsea. We need increased vigilance to help bring these criminals to justice,” tweeted NYC Public Advocate Tish James shortly after the incident.
A warrant was later issued for El-Amin’s arrest. He surrendered to NYPD Hate Crime detectives a month later. A police investigation revealed, however, that the story wasn’t exactly as Snipes and York-Adam presented it originally, beginning with the fact that El-Amin himself is gay. The Village Voice reported:
El-Amin told his friends Snipes drunkenly spilled a drink and then, believing El-Amin to have referred to him as a "messy white fag," went up to El-Amin, called him a racial slur, and slapped him across the face with his purse. El-Amin hit back, and Snipes allegedly produced a knife from the table. El-Amin lost his temper, striking both men over the head with a chair. At the urging of a waitress, El-Amin immediately fled. Snipes later admitted he "wasn't sure" it had been El-Amin who had made the comment.
Despite those details, El-Amin was convicted of two counts of attempted assault in the first degree and two counts of assault in the second degree in May. The hate crime charges were never pursued.
“The jury rejected your claim of self-defense,” said Judge Arlene Goldberg after the verdict was announced. “That you did not cause serious physical injury to them was only a matter of luck.”
In the months that followed, a campaign seeking justice for El-Amin was launched by queer people of color who felt his conviction was unjust, that he’d been railroaded by a media that called him a “hulking brute” and by the lawmakers and LGBT community leaders who’d decided he was outside the center of their concern just because two gay white men said so.
In similar cases, questions around justice for black men have been cause for protests and other direct action from across the black community. As El-Amin was sentenced, however, the absence of black male supporters who weren’t queer was pronounced. In fact, the majority of black men in the room who might be straight were behind the courtroom’s partition—in blue uniforms.
It’s before this community of queer people of color that Goldberg finally handed down her sentence Thursday. She ordered El-Amin to serve nine years in prison with an additional three years of supervision. Then she issued orders of protection on behalf Snipes and York-Adam.
“This is the first time anyone I care about has been gone,” said Jamin Robinson, a longtime friend of El-Amin. And Robinson knew where to lay the blame. “All of this is Percy’s fault,” he said.
Percy Diego Gayanilo was the attorney who represented El-Amin and many, shocked by the sentence, expressed their disappointment with Gayanilo’s performance, insisting that he’d nervously staggered through his final statements—in stark contrast to the compelling, television-worthy monolog performed by the prosecutor. It seems, however, that El-Amin had been failed by a larger system long before he stepped foot in the courtroom.
Queer black people have a long and strained relationship with the white gay community that goes back to before the Stonewall Riots—where queer people of color protested police abuse, an act for which gay white men have been given the credit. This history is marked by fetishism, sexual violence, and erasure.
Despite their struggles around sexuality, gay white men are indeed the beneficiaries of racial privilege and too often use their whiteness to mitigate violence they might face and, in some cases, to inflict violence on queer people of color. The case against El-Amin is not disconnected from any of this.
The ways whiteness colludes with patriarchy allows white gay men to invoke victimization in moments of conflict with people of color, even when it’s clear they are the aggressors. In El-Amin’s case, the victimization of Snipes and York-Adam was aided by enduring stereotypes of black masculinity as inherently violent and criminal. Race, in this instance, was made even more complex by intersecting identities—El-Amin’s queerness, size, and ability.
It was noted during his trial that Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin stands at an imposing 6’6” and 280 lbs. His size was partially used as grounds for his harsh sentence, the assumption being that El-Amin was in no real danger from Snipes and York-Adam. The irony, though, is that El-Amin’s size didn’t stop Snipes from smacking him that night in May. Even more, it won’t necessarily prevent him from the various types of violence he might face in prison as black Muslim man who is openly gay man.
Ultimately, Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin was caught in an identity trap. He was prosecuted by a legal system that knows what to make of gay white men, but not gay black ones and left to fend for himself by advocates for gay lives and black lives and Muslim lives who don’t work at the intersections.