Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

To Live and Die in Grant Town

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

To Live and Die in Grant Town

Article excerpt

Arthur Warren's murder leaves many in West Virginia wondering: What price must be paid for being openly gay in rural America?

In Grant Town, W.Va., three white crosses mark the spot where Arthur C. Warren Jr.'s body was found early in the morning of the Fourth of July.

Inscriptions from friends read R.I.P. and WE LOVE YOU J.R.--the name by which the openly gay black man was known in this town of 400 people. Flowers adorn a rusted-out bridge nearby that crosses quiet Paw Paw Creek, a trickle of water that cuts the town in two.

A small, gentle man with a birth defect--his family says he weighed about 135 pounds and was born with a hand missing several fingers--Warren met a horrifying death. Around midnight on July 3, law enforcement officials say, Jared Wilson and David Allen Parker, 17-year-old cousins who were both white, kicked the 26-year-old Warren to death in an abandoned house Parker's family owns. The teens, who have been charged with murder, were reported to have worn steel-toed work boots during the attack. Authorities say a third boy, Jason Shoemaker, 15, looked on without protest, though he has not been charged with any crime. Because of his size and birth defect, it's likely Warren could put up little resistance, especially against Parker, whom neighbors describe as large and muscular.

As if the attack were not enough, officials say the three boys then stuffed Warren's body in the trunk of a dark Camaro, drove the short distance to a gravel strip beneath the town power plant, dumped his corpse on the side of the road, and repeatedly ran over it, hoping to disguise the crime as a hit-and-run accident. His body was found near a sign that reads GRANT TOWN: GROWING PROGRESSIVE COMMUNITY.

The boys' motive? Early reports said the older boys acted out of fear that Warren would brag about a sexual relationship he had with one or both of them. They might have succeeded in their gruesome cover-up had Shoemaker not suffered a crisis of conscience and confessed the crime to his mother.

Warren's killing, which draws inevitable comparisons to the 1998 beating death of Laramie, Wyo., resident Matthew Shepard underscores the stark realities as well as the complexities and contradictions faced by gay men and lesbians in this rural part of the country. While residents say there is a "live and let live" attitude, they also accept the closet as a fact of life. Those who are "too out" invariably suffer consequences, and political activism is anathema. The dramatic nature of this crime has thrust many local gays into an unwanted spotlight, sometimes in the even more visible role of activist, as they assist national gay groups in their quest to classify Warren's murder as a hate crime.

Even though Grant Town is small, Warren was not its only gay resident. This is a place where gay people say they feel at home despite the recent events. Among those people is Rick Ravenscroft, 49, who lives in a trim brick house not far from where Warren died. Ravenscroft was the first person to whom Warren confided his homosexual feelings, and the two were friends throughout Warren's brief adult life. A musician who speaks in a slow, melodic voice, Ravenscroft describes Warren as sweet, peace-loving, and somewhat effeminate. "He was gentle and kind," Ravenscroft says. "And he was a timid boy." While reports of the murder classify Warren as learning-disabled, Ravenscroft says his friend's greatest problem was an inability to understand the nuances of some social situations, particularly those in which being gay could pose a danger.

"Someone might hit him one day and call him all sorts of names," Ravenscroft says. "Then the next day, if they said they wanted to be friends again, he'd say OK." (In fact, Warren told friends that he had been physically and verbally attacked less than two years ago while walking past a group of local kids.) Today, Warren's final moments of life haunt Ravenscroft's imagination: "I can hear him screaming and begging for his life and not putting up any fight. …

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