A Turbulent Relationship Ends in Death but the Silence Continues

On Nov. 7, 2012, Devineil Brown, then 25, woke up at 8 a.m. in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. He got up, made his bed, showered and walked his Yorkshire Terrier, Dolce. He walked to the grocery store and got cinnamon buns to make at home. When he returned, he noticed that Shaun Woolford, his 31-year-old ex-boyfriend who still lived with him, was home, police said.

According to police, Brown entered Woolford’s room to say hello and Woolford accused him of telling his uncle that he had HIV. An argument ensued. In Brown’s statement to the police, he said that Woolford told him, “Mind your f-cking business or I gonna get you.” Brown walked into his own room, saying, “That’s why you got warts on your ass.” He told the police that he walked back to the doorway and saw that Woolford was about five steps away and holding a knife. There was a bloody fight and then Woolford was dead.

It was just another fight in a contentious relationship but this time, someone died.

The apartment complex where Brown and Woolford lived together. (Taylor Romine/The Ink)

In 2012, there were 40 cases of intimate partner homicide in New York City, according to New York City Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee’s 2013 annual report. Two of those reported cases involved a same-sex relationship and one was this young, black couple, Woolford and Brown. It’s an unspoken understanding in the LGBTQ community that intimate partner violence is underreported. A 2015 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that while all reporting rates are low, heterosexual women and the general homosexual population have similar rates of domestic abuse. A 2013 report by the Center for Disease Control indicated that rates for intimate partner violence for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals was the same or higher than for heterosexuals.

Police interviews with Woolford’s family indicated that this wasn’t the first violent argument between Brown and Woolford. In the five years Brown and Woolford were seeing each other, they broke up and got back together frequently. In an interview, the victim’s aunt, Sharryl Woolford, recounted an incident from several months earlier. Brown and Woolford were fighting about an illicit picture Brown was sending to other men. Sharryl Woolford said Brown pushed Woolford and he fought back. During interviews with the police, Brown told officers that people in their neighborhood referred to Woolford as Brown’s property. He also stated that they would get into fights about their HIV status. In one reported incident three years before the murder, Brown was arrested for assault when he caught Woolford and another man kissing and started a fist fight with the other partner.

LGBTQ people in violent relationships must overcome particular barriers to getting help. In 2013, the Williams Institute — a UCLA School of Law think tank that researches LGBTQ issues, law and public policy — conducted a study of existing LGBTQ research. They found that a unifying theme in the under-reporting of intimate partner violence is that victims are afraid of being isolated by the LGBTQ community, losing one of their few support systems. The Williams Institute study found that many victims of intimate partner violence say that admitting violence exists adds to stigmas against LGBTQ people.

Race can also make access to services and support even more difficult. Elwin Wu, an associate professor and researcher at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, has studied men who have sex with men, HIV and substance abuse. He said that in the black community, religion is a structure that is often intertwined into daily life and could make gay black men afraid of being rejected by their church community.

The neighborhood where the couple lived. (Taylor Romine/The Ink)

Wu said that some men in general can have a harder time forming healthy relationships because they saw few positive role models of relationships between gay men while growing up. Gay men who did appear in media were stereotypes — either being hyper-masculine or overly sexualized. Wu also said that the traditional ideas of adolescent dating, like prom, haven’t been inclusive of LGBTQ people until the most recent generation. These pressures affect their self-esteem and relationships. Wu said that intimate partner violence has been traditionally seen as a male perpetrator, female victim dynamic. Because of this, manipulation for power and control isn’t as noticeable in other types of relationships.

DaShawn Usher, 31, was three months into a relationship when his boyfriend got physically violent. He described the violence as a progression. A sharp grab, an unexpected hit. “With him, it felt like the only way to communicate was with his hands,” Usher says. “I tried to walk away and not engage. But that would only make him more violent. It felt like something bigger than me that they had to deal with.”

Usher met his ex-boyfriend 10 years ago while visiting Atlanta. “He was really nice, really sweet. He was actually from Baltimore, and I was going to school in Tennessee, so we both happened to be visiting at the same time.” During the year that they were together, Usher knew that their relationship wasn’t healthy. But he assumed that this was just the way love was: difficult and painful. He frequently told his friends about the issues in his relationship, and they recognized that it was abusive. They told him to get out of the relationship but weren’t sympathetic that this was someone he loved and wanted to help.

“When you love someone, it’s hard to just leave,” he said. He stopped talking about it with his friends because it was easier to stay silent than to defend himself. “You wanna tell someone but you get that judgement,” he said. “So you end up developing a process on your own.”

Some advocates are trying to change that dynamic. Tonje Reese, youth program coordinator at Break the Cycle, a national program dedicated to teaching young people about healthy relationships, said that LGBTQ youth have more obstacles to get services than heterosexuals. Although no one experience is the same, having overlapping minority identities makes it particularly hard to find help that addresses their experience. But Reese says that these younger generations are becoming savvier. Minimizing the abuse is a common reaction of someone being abused, said Reese, but with the support of their peers, they can recognize unhealthy behaviors.

Even though young people can recognize violence and support their community, many millennials are stuck in the old understanding of domestic violence. Years after he broke up with his ex-boyfriend, Usher started dating someone new who was verbally abusive. Again, he could tell that something wasn’t right and he struggled to deal with this new form of violence was hard to figure out. “Moving forward, I recognized the signs,” he said. “But this was more verbal. He would say really insulting things.”

Watching his friends going through similar situations was also difficult. “I recognized the signs,” he said. “I’ve been there. I, too, was that person.” Usher said a significant percentage of people he knows have been in abusive relationships. “Of people that told me, 25 percent,” he said. “Of people who haven’t said anything, but you could tell, probably at least half. It’s more than a black eye. There are more signs and story lines.”

According to a 2017 report by the Anti-Violence Project, most domestic violence shelters don’t take men or LGBTQ identified people, making it difficult to get out of toxic living situations. New York State’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence also says  that domestic violence services are often focused on straight women and don’t have the structure or resources to keep others safe. Although attempts are being made, New York City, as well as the rest of the country, has a long way to go. For now, many rely on the shaky support of the LGBTQ community and that may not be enough.

These new efforts are too late to help Brown and Woolford. Almost two years later, in July 2014, Brown was convicted of second-degree murder. He is now at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora, serving a sentence of 25 years to life.