Beyond Legal Definitions, What Makes a Family? What makes a family? For commentator Kristal Brent Zook, the question brings to mind a non-traditional family that came together out of tragedy. Zook is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a contributing writer for Essence magazine.

Beyond Legal Definitions, What Makes a Family?

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What makes a family? For commentator Kristal Brent Zook the question brings to mind a non-traditional family that came together out of tragedy.

Ms. KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK (Author, “Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain”): A few years ago, Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian, was killed on a hate crime in Newark, New Jersey, by a man who had made sexually aggressive comments to her and her girlfriends as the teenagers made their way home from a night out on the town. We're not interested, said the girls to the man, we're gay. Words were passed and before anyone knew what had happened Sakia had been stabbed to death by the angry man. She was the youngest known African-American lesbian ever to have been killed in such a crime.

And her violent murder in the early morning hours of Mother's Day 2003 sparked national outrage and a procession of 2,500 mourners and a candlelight vigil. Recently, after a New Jersey state Supreme Court granted gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals, I thought about Sakia, who had wanted to be married and in fact was engaged to her then girlfriend even at such a young age. And I thought about Valencia Bailey, Sakia's best friend. The girls had been inseparable since the sixth grade and had come out to each other at age 11. They weren't sexual with each other. In fact, they competed for girls. But they were sisters, soul mates, best friends. They shared clothes, finished each other's sentences and were never far from a basketball court or from each other for very long.

Now a student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, Valencia is working at ESPN and still hoping to play in the WNBA, a dream that she and Sakia had shared. She lives with her fiancé, Atia(ph), just as she has told me she would a couple of years ago when Atia flashed me her rather large diamond engagement ring.

I don't care what they call it, marriage or civil union, said Valencia when I asked her thoughts about the ruling. As long as I get the same rights and I'm able to live with the love of my life, I'm happy. Now I won't have to go all the way to Vermont, she added cheerfully. Valencia's mother Gail(ph) is a postal carrier in Newark. She's also a lesbian who hopes one day to marry her lover as well. Not right now of course. She's having too much fun enjoying her empty nest.

For her recent 50th birthday she took herself to Puerto Rico and went skydiving. She's in no hurry for marriage, but wants the option to be available to her and her girlfriend should they decide to take it. There are a lot of couples out here who have been together for years, she says, and they have the same feelings as anybody else. Feelings don't have a gender. They're from the soul. I've always been struck by how close Sakia's family is and how supportive. Perhaps because the world is so opposed to them they've to be even more vigilantly in favor of each other. They seem more loyal than many traditional families, more caring, more together.

Sakia's mother, who still stays in close touch, was a judge not long ago with Valencia in New York's Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Valencia's grandmother, who was visiting from out of town, stood in the bleachers, wore gay pride colors and cheered them on. Like I said, I've always been struck by how close they all are, this little family of their own choosing.

CHIDEYA: Commentator Kristal Brent Zook is the author of Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain.

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