The Killing of Calvin Williams: If You're Black and Gay in South Florida, Down-Low Sex Is a Deadly Gamble
In the Riviera Beach neighborhood where Calvin Williams lived, the houses are plain, single-story concrete blocks painted in drab greens and tans. Air-conditioning units poke out of windows, satellite dishes dot the roofs, and flannel sheets serve as window shades. Nine miles away, Donald Trump and Rod Stewart have built millionaires' playgrounds on Palm Beach. But in this part of town, grown men pass the afternoons on their front stoops. A .38-caliber pistol sells for 50 bucks on the street.
On the night of May 13, Williams hosted a card game at his apartment. Men played tonk; women dealt hands for spades. Bottles of beer emerged from a cooler, and cigarette butts burned in the ashtray. It was NBA playoffs season, and a Cavaliers-Celtics game blared on the TV.
Williams, 41, was 6-foot-4 with a confident smile, a schoolteacher with a well-muscled, basketball player's build. As the night wore on, Williams was engrossed in his cell phone, drifting away from the card game. His friends had no idea whom he was texting, but they badgered him for being distracted: "Are you going to play cards or talk?"
By 11:30 p.m., the game ended and the crowd broke up. A man who was later identified in police reports as Williams' boyfriend (New Times is withholding his name to protect his privacy) left for the hospital, where his grandmother was having surgery. Sometime after 1 a.m., Williams, drunk and bored, decided to visit the lover he'd been texting all evening.
His friends never saw him alive again.
Soon, an investigation into his death would unveil Williams' most intimate secrets. It would remind his community of an AIDS epidemic it would rather forget. And it would raise a tangle of medical and legal questions about the price of his silence.
In some parts of America, gay men and women are doing well in their struggle for acceptance. They serve openly in Congress, star in hit TV shows, and can legally marry in five states. But in Riviera Beach, not much has changed since the days of Rock Hudson.
Here, as in many other black communities around the country, the stigma attached to homosexuality is stubbornly persistent. In church, it's labeled a sin. At home, young boys are taught that sleeping with women is essential to their manhood. Admitting their feelings for men can lead to getting beaten or kicked out of the house.
To navigate the land mines of hostility, many gay or bisexual men like Calvin Williams have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" creed. They don't talk about the men they sleep with when their girlfriends are away. They don't show up at family dinners dressed in drag. And they don't explain that their newly formed six-pack abs come courtesy of the steroids they're taking to treat HIV.
That silence can be particularly dangerous here in South Florida. According to 2008 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (the most recent data available), the Miami metro area has the highest AIDS rate in the nation, with 42.8 out of every 100,000 people infected. For black men, the situation is even worse. In Florida, the HIV/AIDS rate for black men is nearly five times the rate for white men, according to the state health department. In 2008, 1 in 31 black men in Palm Beach County had HIV or AIDS. In Broward County, 1 in 41 black men were infected; in Miami-Dade, 1 in 29.
The numbers are particularly damning for men who sleep with men. This diverse group — encompassing men who are openly gay, bi, or call themselves straight but have "down low" sex with men — comprised more than half of the 219 male HIV cases reported in Palm Beach County last year.
A 25-year-old man who asked to be called "Love" offers himself as a cautionary tale.
Love, clad in leopard-print satin pajamas, black slippers, fake eyelashes, and diamond earrings, speaks in soft, honeyed tones. He expresses no anger when explaining how being black and gay in West Palm Beach made him an outcast.
He says he was attracted to men by the time he was 11 and began dressing "like a lady" a year later. But his mom would not accept him, so he made the streets his home. He quit school at 16, hit the club scene, and traded his body for cash.
When he was 20, Love and a friend got tested for sexually transmitted diseases at a gay club in West Palm. Love discovered he had HIV. But for years, he ignored the bad news. He kept working the streets, even neglecting to use condoms. He says he didn't have any symptoms, and denial was easier to swallow than the fear of retaliation if the wrong person found out.
"I lived in a mind frame that I didn't have it," he says. "It just felt fake."
Love finally disclosed his HIV-positive status to one boyfriend, who responded by breaking Love's jaw. After that, Love says, he started taking precautions.
Two years ago, Love met workers from United Deliverance Community Resource Center, a church-affiliated group that has been battling AIDS in Palm Beach County's black community for 11 years. The work has never been easy. In the early years, the nonprofit's founders drove around in a school bus, handing out fried chicken and paying people $5 or $10 to take HIV tests. For a while, outreach workers wore army fatigues. "It was a war. We meant serious business," says Executive Director Sandra White.
United Deliverance, which receives the majority of its $370,000 annual budget from the state health department, helped Love move into a house, get food stamps and medication, and apply for disability benefits. Now, "I'm doing nice. Lovely," he says.
Although he never sees the bill, there's a hefty cost for Love's new comforts. Taxpayers ultimately cover the expenses. His rent is paid by the federal government through a Department of Housing and Urban Development program specifically designed to help low-income people with AIDS, and he receives about $200 worth of food stamps a month. He takes five medications a day, and such pills cost $12,000 to $36,000 a year, according to the Palm Beach County Health Department. Funding for the medicine is provided to states by the federal Ryan White program. (This summer, thanks to budget cuts and rising unemployment, the Florida Department of Health established a waiting list for patients to receive free medication. As of September 3, there were 1,493 people on the list.)
Love doesn't have a job and isn't really looking. He's waiting to hear if his application for social security disability insurance is approved. In his mind, an adolescence spent on the streets has earned him a vacation. "My time has come to sit back and relax," he says.
Eventually, Love says, he'd like to get a clerical job. But for now, he has the same preoccupation as most 25-year-olds: romance. Whenever he meets a new guy, he's frightened. Will the man reject him? Attack him?
Fear of rejection — by lovers, families, and friends — is just one of many reasons that black people continue to be disproportionately impacted by AIDS, says Lorenzo Robertson, regional minority AIDS coordinator for the Palm Beach County Health Department.
Racism and a deep distrust of the white medical establishment also play a role. Local clients still bring up the Tuskegee Syphilis Study when telling Robertson why they don't heed the warnings of white doctors. For four decades beginning in 1932, the U.S. government denied treatment of syphilis to black sharecroppers.
Robertson says that even now, he can walk into a gay-friendly health clinic and be ignored by a white receptionist. And there are no role models — no black Neal Patrick Harris or Harvey Milk — appearing in his favorite gay magazines or neighborhoods.
Finally, there's plenty of ignorance, recklessness, and denial. It's not unusual to hear tales of drug-fueled romps at clubs, where men hook up with as many as six other guys a night. With 1 in 31 black men in Palm Beach County carrying the virus, those hookups become a form of Russian roulette.
Yet, for men like Love in their teens and 20s, the threat may not seem imminent, Robertson says. In 1993, AIDS was the leading cause of death among people ages 25 to 44. Now, drug cocktails keep victims seemingly healthy for years (though the drugs can have horrible side effects). With modern medicine, a black man diagnosed in 2005 can now expect to live 20 more years, according to a recent CDC study.
Parked in front of the air conditioner in Love's living room one August afternoon, Love and a group of his friends discuss the secrets they've grown accustomed to keeping. A Bible sits open on the glass coffee table. Potted plants decorate the corners of the room, and a wooden sign above the TV spells out Happiness in chunky letters.
Today, Love is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, snuggling with his boyfriend on the couch. Another 22-year-old man dresses conservatively — black T-shirt, khaki shorts — but carries a Coach purse. A tall, slender friend they call "Juicy" is perfectly coifed in a short plaid skirt, a tight pink top, and a tongue piercing. He grabs a couple of slices of pizza and flips through the newspaper as the gossip wears on.
All of them say they're out of the closet and proud. "When you feel better about yourself, nothing else matters," the 22-year-old says. But their openness changes depending on the situation.
"I don't like to go over to my family in drag," says Juicy. "I don't know how they're gonna react when I get my implants."
"Me, I'm like the Army," jokes "Miss Tony. "If you don't ask, I will not tell."
Love's 21-year-old brother is confident and flirtatious. He has sculpted arms, copious tattoos, and an enormous wooden cross around his neck. He's also bisexual but would never tell his father: "I ain't telling him nothing. I'm gonna lie to him till the day I die. He'll shoot me."
Some of the men say they don't worry about getting HIV because they don't have casual sex. Still, warns the friend in khaki shorts, "If you go without a condom, you should be afraid. It could happen to just anybody."
But privately, out of earshot of the group, Love's brother says that regular condom use is unrealistic. "You're gonna have sex unprotected," he insists. "That's part of life... Who's gonna get up, honestly, and find a condom?" He says he trusts his partners.
He also says he has plenty of friends who sleep with men but insist they're straight. "I got a phone full of homeboys."
Calvin Williams could have been the role model Love's friends crave. He grew up in Riviera determined to escape the ghetto. At Suncoast High, he joined the drama club and sang in the chorus. After graduation, he moved to New Mexico Highlands University to play basketball. He took a full course load, made the dean's list, and became president of the school's Black Student Union.
But he never fully escaped his ties to home. In 1989, weeks before his 20th birthday, Rachel Johnson, a woman he'd known for two years, gave birth to their son, Roderick. Suddenly, Williams needed money for food, diapers, and clothes.
He got a job as a manager at McDonald's to make ends meet and moved in with his mother while the baby lived with Johnson. His finances were so tight that in a letter to the court, Williams argued that paying $75 a week for child support was too much.
Eventually, Williams worked his way out of poverty. He got a job supervising juvenile delinquents at the Palm Beach Halfway House in Lantana, where his boss was full of praise. "He has the mind of a scholar, the heart of a social worker, and the voice of a coach/mentor," Grady Swindell wrote in a letter of recommendation for Williams.
As his son grew up, Williams became a loving father. "He molded me into the person he was," Roderick Johnson, now 21, says. "A hard worker, dedicated, a nice person... you know, caring, loving."
Williams took him on trips to places like North Carolina and Georgia to visit relatives, and whenever Johnson needed him, Williams was there. "He shows you love, support. That's just who he is."
While counseling kids and defusing their fights, Williams earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Florida Atlantic University. He then applied to substitute-teach in Palm Beach County schools and began working in crisis intervention, supervising kids with behavioral problems at Roosevelt Full Service Center in West Palm. In a county where, according to a recent independent study, fewer than a quarter of black men graduate high school, he was a gift: a role model who liked working with hard-to-reach kids. Principals were eager to hire him.
In 2003, Roosevelt Principal Cynthia Smith requested a waiver to hire Williams as a middle-school special ed teacher even though he didn't yet have the required teaching certificate. "Mr. Williams has been very successful in his first year of teaching here," Smith wrote. She praised his "knowledge of our students, and his demonstrated ability to work effectively with at-risk students."
Two years later, Williams earned the certificate he needed. But by then, his teaching career was marred by a disturbing footnote.
In May 2005, he was teaching at Palm Beach Lakes High when a male senior at the school accused Williams of coming on to him.
The student told a school detective that he and Williams had exchanged cell phone numbers and that Williams would sometimes call at night to talk about his personal life. Williams bragged about how many women he was involved with and called himself a "pimp daddy." One day, according to the police report, Williams told the student he wanted to give him $100 for getting good grades. Williams picked up the student at his house and took him to his apartment, saying he needed to finish cleaning the place. Once they arrived, the student sat down on a couch. Williams told him, "If you don't move, I'm going to lie on you."
The student moved to another couch. But Williams grabbed him in a headlock and began blowing in his ear. "You talk a lot of noise," Williams purred. Uncomfortable, the student announced he was ready to leave. Williams responded by showing his penis.
Upset and embarrassed, the student explained that he "didn't go that way." They finally left the apartment, and Williams drove to an ATM and retrieved the $100 he had promised. Before he drove the student home, Williams asked for a hug. "No," the student said.
A week later, Williams called the student to congratulate him for graduating from high school. "I owe you dinner as a gift," Williams texted the student.
Less than two weeks later, an adult called the school police department to say the student had confided in him about the incident. A detective interviewed the student, confirmed the text message, and launched an investigation. But it didn't go far.
In a meeting with school officials, Williams insisted he mentored many "needy" students and sometimes gave them lunch money. He gave this student money to help cover room and board for his first year of college, he said. Williams admitted that he briefly took the student to his apartment to grab his ATM card and gave him "advice about women." But he vehemently denied exposing himself.
In the end, the student declined to press charges. A school district investigative committee found the allegation of inappropriate sexual interaction unsubstantiated but suspended Williams for five days for acting unprofessionally and having an inappropriate relationship with a student. He was temporarily barred from subbing for the school district. But a year later, he was hired to teach special ed at L.C. Swain Middle School in Greenacres.
Eventually, Calvin Williams learned to juggle his dual lives. By day, he was a polished professional, a teacher who commanded respect from students and colleagues. By night, he was an unbridled bachelor.
At L.C. Swain, records show he taught sixth- through eighth-grade classes, including math and critical thinking, to kids with various learning disabilities. Many of them warmed to Williams' friendly, outgoing style. One Swain seventh-grader remembers Williams encouraging kids to get good grades while striving to make class time fun. "He always had a smile on his face and said hi," says 12-year-old Jorge Orozco.
Roderick Johnson has similar memories of his dad. "He was always in a good mood, he always make you laugh; he just stayed happy. It was contagious."
Williams kept an eye on the troubled kids, the ones who fought in the halls or wore jeans instead of the required khakis. They were sent to him for discipline, but if he thought they were good students, he'd give them a break — maybe lunch detention instead of an all-day punishment. Jorge wasn't enrolled in Williams' classes, but his friend Gabrielle Garza was, and the two of them would stop by to chat with the teacher between classes.
"He was strict. He was nice at the same time, though," says 13-year-old Gabrielle. "Stay in school," she remembered him saying. "You'll get somewhere in life."
Williams' attitude pleased his boss too. "He has demonstrated discipline in the classroom and on the total campus," Swain Principal Edward Harris wrote in a 2008 evaluation. "Mr. Williams has developed a positive relationship with parents, students, and coworkers. He has performed his duties and responsibilities well."
But after the final bell rang, Williams played a different role. His interest in younger men clearly extended beyond books and grades.
Jorge, the seventh-grader at L.C. Swain, said he'd heard that Williams was gay through the rumor mill, but the teacher never talked about it.
Yet a longtime friend of Williams' family, Roosevelt Holman, 54, says everyone close to Williams knew he was gay. In fact, Holman used to argue with him about it. "He had these feminine ways, and I couldn't stand it," Holman says.
Love's brother knew Calvin Williams from gay bars and clubs around South Florida, including Club Dolce (formerly Kashmir Night Club) in West Palm Beach. Williams was "real discreet" and eager to buy younger men expensive cocktails. "You so sexy," he'd tell them. "Let me get you something to drink."
Police reports suggest Williams lived with a young boyfriend for at least a few months in 2008. Twice, Riviera Beach police were called to the apartment for domestic disputes between then-39-year-old Williams and 19-year-old Tirrelle Robinson. Robinson was once arrested for domestic battery, but prosecutors declined to pursue the case.
In his neighborhood, Calvin Williams asked kids to call him "Unc." On hot afternoons, he'd bring a cooler to the basketball courts in Lake Park and watch pickup games. He'd drink beer with a friend and hand out juice and Gatorade to the high school crowd. He'd also cheer on his friend, Lawrence Hunt.
The men first met in a park in 2006, when Hunt was 16. The teenager was built like a wrestler, with cheeks the color of caramel and long dreadlocks. Love's friends called him "red," meaning light-skinned. On the basketball court, he talked a lot of shit.
When he was in 11th grade at Palm Beach Gardens High School, Hunt and a group of friends were accused of knocking down another teenager and trying to rifle through his pockets. Hunt was arrested for strong-arm robbery but never convicted. He did a juvenile diversion program instead.
In some ways, Hunt's early-adult years mirrored Williams': At 18, Hunt fathered a son with a woman who lives in Jupiter. His job at Kmart didn't generate enough income for him to pay child support, court records show. At some point, he started taking classes at the for-profit Lincoln College in West Palm.
By the time he was 18, Hunt told police, he'd started exchanging blowjobs with Williams.
Sometime between 1:30 and 2:30 the morning of May 14, after the card game ended, the man described in police reports as Williams' boyfriend called the teacher to check in. "I'm tired and trying to get some sleep because I have to go to work in the morning," the boyfriend remembered Williams saying.
Actually, it was about that time that Williams was driving over to Hunt's place, a few blocks away. Hunt was now 20; they'd been hooking up for two years.
The night was humid, heated, like countless others the couple had shared. They returned to Williams' tiny apartment complex on Silver Beach Road — a dingy, single-story white structure not unlike a Dixie Highway motel. They walked past the card table in the living room and the cooler of beer.
According to a police report written weeks later, Williams offered Hunt a drink. He refused. He wasn't in the mood. In fact, he was furious.
Hunt had heard rumors that Williams had HIV. He'd thought about killing Williams, he later told the police, "but then realized that he couldn't." Still, he had brought his gun.
In the bedroom, Hunt's eyes fell upon a cluster of unmarked pill bottles.
Hunt told police that's when he confronted Williams. He demanded to know if the teacher had HIV. Williams brushed him off and asked for a blowjob. Hunt refused. The men fought, shoving and pushing each other. Hunt lunged toward the door. Williams grabbed him in a bear hug. Then he threw Hunt on the bed.
"Are you trying to rape me?" Hunt demanded, according to the probable-cause affidavit. "I know you got that shit. What are you trying to do, give it to me?"
Hunt claimed that Williams tried to pull off his shorts, announcing, "I'm a get that ass."
"Get the fuck back," Hunt shouted. As they struggled, Hunt reached into his waistband and pulled out his gun.
The first shot made Williams collapse in horror, examining his bleeding hand. Hunt pulled the trigger again, striking his lover in the head.
Hunt stayed in the room just long enough to watch the color drain from Williams' face. Then he picked up the shell casings, grabbed Williams' cell phone, and fled.
Walking home on Silver Beach Road, Hunt threw the shell casings into a trash can. He tore off his blood-stained shirt and chucked it too. Then he hid Williams' cell phone in a storm drain.
After the sun rose, Williams' boyfriend tried repeatedly to reach him, but calls went straight to voice mail. In the afternoon, with his grandmother's surgery finished, the boyfriend raced back to the apartment. He twisted the key in the lock and called Williams' name. Walking into the bedroom, he saw his lover lying on the bed, fully clothed. He tried to shake Williams awake. Then he saw the blood and dialed 911.
At first, police focused on the players at the card game in their search for suspects. Six days after the killing, they got a warrant for Williams' phone records. They discovered the series of calls from Hunt's phone. It took them 12 more days to arrest Hunt.
When confronted, Hunt first told police that he'd gone to Williams' apartment to collect $20 the teacher owed him. During a second interview, however, he confessed to shooting Hunt and gave his account of what happened. He said he had sold the weapon to a friend for $50. Police retrieved the gun and found Williams' cell phone in the storm drain. On June 1, Hunt was charged with second-degree murder and booked into the Palm Beach County Jail. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently being held without bail.
As Hunt awaits trial, his case poses a tangle of legal and ethical questions.
Williams' autopsy report does not specify whether he had HIV, but the police did find unmarked pill bottles in his bedroom, and a pharmacist confirmed that the meds found inside are used to treat the virus.
Even if he was infected, Williams was not required to tell the Palm Beach County School District. Under federal law, schoolteachers have no obligation to disclose their HIV-positive status to their employers. However, he would have been required to inform Hunt. In Florida, it's a felony for a person with HIV to hide his status from a sexual partner, and people have been prosecuted for the crime.
This January, for instance, Olympic bronze medalist equestrian Darren Chiacchia was charged in Ocala because an ex-lover alleged that Chiacchia exposed him to HIV. Chiacchia pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial. In 2007, South Beach club promoter Eliodor Kersaint, 22, was charged with having sex with a 19-year-old woman without telling her he had HIV. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years' probation.
Anton Josey, 34, of Pompano Beach, said that his lover, Dominique Duval, 23, gave him HIV — so he took justice into his own hands. Police allege that Josey waited for Duval after work, dragged her into a car at gunpoint, and shot her. He was charged with murder in August, and the case is pending in Broward County Court.
Hunt's statements to police suggest he will argue that he acted in self-defense. His public defender, Palm Beach County Assistant Public Defender Michael Schutt, declined to comment for this article. However, according to a longtime homicide prosecutor not involved in the case, Williams' HIV status alone would not be enough to justify the shooting. In Florida, you can use deadly force only if you believe the action is necessary to prevent "imminent death," "great bodily harm," or a "forcible felony," the statutes say.
"The fact that you think that you're going to contract a disease from someone is not a legal ground to use deadly force," says Chuck Morton, chief assistant state attorney in Broward County. "But certainly, the forcible rape does give you the legal right to defend yourself using equal force or deadly force."
Back in Riviera Beach, life on the down low continues. One killing can't reverse decades of inertia and prejudice. And it certainly won't stop the spread of AIDS. Every year, a new group of black men who sleep with men get infected. In fact, between 2000 and 2009, the annual number of newly reported HIV cases among that group in Palm Beach County increased slightly, from 38 to 43.
If there's any lesson to be learned from Williams' death, AIDS activist Robertson says, it's that the community must speak more openly about the problem. "Use yourself as a teachable moment. Your openness may spark someone else to be more open about their sexual orientation or their HIV status... We're gonna keep having people dying because no one is talking about it."
In Williams' neighborhood, the code of silence surrounding homosexuality and AIDS remains firmly intact. Several of his relatives, through an uncle, declined to comment for this article.
The man police identified as Williams' boyfriend is even more defensive. Although he told the police he had been dating Williams for three months, had a key to the apartment, and discovered Williams' body, he now denies that he and Williams had a romantic relationship.
"That is actually false information," he said when reached by phone. "We were not dating. Please don't call my phone again," he added and hung up.
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