This week, communities in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Maryland have organized candlelight vigils to mourn the loss of Dr. Gaurav Gopalan, a 35-year-old gay South Asian aeronautics engineer and theater artist who was murdered near his home in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. on September 10, 2011.
Gopalan was returning home from a night out when he was killed. A passerby found him unconscious, and he died shortly thereafter. He did not have I.D. on him when he was found, and his body was not identified until the evening of September 13. An initial report from the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office stated he died of natural causes - a brain hemorrhage, perhaps caused by an embolism. The report indicated his body displayed no external signs of trauma. However, a second report ten days after Gopalan’s death indicated the manner of death was homicide, caused by blunt trauma to his head. Some believe he was killed during a crime of opportunity, an attempted theft of his car, as his car keys were missing. Others believe his murder was a hate crime, citing the fact that he was dressed in drag when he was killed, and that he had money and jewelry on his person when his body was found. The police investigation is ongoing, and no leads have been released about suspects.
By all accounts, the world has lost a multi-faceted, multi-talented man. By day, Gopalan was an aeronautical engineer, specializing in helicopter rotors and focused on building his own consulting company. He grew up in India, relocated to Nepal with his parents and brother, and emigrated to the U.S. to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. In his spare time, he was a member of Khush DC, a South Asian LGBT community organization, and was especially active in D.C.’s theater scene. He had been a member of WSC Avant Bard, a performance company focused on classic works, since 2006.
Friends say Gopalan relished the theater, and especially the works of Shakespeare, with a passion rarely seen. Christopher Henley, WSC’s Artistic Director, told the Washington City Paper, “He just out of the blue contacted the theater, and said ‘I love Shakespeare, I’ll do anything,” and asked to join the company. He worked on a WSC production of Richard II, and was soon asked to serve as WSC’s resident assistant director.
Henley’s husband, Jay Hardee, spoke with GLAAD and added, “His passion for Shakespeare was almost religious. His mother had a Ph.D. in literature, and he was raised on the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He was passionate about classical Sanskrit works, and served as the cultural advisor for a recent production of the Ramayana at the Constellation. His dramaturge notes were so beautifully written that people are already suggesting they be compiled and published.”
Gopalan’s passion often made an instant impact on those he collaborated with. Deen, a South Asian, transgender theater artist who acted in a WCS play that Gopalan directed, shared, “I met Gaurav in the fall of 2008, when I was cast in a play at WSC that he was directing. He was an extremely enthusiastic director with so much energy, it was rewarding to be around him. It carried over into the rest of his life, too. He had a passion for life that was boyish and fresh and exciting, and I will always remember that about him.”
Gopalan is survived by his partner of five years, Bob Shaeffer. In an interview with GLAAD, Shaeffer shared his reflections on Gopalan’s life and death, stating,
We had a perfect, beautiful relationship, he was the most, caring loving person. We met five years ago, October 1st would have been our fifth anniversary. That’s the day we had coffee together at my house - we sat for hours and talked, and played La Vie en Rose by Edith Piaf on repeat. We shared our hopes and our dreams together from that night forward. The night he was killed, before he went out, we recommitted our love for one another. He was preparing to visit his family in Nepal for three or four months, and we talked about how much we would miss each other and how much we loved each other. We were planning to get married next year - we would have done sooner, but we didn’t want to jeopardize his citizenship application. We swore to each other we would be together forever, and I really believe we would have. I always assumed I would be the one to go first, given I’m thirty years older than Gaurav, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get over this loss.
Gopalan’s friends and colleagues in the D.C. theater community and in Khush DC organized a candlelight vigil in Gaurav’s memory on Sunday, both to honor his life, and to increase public awareness of the string of attacks and murders of LGBT community members in recent months.
Puesh Kumar, president of Khush DC, stated, “I think the vigil is a great way to shed light on any type of hate happening in our community, and to remember Gaurav. So many different types of communities are coming to together to take a stand against hate in DC. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter that we read at the vigil, and City Councilmember Jim Graham [D-Ward 1] attended.”
Gopalan’s life and death has been covered by a variety of media outlets, including Metro Weekly, the Washington City Paper, the Huffington Post, Fox News and DC Theatre Scene.
A solidarity vigil organized by Trikone Bay Area, a South Asian LGBT group in San Francisco, was held on Friday.
Another vigil, organized by Gopalan’s engineering colleagues, will be held at the University of Maryland tonight.
D.C. police are asking anyone with information that could help in their investigation into Gopalan’s murder to contact them at 202-727-9099 or via the police crime solver’s line, where anonymous tips can be given, at 1-800-673-2777.
GLAAD mourns Gaurav Gopalan’s death and offers deep sympathies to his loved ones and all who loved him during this difficult time.