In one of the largest outpourings of grassroots outrage in recent memory, hundreds of LGBT activists and their supporters marched through Greenwich Village at midday on Saturday, June 17 to reclaim the streets after the gay-bashing of drag queen star Kevin Aviance the week before.
“Whose streets?” out state Senator Tom Duane shouted as the demonstrators gathered at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue, a block from the scene of the crime. “Our streets! The LGBT community will never be afraid!”
Just as the rally in Sheridan Square that followed a march from the East Village was getting started, Aviance himself made a dramatic appearance, speaking through teeth clenched by a wired broken jaw from the assault by four young men. Four suspects have been arrested and charged with hate crimes.
“What’s up New York?” Aviance said to cheers and shouts of “We love you.”
“You can’t keep a good queen down,” he said. “Stop the violence! Stop the hate! Love, love, love!”
Aviance said he was tired, hungry, and in pain, but proclaimed, “I’ll get better.”
Asked why he was so upbeat, he credited his God and “the way my mother brought me up.” Aviance said he had no intention of leaving New York, calling it “the only place I could live. They can’t take my spirit away.”
And when asked what needed to be done to combat anti-LGBT violence, he said, “It starts with you. You have to stop the hate. I am only one person.”
More than 700 turned out in support.
Tony Frankenberg, 38, a teacher at the Hunter School of Social Work, got the ball rolling with an e-mail soon after the attack on Aviance, calling for a demonstration from the East Village at 5 p.m.
“I was outraged when I heard about this,” he said. “It is horrifying that this was against someone who is so much a symbol of our freedom—so fully himself. That attacks all of us.”
The Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP), led by executive director Clarence Patton, soon came on board and moved the action to 2 p.m. and were joined by drag leaders such as Hedda Lettuce, who keynoted the rally.
“The government is condoning our deaths,” said Hedda, mounting a lamppost in Sheridan Square. “The president is telling us that we are second-class citizens and should be killed. There are a lot of stupid people who listen to George Bush. We have to learn to defend ourselves and look after each other.”
Hedda also called for “embracing all our differences. We’re not just gay people wearing suits and adopting children.”
Pornographer Michael Lucas, who also spoke at the rally, accused mainstream gay groups of trying to represent us as “straight-acting professionals.”
The attack on Aviance has also raised awareness of the need to have a strategy when attacked.
“Be careful,” Hedda said. “The best defense is really running, but if you can’t, stop, drop, and roll.”
She also attacked Mayor Michael Bloomberg for failing to appear and for giving so much money to the Republican Party.
Some political leaders were on hand, including Duane, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and City Councilman Eric Gioa of Queens whose district is near the multiple anti-gay attacks in Astoria the same weekend as the Aviance assault. LGBT leaders in Queens are planning a public response to those attacks, which involved a baseball bat assault on one of three gay man targeted early Saturday, June 10, and the stalking of a gay man early the next morning on the N train which led to him being thrown down the stairs of an elevated station platform and kicked in the head as he lay helpless on the ground.
Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who represents the area where Aviance was attacked, is an out lesbian and said that she has “experienced acceptance” in the district. When she speaks in local schools, she talks about “being a girl who likes girls” and hears from children who have gay or lesbian parents. She hopes that Bloomberg will revisit his decision not to enforce the comprehensive school anti-bullying law that the Council passed several years ago.
With Speaker Christine Quinn, Mendez visited Aviance in the hospital shortly after the assault.
“He’s said everyone has been so helpful,” Mendez reported. “He’s seen everyone’s humanity. That’s what this city has been about.”
Chris Cooper, a veteran gay activist and East Village resident, said, “I don’t know if anti-gay attacks happen here more than anywhere else. I hold my boyfriend’s hand here. But I’m going to start carrying pepper spray again.”
Eva Yaa Asantewaa, dance critic for this newspaper, said, “People are encouraged to do violence from the messages coming out of Washington and the churches.” She wonders if the 16-year old who was allegedly part of this attack “will ever get the help he needs” and if the cycle of violence will be broken.
Joe Kennedy, whose contributions go back to the Gay Activists Alliance in the early ‘70s, felt that when attacks like this take place, “queers have to bash back.” He said, “It is only the hardcore that gay-bashes and they have to know there are enough of us and we have the law and everyone else on our side.”
Many of the demonstrators said that they themselves have survived gay-bashings. Ted Rauch, 72, recalled anti-gay attacks on himself in the 1950s and ‘60s. Brendan Fay, 48, of the Lavender and Green Alliance, was stabbed in Williamsburg in the early 1990s, but finds his Astoria neighborhood welcoming despite the recent spate of attacks there.
Sebastian Maguire, 29, of the Metropolitan Community Church said when he complained to police about anti-gay harassment in Brooklyn and at the South Street Seaport, their reply was, “If we don’t see blood, we can’t do anything.” He said he had not experienced problems living in Jackson Heights.
Patrick Hartz, 27, said that he was out in the same area the night Aviance was attacked. “It’s my wake-up call,” he said. “We need to be more aware.”
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a former head of AVP, said, as he marched along 13th Street, “People are not born hating gay people—they learn it.” He hopes the state will finally pass a school anti-bullying law. As a city Human Rights Commissioner, he will be asking the mayor to do more as well.
Rich Volo, 36, of BigGayApple.com, remembers coming to the East Village in 1992 and always walking in the middle of the street at night for safety, though not in recent years. He’s more on guard after the attack on Aviance, but said, “It’s nice to see a demo again.”
AVP itself grew out of the Chelsea Gay Association that formed to combat anti-gay violence in that emerging gay area in the late 1970s. With this action, Patton said, “We’re getting back to our neighborhood roots—challenging ourselves and the broader community to pay more attention to this issue.”
Officer Thomas Verni, of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau, told Gay City News this week that the youngest arrestee in the Aviance case, Gerard Johnson, 16, of East 20th Street, who may be trying to mount a “gay panic defense,” is a member of the Bloods gang and “gangs are particularly homophobic.” He did not get a sense from canvassing the area where Aviance was attacked, however, that these incidents are becoming more common.