When Queers Bash Back

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Members of the LGBT community and their supporters gather to protest a string of anti-gay attacks, including the fatal shooting of 32-year old Mark Carson on Saturday.

On the oak-lined streets of the West Village in New York City—the home of Stonewall, the birthplace of the American gay-rights movement—or among the gym bunnies in Chelsea, gay people are allowed to feel safe. In case the same-sex couples with pastel cardigans walking their dogs aren’t enough, the chipped rainbow decals on the storefronts are there to remind you: You own this space. Going home to Tennessee or Michigan might be another thing, but here you can forget that somewhere out there, there are people who don’t know you and want to hurt you.

The feeling of sanctuary that hovers over the city makes the spate of crimes against gay people in New York over the past week that much more unsettling. First, on Sunday there was the murder of 33-year-old Mark Carson on Sixth Avenue. Shortly after midnight, Carson and a male companion stopped to confront a drunk man yelling anti-gay epithets at them. “Do you want to die right now?” Elliot Morales asked before putting a .38-caliber bullet in Carson’s head, leaving him dead on the sidewalk. The next day in the East Village, Daniel Contarino was beaten unconscious after sharing drinks with Gabriel Roman, who “snapped” after Contarino said he was gay. "Are you a fucking faggot? Why are you a faggot?" Roman said as he pummeled Contarino. Hours later in SoHo, a gay man was punched in the face after he and his partner stood up to Fabian Ortiz and Pedro Jimenez, who had called them "faggots" and "maricones" as they walked by.

Aside from horror and expressions of sympathy for the victims, the reaction from the gay blogosphere has centered around two questions: How do these things happen in New York? and Are hate-crime laws of any use? 

Researchers have yet to settle the question of whether hate-crime laws have a deterrent effect; statistics on hate crimes are unreliable—law-enforcement agencies are not required to keep them, and the way they are counted is not standardized. But critics are probably right that they don't. Face it: When you're among the club crowd in the East Village at two in the morning, you're not in the realm of the rational. 

But that's not the point of these laws. Hate-crime laws send a message on behalf of the community: We will not tolerate prejudice. They are the legal equivalent of those rainbow decals on storefront windows. They tell gay people that they are valued, that they have as much ownership of our public spaces as anyone else does. Whenever I reflect on the matter, I feel grateful that the straight members of my community value me enough to make that point.

But the idea that discrimination won't occur in a place where there are strong legal rights and protections for gay people is naive; if anything, it is precisely where gay rights are pushing the envelope that you're most likely to see a backlash. If you look at the rate of hate crimes by state, you'd be surprised to see that New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.—all places with marriage equality and strong protections for LGBT people—are in the top 20. Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts hold the first and fifth slots, respectively. This makes sense: Places where there are more out gay people present more opportunities for them to be victims of bias-motivated crimes.

In fact, the only time I've experienced anti-gay discrimination was smack in the middle of Manhattan, at Overlook Bar on 44th Street. While my partner and I were waiting for the bartender, a drunk man slouched over the bar struck up a conversation with me. It was the sort of interaction any of us has had many times: someone way more drunk than you treats you like their new best friend, you nod and try to be friendly in response. When the drinks arrived, the man told us he was one of the owners and that they were on him. But his demeanor changed quickly when I put my arm around my partner and handed him the glass. "Are you guys gay?" he asked, shaking his head. "I'm not okay with that." He went on for a few minutes. "Gayness is wrong," he kept saying, to which I kept replying "Why do you care?" This repeated itself until he called the bouncer over and kicked us out.

Getting thrown out of a bar is trivial compared to being beaten or murdered for being gay, but note that in all of these instances, neither federal hate-crime laws nor New York City's anti-discrimination protections stopped some drunk guy from going after a gay person. And in each of these cases, the situation escalated after the homophobe was confronted. In the same way the takeaway is not that gay people should meekly accept harassment, neither is it the case that hate-crime and anti-discrimination laws are useless because they fail to stop gay people from ever being victimized.

In the long run, the only way to make anti-gay hate crimes less frequent is by changing the culture. This happens, as my colleague E.J. Graff has pointed out, through countless face-to-face interactions in which our neighbors realize we aren't the monsters some have painted us out to be. It happens by passing positive gay-rights legislation like marriage equality as well as codifying society's disapproval of anti-gay prejudice in hate-crimes laws. In these cases, it's a long-term game.

Change also happens when gay people are bold enough to stand up to prejudice, to turn around and confront the asshole who just called you a fag. This creates friction, and in the most tragic cases leads to violence. But I don't think any of us would be satisfied with the alternative. In light of the attacks, for the next few weeks I imagine gay men in New York will be far more likely to bite their tongue and keep walking when epithets are hurled at them on the street. They'll look over their shoulder a bit more, be a bit more conscious in public spaces that they're gay and that some people are "not okay with that." But my hope is that that caution will quickly wear off and that gay New Yorkers get back to being their brash selves. In the long run, the more gay guys are willing to make a scene when someone calls them a fag, the fewer drunk assholes there will be to call them one.

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