An Editorial by Gamal Hennessy
There have been several high profile attacks in and around gay bars in the past month. These crimes, combined with the bias attacks occurring on college campuses and the anti gay rhetoric in the current race for governor threaten to erode social progress made over the last forty years and destroy New York’s reputation as a progressive and liberal city. Unless we are willing to let society slide back to a period of fear and oppression, political and community leaders need to respond aggressively and vocally to this situation. Instead of allowing bias attacks to spiral out of control, this is a chance for City Hall and nightlife to work together to solve a common problem.
Individuality based on sexual identity has a home in nightlife that it historically hasn’t had anywhere else. Before gay characters in sitcoms, before Queer Eye and L Word, before same sex marriage laws, even before Stonewall, people who were isolated and marginalized due to their sexual preferences came to nightlife venues seeking acceptance and connection. Lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, transvestites, cross dressers, swingers and fetishists each has an individual scene in New York nightlife where they can connect with that aspect of their identity without being judged, rejected or attacked. People who are unsure about who they are or who they are attracted to, and people who can’t publicly express their sexuality to their families or at their jobs can live that part of their lives in the scenes that exist at night. Behavior that is considered “deviant” in normal society is little more than a venue choice in New York nightlife. Even monogamous heterosexual behavior that society labels “normal” has a home in nightlife, one that isn’t readily available in normal life - because our culture encourages people to go beyond the repressive standards of polite modern society to feed their basic desires.
The problem is that some fanatics decide that people deserve to be attacked because of their sexual preferences and they use nightlife venues as hunting grounds for their predatory violence. The recent spate of attacks are examples of this disturbing trend. The fanatics who committed crimes in Chelsea and Stonewall went to a predominantly gay neighborhood and into gay bars to find their victims. They attacked a group that they perceived to be weak and marginalized. They didn’t fear retaliation from the patrons of the bar or the police. Based on reports of the attacks, it is safe to surmise that these fanatics deserved to be attacked purely because of their sexual preference.
It is important to understand that the cause of the attack does not stem from the victim or the environment he or she might be in. The cause and the responsibility for the attack lies with the fanatic and his motivations. Predatory violence is often committed by people with low self-esteem that existed long before the actual crime unfolded. The anger, frustration, hatred and self loathing that fuels their anger has very little to do with the victim. It is a product of their unhappiness with life in general. Unfortunately, these people use violent confrontation momentarily re-establish their feeling of self-righteous power. They just need an unwitting volunteer to unleash that anger upon. Some of them have decided to find their volunteers in and around gay clubs.
There are several major reasons why community leaders need to come together to deal with this issue quickly and decisively. New York nightlife is an industry that employs more than 30,000 people, generates more than 10 billion dollars in annual revenue and attracts millions of people into the city. If New York nightlife becomes known for homophobic violence, the entire city will suffer even if that violence is rare and isolated. Fewer nightlife patrons will come to New York, less money will flow through the city as a whole. Jobs and prestige will be lost. Paul Seres, president of the New York Nightlife Association recently asserted that dealing with the recent attacks is not a gay issue, or even a nightlife issue. It is a New York City issue.
The response can come in several forms that work together to create a better environment. A city wide advertising campaign that warns potential fanatics about the penalties for bias attacks can be used in the same way that warnings about attacking MTA workers are currently used. A second campaign promoting New York as a city that accepts different lifestyles, religions and races can counteract the recent negative press. The NYPD can re-establish the units dedicated to nightlife venues so operators knew they could call on police who were familiar with bias attacks in the nightlife environment. New requirements under discussion for nightlife security can include training in bias attacks. More generally, nightlife natives need to make it very clear that no matter what their personal sexual preference might be, they won’t stand for predatory violence when they go out.
This is not a call for less nightlife or more restrictive rules on clubs. Punishing the operators and the patrons for the cowardly acts of a handful of people will validate their actions. Whatever action is taken to solve this problem it must be done with the idea that it is the fanatics who are the culprits, not victims or clubs.
In spite of the recent rise wave of anti gay sentiment, this type of violence is not as prevalent in nightlife as it was in the past. However it is still a type of sex related violence that needs to be addressed by City Hall, the NYPD and the nightlife community before the problem gets any worse. Homophobic violence might stem from a fanatic’s personal insecurity with his own masculinity, but the rest of the community doesn’t have to suffer for it.