By Jared Chausow
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The first time I saw reknowned drag performer Kevin Aviance was at Twilo in 1997. Junior Vasquez's signature stompy house served as the soundtrack for a fun, serviceable time, but by four in the morning go-go boys in matching Speedos had begun gyrating on the speakersthe witching hour had arrived. I was tired and wanted to go home. But someone insisted otherwise: "Wait for Kevin. He goes on at 6."
How to explain the essence of Kevin Aviance? Well over six feet tall in sneakers, he's Amazonian. He wore a slinky black dress and a sweeping, circular black hat. He was not unlike Grace Jones, but also not quite like anyone I'd seen before. He stormed Twilo's tiny stage and lip-synched his hit "Din Da Da," a weird, abstract house record. He made me feel like I'd been inducted into some secret society: I'd become a real New Yorker.
The brutal attack on Avianceearly morning Saturday, June 10, four attackers between 16 and 20 years old broke his jaw and caused numerous head, neck, and knee injuriesshortly after he'd left the Phoenix, an East Village gay bar on 13th and Avenue A, initially seemed so shocking to us New Yorkers. But it shouldn't have. "It happens more frequently than people realize," say Clarence Patton, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. "We try to let people know every time a case catches the attention of people. They tend to think there must be a real jump in these things, but that's not necessarily the case. The fact is those types of things happen all the time. That's why we're still here. We haven't quite figured out a way to go out of business."
The 26-year-old institution tracks everything from casual verbal insultslike being called a "faggot"to more serious attacks. In 2005 there were 566 total incidents, with 233 of those classified as assaults. A hate crime triggers a harsher legal penalty, so a third-degree felony would become a second-degree if hate is proven to be a mitigating factor. But the New York Police Department has considerably lower numbers than the Anti-Violence Projects' partially because people often feel more comfortable talking to the AVP than the police. Officer Kevin Czartoryski, a police spokesperson, says the number of anti-LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) incidents in 2006 are up from last year; so far they've recorded 22 such incidentsincluding any crime from a harassment case up to a serious assaultcompared with 17 in all of 2005.
In fact, the same weekend Aviance was assaulted, there were two other gay-bashing incidents in Queens. Furthermore, Paul Short, a prominent promoter and bouncer for several leather and bear parties. was attacked after leaving a leather party at Siberia in Hell's Kitchen May 20. Shorta strapping 5'11", 180-pound guy, born and raised in Queens, who speaks with a thick New York accentwas dressed in full leather gear, walking down Ninth Avenue, when a guy walking alongside suddenly clocked him in the face. Though the assailant never yelled any slurs, Short had no doubt as to his motivation: "I looked totally gay."
The cops came but couldn't find the suspect, and the case was closed that night, recalls Short, who missed three weeks of work and has already had two operations to fix the broken bones in his eye socket, with a third still possibly necessary. After the incident, Short says people suddenly revealed their own gay-bashing tales. "So many people had stories worse than mine," he says."They were bashed with bats, irons. It's an ongoing thing, to tell you the truth. It just doesn't get reported much."
But there was a silver lining: Short's boyfriend bonded with his family. "He really met my father," Short recalls. "Each surgery is three hours, and they'd have margaritas together. My father said, 'You've got a great guy. You're really lucky.' That never would have happened in a hundred years."
Much has been made of press reports that Aviance wasn't in drag when he was attacked; Short stressed that he personally was dressed in ultra-macho leather gear. The unspoken implication is that the gay men who are more effeminate or are "swishy" are even easier targets, in a sense "asking for it," like girls wearing short skirts. And what about transgender performers? Even a downtown fixture like cabaret comic Murray Hillgets harassed in neighborhoods where gays and lesbians rule the roost, and where posters advertising his performances are plastered everywhere.
"I never really feel safe in the East Village anymore," Hill writes in an e-mail. "There used to be a time when I could walk down Avenue A at 8 p.m. or 3 a.m., and people would stop and say hello to me. About three years ago, I started getting verbally harassed on Avenue A by young guys that were recent transplants or visitors to the East Village. The button-down and baseball cap type. I certainly don't get a sense they knew the neighborhood's history at all. At first I was literally shockednow I've gotten used to it. Back in '97, the only person that might harass you was someone asking for spare change."