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When finally he made national headlines a year ago this month, it wasn't for anything he had done onstage or in the recording studio. Beaten senseless by four young men in the East Village, Aviance found his image changed overnight from that of an oversize black man with an outsize drag persona to that of an invalid stuck in a wheelchair. Not only couldn't he sing, he could barely talk through jaws wired shut. Aviance became a poster boy for acts of violence targeting gay men. It was the hardest gig he'd ever played.
"I asked myself, 'Will I just be known as the person who was beaten in 2006?' ?" he recalls. "It's not like I was America's 'Idol' or drag queen. I was the American black queen who got beat down. I was getting awards and honorsnot for the music, but for that."
What began as a reluctant parade through a new kind of limelight soon turned into a descent into the personal hell of drug addiction, followed by a hard climb into recovery. Tough as it was to grow up as Kevin Aviance, he is now having to do it all over again.
On the night of June 10, 2006, Aviance was walking on air. He had just finished a photo shoot for the cover of HX Magazine's Gay Pride issue and had been out celebrating with friends at the Phoenix, a bar on East 13th Street. Heading down the sidewalk at about 1 a.m., he heard someone shout, "You're not Diesel," a reference to action-film star Vin Diesel. Other voices yelled "Fucking faggot," "Goddamn queer," and "Who do you think you are?"
Aviance says he was dressed in street clothes: a shirt with a hoodie, shorts ("cutoffs but not Daisy Dukes"), and boots. He was carrying a bag with clothes from the shoot. "I just waved my hands," he recalled. "I was used to these comments. I looked back and they were heaving trash bags at me." Someone hurled a spray-paint can, leftover from an earlier tagging, and missed, then started pummeling Aviance. The others jumped in.
After that, Aviance says, his recollection gets hazy, but he does remember them "kicking me in my head over and over again. They were wearing [Nike] Air Force sneakers. I can still hear their feet in my head." Later reports said that people saw the attack but did nothing. Finally, someone named Tim pulled him off the First Avenue pavement, yelling, "You gotta get up. It's dark. You're dark. A car's going to hit you."
Aviance couldn't speak. Tim (the rescuer was never fully identified) left him at Beth Israel Hospital, where, dazed and bloody, he waited in the emergency room. And waited. And waited. According to Len Evans, Aviance's publicist, "Kevin called me from the hospital on Saturday morning and said, 'They're not believing me. They're not treating this as they should.' There are a lot of homeless who go there. They thought he was trying to get a free room. They dismissed him and told him to go home."
It was only after Evans alerted a reporter friend from WNBC-TV, who interviewed Aviancevia remote; the performer didn't want to appear on TV bloodied and bruisedthat the hospital took his wounds seriously.
So did the rest of the world. First the wire services picked it up, then the all-news cable channels. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn stopped by. Mayor Bloomberg expressed his outrage in an impromptu press conference at the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
"Then he started getting the VIP treatment, when they found out he was a celebrity," said Evans, who added that the hospital tried to make amends by comping his room. With head trauma and a broken jaw, Aviance wasn't going home anytime soon. Worse, this was Gay Pride Month, his busiest season.
It's also the busiest season for gay bashings, according to Clarence Patton, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project. "We're more visible," he said, "and the warmer weather brings more people out on the streets."
The police were initially skeptical of Aviance's story, but the next day they rounded up four suspects: Gerard Johnson, 16; Jarell Sears and Akino George, both 20; and Gregory Archie, 18.
It's not clear whether they went out that night looking for a fag to bash. Often, young men are looking for respect, not trouble, said Cheryl Paradis, a criminologist at Marymount Manhattan College. "They need to show how macho they are," she said. "What do they have? The respect of their peers, street cred, a reputation. It's pretty fragile."