It was one of those non-coincidences New Age types call synchronous. On the same day that the man in Gracie Mansion released one of his periodic, glowing self-evaluations announcing that city streets are now not only virtually crime-free but clean enough to eat off, a small group of activists gathered in City Hall Park to announce that, for them, the opposite is true. “It is clear that the city is steadily growing safer,” alleged Mr. Quality of Life, an hour before advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community released statistics asserting that reports of antigay crime have increased by a staggering 81 percent in the past year. So far in 1998 the NYPD’s bias crime unit has officially classified 76 crimes as motivated by hatred against people perceived to be gay. That’s up from 42 during the same period last year. As it happens, hate crimes against other groups declined during the same period, one reason being the city’s selective response to different types of bias crime.
What’s increasingly clear is that there are hierarchies even among the despised. No sooner had area newscasts shown footage of a bunch of Broad Channel goons dressed up for a local parade in afro wigs and blackface than the mayor himself went on the attack, calling for a complete investigation and the dismissal of cops and firefighters who took part in the stunt. Yet this same mayor, who likes to crow about New York’s “bright and stable future,” has yet to find time for a strong public statement deploring the proliferation of antigay crime.
“His silence is deafening,” says Christine Quinn, the executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “In the past year, there’s been a lot of official antigay rhetoric in the country and it adds up. It confirms people’s hatreds. It gives them permission to act out.” As City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi remarked at Thursday’s news conference, “even here in New York City, which has to be the most tolerant city in the world, there is an acceptability to expressing bigotry against gays and lesbians.”
For all Hevesi’s good intentions, the comptroller was operating from a generalized naïveté. Most people recognize that New York offers no particular refuge from the nationwide cancer of bias. As the gender theorist Eve Sedgwick points out, in the U.S. “the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large,” including “most sites of the state, the military, education, law, penal institutions, the church, medicine, mass culture, and the mental health industries.”
Public space is obviously no safer, as local reports from a period of three days make clear. On September 12, a man exercising in a Bronx park was menaced by six assailants with bottles and bats who told him, “We don’t want your kind here.” (Of course, it’s hard to know what “kind” anyone is without asking.) The same Saturday, two strollers were approached on Eighth Avenue and 16th Street by a man yelling, “Kill all of you fucking faggots.” On Monday, September 14, a lesbian leaving a Park Slope café was confronted by two men who yelled, “You fucking dyke,” then chased and slashed her with a knife. The following afternoon, a disabled, gay Bronx man cashing his SSI check was robbed of $800 by three men who brandished a gun, saying, “Give me your money, maricón.”
While these incidents were at least reported to the cops and officially classified as bias related, many never are. “Our clients are afraid to walk the streets now, or wear a leather jacket or pants,” for fear of being identified as gay, the AVP’s bias-related-crime coordinator Maureen Moran explains. The owner of one Chelsea gay bar recently confirmed on TV that customers were “making a decision to try and appear more straight” in order to avoid harassment.
There is an added problem. “When people get attacked,” says Moran, “they’re afraid to go to the police. Too often the police say, ‘Well, they only called you a faggot,’ or ‘They only called you a lesbian.’ I tell them everyone has a right to make a police report.”
But what good is a police report without a police response? It took three murders and repeated reports of antigay bias crimes before Police Commissioner Howard Safir saw fit to increase the number of officers in Greenwich Village’s Sixth Precinct. “Certainly we do not have an epidemic” of bias crime, Safir claimed.
Most of the officers assigned to the precinct were given undercover assignments. They wear plainclothes. “They’re going after the transgendered prostitutes,” says the AVP’s Quinn. “Prostitution clearly is not the biggest problem facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community at this moment.”
Fear is. “By the mayor not saying anything, it truly devalues people,” transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, one of the original Stonewall drag queens, remarked on Thursday. “I’ve never been so paranoid before. People are being attacked in broad daylight and it’s a horrifying feeling. I take side streets from my job to avoid getting harassed. I never felt this siege before. The Village has been our ghetto for the longest time.”