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 speakers—the 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 Aviance—early morning Saturday, June 10, four attackers between 16 and 20 years old broke his jaw and caused numerous head, neck, and knee injuries—shortly 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 insults—like 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 incidents—including any crime from a harassment case up to a serious assault—compared 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. Short—a strapping 5’11”, 180-pound guy, born and raised in Queens, who speaks with a thick New York accent—was 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 Hill gets 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 shocked—now I’ve gotten used to it. Back in ’97, the only person that might harass you was someone asking for spare change.”
House DJ Honey Dijon adds that if she was harassed as a black gay man in drag in the mid ’90s, it’s even worse now as a black woman. “I didn’t get hit on until after I transitioned,” she says. “I wish everyone understood what women go through. It’s been an incredible education. I get more comments as a woman than I did before. Women are not threatening to men. Even if you are a drag queen, you’re still a man.”
It’s doubly hard to square the frequency of gay bashings with the public perception that it’s OK to be gay. “Just because we have gay TV shows and all that, these things are just a fantasy,” Dijon says. “It’s like two different realities. It’s like The Matrix. There’s the virtual reality and what’s happening in the real world. And what’s happening on the street is a reflection of what our larger government and religious institutions are doing. What’s the difference between what the government did in Iraq and what they did to Kevin Aviance? One is sanctioned and the other is not?”
Publicist Len Evans, speaking on Aviance’s behalf, echoes that sentiment: “He blames President Bush for all of this. He is trying to ban gay marriage—what message is he putting out to us, that gay culture is not accepted? He’s our leader, and he’s telling us gay marriage can be banned?”
Gay-bashing numbers sometimes spike in the months leading up to and including Pride celebrations—June, July, and August. Thus, Aviance’s attack was not just brutal, but professionally devastating. “This period of time is when he makes the money for the year,” says Aviance’s lawyer, Jay Sanchez. “He can’t make it because he can’t perform.” Like other self-employed artists, Aviance doesn’t have health care to pay for the broken jaw that’s been wired shut, or his fractured knee and neck. A fund has been set up through the Anti-Violence Project—send donations to the attention of Joseph Turla, care of Anti-Violence Project, 240 West 35th Street, Suite 200, 10001.
In addition to Saturday’s rally held at the site of Aviance’s attack, there are also several benefits in Aviance’s honor, including one at the Cock on Thursday, June 29, with fellow House of Aviance member Kim Aviance and Ari Gold performing; and another co-benefiting FIERCE on Sunday, June 25, at the Knitting Factory. Aviance himself will make a single Pride appearance—though he will not perform—at Vasquez’s party at Spirit that Sunday.
“I’m a human being,” Honey Dijon says. “Everyone wants to be treated as a human being, and what happened to Kevin was inhumane.”