I first moved to New York when I was 24 years old and I was accepted into a doctoral program in psychology at Columbia University. Some college friends from my undergraduate university in Southern California were already living in New York and invited me to move in with them in a small two-bedroom apartment in the West Village.
I was a naïve Californian, who had just completed a two-year tenure in Michigan, and I didn’t really know much about my neighborhood. When I told people where I was moving, I usually said that it was where the “Friends” characters lived or where the tenth season of the “Real World” was filmed.
However, when I actually moved to the Big Apple a month later, I quickly learned that the neighborhood where I would spend the first three years of my New York life was the home of the Stonewall Inn and the mecca of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Rights Movement.
Perhaps I didn’t know much about Stonewall because I was still in the closet. While I had been living a “secret” life as a gay man for most of my life, the lingering pressures of coming from a Catholic, Filipino family prevented me from ever coming to terms with my sexual identity.
I didn’t tell many people that I was gay — not my family in California, not my family that lived off the last stop of the F-Train in Jamaica, Queens, and not even my roommates who I shared a wall with. I wasn’t ready. I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted. I was scared that I would lose everything (and everyone) in my life.
But somehow, everything changed.
I started exploring my neighborhood and began to frequent some of the local gay bars. I began to meet all kinds of LGBTQ people -– particularly gay men, transgender women, and even a few drag queens. At least once a week, I would go to the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, the same place where the LGBTQ movement began over 30 years prior when a bunch of brave transgender women and gay men fought back against a police raid.
My favorite nights at Stonewall circa 2002 were the “Hip Hop Nights;” I would enter a room where a bunch of gay and queer men of color were bobbing their heads to the sounds of Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. I could be a person of color and gay at the same time, and it was okay.
I made several friends in the West Village, and I even met a few lovers. It felt so free and invigorating to hold another man’s hand in public for the first time in my life. I felt safe. I felt proud. It was time for me to come out of the closet.
Eleven years later, a few things have changed. First, over time, I had lived in two other LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods in Manhattan: Hell’s Kitchen (which is adjacent to Times Square) and Chelsea (where I currently live). I graduated from my Ph.D. program, wrote a few books, and eventually became a tenured professor. And most importantly, I finally met the love of my life, and we have been unofficially living together for the past nine months. I plan on marrying him someday and I am proud to be a resident of a state where that would be legal.
However, lately, I haven’t been so proud of my state or my city.
In the past three weeks, there have been a string of hate crimes against gay men in Manhattan, and one resulted in death. On May 5th, a gay couple was attacked in broad daylight outside of Madison Square Garden, right after a New York Knicks game, while a different gay couple was assaulted a few days later, a few blocks away. A gay man was attacked while leaving a bar in the West Village, and another gay man in Union Square was punched in the face and robbed. With all of these incidents, the assailants were heard yelling homophobic slurs, right before — and while — they assaulted their victims.
On Thursday, May 16th, I attended a protest, in front of Madison Square Garden, right before a Knicks game. With the theme of “Queers Take Back the Night,” over a hundred LGBTQ people and allies stood silently with signs as Knicks fans entered the arena. Some passers-by respectfully walked by, while many snickered or scoffed at our presence.
A few LGBTQ leaders spoke passionately on a megaphone, and the nonviolent group walked with their signs and flyers down 8th Avenue. For some, it was important to educate people about the string of anti-LGBT hate crimes and for others, the purpose was to reclaim the streets they once viewed as safe.
Apparently, the peaceful protest didn’t work.
On May 18th, shortly after midnight, Mark Carson, a 32-year old, gay African American man was walking with a friend in the West Village, when a group of men began to verbally harass them with homophobic taunts. One of the men followed the pair and shot Mark Carson in the face; he died shortly after.
Less than 24 hours later, I attended a candlelight vigil in honor of Mr. Carson, located right where he was killed. Several hundred people were in attendance, and I heard the phrase “It could have been any of us” throughout the night. On Monday night, a more organized rally was held to honor Mr. Carson. While I personally could not attend, I was there in spirit with the thousands of people who marched in the West Village and held signs that read “Stop the Hate!” and “Marriage means nothing if we are being gunned down.” Leaders of the LGBTQ community, politicians, and even members of Mr. Carson’s family spoke.
Sadly, this protest didn’t work either.
A few hours later in the East Village, a gay man was attacked after disclosing to an acquaintance that he was gay. A few more hours later in Soho, a gay couple was the verbal target of anti-gay slurs, right before they were physically assaulted. These last two incidents bring the total number to seven anti-gay hate crimes in a span of 20 days. Perhaps we need to do more than just protest and rally.
Some members of the LGBTQ community want to fight back, by taking self-defense classes or arming themselves. Others want more police presence in LGBTQ neighborhoods, and others want to organize “safety by numbers” programs. While I can see some merit in some of these responses, my recommendation is simple: 1) Talk about these issues, 2) Don’t assume, and 3) Take a stand.
We have to start talking to our family members, friends, and acquaintances about what is happening. Post on your Facebook and Twitter pages. Send emails to listserves across the country, but also to your personal networks. While there is some coverage on mainstream news sources, most people are unaware of what is happening. Tell people about what happened to Mark Carson, so that his death is not in vain. It is way too common for LGBTQ people (particularly transgender people and LGBTQ people of color) to be victims of heinous crimes and for their names to be forgotten. I will not forget Sakia Gunn, Stephen Lopez Mercado, or Lorena Escalera, and we cannot forget Mark Carson either.
Secondly, don’t assume anything. In the past couple of weeks, I have had lots of conversations with friends who say things like “Things like this don’t happen in New York.” But, they do. It is quite common for my boyfriend and I to hear homophobic slurs as we walk down the streets of Manhattan. It wasn’t too long ago that a man in Hells Kitchen shoved me and called me a “faggot” as I walked by holding my boyfriend’s hand. Luckily nothing else happened, and after these past few weeks’ events, I am thankful that nothing did.
I’ve also had a lot of conversations with friends who say things like “I don’t think I know any homophobic people.” When I ask if they’ve talked about homophobia with their brothers, cousins, or friends directly, the common response is “No.” Of course we don’t want to believe that anyone in our lives is homophobic (or racist, sexist, etc.), but unless we talk about their views directly, we really don’t know.
When perpetrators of school shootings or serial killings are arrested, most people claim that they didn’t know the person was hateful, sociopathic, or mentally ill. When a person commits suicide, a lot of people will say they didn’t know the person was depressed or suicidal. And this is why we need to ask.
Finally, take a stand. Tell people that homophobia and transphobia is unacceptable. When people use biased language like “That’s So Gay” or “No Homo,” point out how those words are wrong and hurtful. When we allow these microaggressive, anti-LGBTQ behaviors to continue, we create an environment where people believe it is acceptable to hate or discriminate against LGBTQ people. And if these hateful environments persist, the violence will continue.
I share all of this with you because I don’t want to be afraid to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. I don’t want to feel unsafe again. I don’t want to live my life in fear. And I don’t want to go back into the closet.
But I need your help.
Dr. Kevin Nadal is an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His fourth book, “That’s So Gay: Microaggressions and the LGBT Community,” was published in February.