Published in the Fall 2007 issue • Newsflash
Gay gangs of New York?
What do you get if you’re a young, black lesbian standing up to male street harassment in New York’s famous gay West Village? If it were up to Shameless: a loud shout-out and a fat shiny medal. But for the New Jersey Four, a group of young women who decided to defend themselves when a man verbally harassed them and spat on them, the answer is a combined sentence of 27 and a half years in prison. The sentence is a clear message to young queers of colour in New York’s gentrifying gaybourhood: stay quiet or stay out.
Venice Brown, 19, Terrain Dandridge, 20, Patreese Johnson, 20, and Renata Hill, 24, were sentenced in August after a year-long court battle where the stakes were set against them from the start. The white judge repeatedly stated that he had no sympathy for the four. The courtroom drama focused on the “gang-like” behaviour of the women, reinforcing a stereotype of criminal black youth. The white women on the jury questioned the four women’s right to be in the Village, asking if they could afford it. Even with video footage that showed their male aggressor pulling out the women’s hair and attempting to choke one of them, the New Jersey Four were branded a predatory “lesbian wolfpack” by the media. National reports of dangerous “gay gangs” began circulating on conservative media channels like Fox News.
The incident provides clues to the changing nature of New York’s West Village. Historically the birthplace of the US gay and lesbian movement, the area has undergone a long process of gentrification. Condo developers and chic businesses have taken over the lowerincome areas. As new waves of rich, white and predominantly heterosexual residents move into the Village, working class people, predominantly queers of colour, can no longer afford to live in the area that they helped establish. FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) points to higher rates of bigoted violence and police brutality against queer youth of colour in the area. FIERCE teaches workshops on legal rights for queer youth and has started a campaign in support of the young lesbians. For more information on how to support the Jersey Four, check out the FIERCE website.