Homophobic attacks can happen anywhere at any time, and for me that is the scariest thing. You can be doing your grocery shopping or walking to work and encounter discrimination. You can be kissing your partner in public and have slurs shouted at you. Right on the New York City sidewalk, in broad daylight or otherwise, you can get shoved, or worse, beaten up. These scenarios are not uncommon.
Our latest tragedy was the death of Mark Carson, a man who was shot because he was gay. It happened in the heart of the West Village, near the historic Stonewall Inn, in a neighborhood where the LGBT community is present and lively and where people feel safe and accepted. His death sparked the largest community response in years, which culminated in a May 20 rally attended by at least 1,500 people, including many of the city’s most prominent politicians.
Carson’s death is just one of the hundreds of homophobic and transphobic (marked by fear of transgender people) attacks that happen on a yearly basis in the United States. In New York, we’ve seen an increase in these sorts of attacks in the just the last few months; Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, at a press conference after Carson’s death, laid out the numbers: there have been 22 bias-motivated crimes in New York City this year, up “significantly” from 13 at this time last year.
Like many, I have also experienced anti-LGBT harassment. Perhaps the most distressing of these was an incident that occurred on the New York subway in 2011, when I was headed with a group of Hispanic LGBT youth from the Make the Road NY office in Queens — where I have been an activist and organizer for several years — to Lower Manhattan on the M train. We were on our way to a weekend camping retreat for young LGBT people, organized by an organization called Project Reach. Most of the participants had never experienced being with other LGBT youth for a weekend and the thought filled them with joy as they held their camping gear and excitedly discussed what they wanted to learn, who would help cook breakfast, and how wonderful it was to journey outside the city.
Those feelings of excitement turned into fear and discomfort when a middle-aged woman began screaming homophobic names at us. The words — “Dykes!” “Faggots!” “Lesbians!” “Devils!” — rang in our ears as the train moved, ever so slowly, to the next station. When we finally reached it we left the subway car, shaken and with our eyes tearing.
In that moment I was reminded that homophobia is everywhere and does not turn a blind eye toward anyone. And while much has been said about the increase in hate crimes against LGBT New Yorkers after Carson’s death, there are also LGBT community members who hesitate to call the NYPD for support if they are victims of a hate crime. I have seen numerous people of color, low-income New Yorkers and LGBT folks affected by police harassment, a trend that makes it even more difficult for vulnerable communities to feel safe. Victims of police harassment have organized to ensure police accountability through Communities United for Police Reform, a campaign to end discriminatory policing practices.
Understanding the demands of the LGBT community is not easy, especially because homophobia and transphobia come in many different forms. While we know that youth and transgender people are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, the bullying a young person may face in school or at home differs from the harassment a transgender person may experience on the street or in the workplace, and these kinds of discrimination must be battled with different strategies.
In Queens, Make the Road has been one of the few organizations fighting homophobia and transphobia. In Jackson Heights, a predominantly working class, immigrant community, where its office is based and where I live, the Make the Road model creates a link between young people of color, parents, immigrant workers, tenants and LGBT folks. Such community support creates real visible change, which can be seen when heterosexual allies explain to a group of non-LGBTQ people that the LGBT community deserves to be respected, or when politicians pay attention to people speaking about how unfair legislation affects diverse groups of people, including those who are LGBT. We are seeing that on both the personal and political level, people increasingly feel that LGBT rights are also immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, tenants’ rights and human rights, and this is creating a much stronger and more connected movement.