30 June 2009

Leslie Mora and Jackson Heights

As much as my life as a woman has brought me so much more joy than living as a man ever did, I realize there is a risk of violence that I never faced when I was a man. Part of that has to do with the dangers that any woman faces.

For example, when I was living as a male, I almost never thought about where or when I was going. I walked through abandoned alleys in the wee hours of morning; I stayed out late for parties and such and never worried about getting home safely, even when I lived in a couple of urban combat zones.

But now I am more careful. When I'm riding my bike, there are places I avoid. And, when I teach night classes, if I miss the bus after getting off the subway, I don't walk: Along one stretch of the route from the subway station to my place, there's a stretch of auto body shops and such that's deserted after sundown. Other women advised me not to walk through that area late at night.

I was reminded of the perils we face when I received a message about Leslie Mora from an organization in which I volunteer.

A week and half ago, on the night of the 19th, Leslie was walking home from a nightclub on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. Two young men called her "faggot" in Spanish as they beat her with a belt. This attack left her with bruises all over her body and stitches in her scalp, and ended only when a passing motorist threatened to call the police.

The stretch of Roosevelt Avenue where Leslie was attacked is about three miles from my apartment and bisects the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which is believed to be the third-largest LGBT community in New York City as well as the largest or second largest Indian and Pakistani community. In addition, thousands of immigrants from various Latin American countries live there.

The #7 train of the New York transit system rumbles and screeches on tracks several stories above Roosevelt Avenue. One can take this train and, on a good day, be in Chelsea within half an hour. However, about the only thing Chelsea and Jackson Heights have in common is their large gay (male) population.

Not so long ago, Chelsea was a working-class Irish neighborhood. Today, it's not defined by any ethnic groups or races: Today, almost everyone refers to it as a "gay" neighborhood. You will find more rainbow flags in store and apartment windows along Eighth Avenue from 14th to 23rd Streets than you would find in most states or countries.

You will find scarcely a rainbow along Roosevelt Avenue, or along 34th or 37th Avenues, the other main "drags" (pun intended) of Jackson Heights. One reason is that most of the gay men are older than the ones living in Chelsea. They're also more likely to be in couples and many of them live in the garden apartments or the mini-Tudors that line many of the side streets. These houses are nowhere to be found in Chelsea.

And, as you may have guessed, the couples in Jackson Heights, for the most part, don't want to draw attention to themselves. Part of the reason for that is that like most heterosexual couples in their 40's, they want to live quiet lives. Many have dogs, and a few of the couples have children they've adopted.

But probably the larger reason gay couples in Jackson Heights seem to live an almost subterranean existence is the fierce and often violent claim each ethnic group--or, more precisely, its gangs--have staked in the neighborhood. Even on the major thorouoghfares, there's practically no mingling between each of the groups I've mentioned. The Indians "own" 74th Street; the streets in the 80's and 90's are the territories of people from one Latin American country or another.

In an eerie way, this mimicks the Jackson Heights in which my father's aunt and uncle were living around the time of the Stonewall Rebellion. Then, most people thought of Jackson Heights as a Jewish neighborhood, although many blocks were home to second- and third-generation Italian and Irish Americans. One almost never found an Irish person walking on an Italian block, or a Jewish person on an Irish block. And they practically never shopped in each other's stores or ate in each other's restaurants. Today, people like me who don't live in the neighborhood go there to eat, but one doesn't find Latin Americans in the Indian restaurants or vice-versa.

A foodie or other tourist is not likely to notice the tensions I've described. Such people also don't normally frequent Roosevelt Avenue, mainly because it's seedier and grittier than the other streets and avenues of the neighborhood. The stores, restaurants and even the bars and night clubs along Roosevelt are frequented mainly by local residents, and those who work in them are recent immigrants who speak little or no English.

When I was writing for a local newspaper, other journalists and cops referred to Roosevelt Avenue as "Vaseline Alley." It still has a mostly-deserved reputation as a little Times Square--or, at least, Times Square before it was Disney-fied. The sex trade is as strong as it ever was; as you might imagine, it exploits the most vulnerable people--namely, immigrant women who don't speak English and young transgender people, many of whom live on the streets.

Now, I'm going to convey one observation I made while I was writing for the newspaper: Exploitation and violence are each other's evil twins. First of all, there is the violence that is employed against exploited people by their exploiters. Second, those who are exploitable are, far too often, the victims of violence by those who are looking for violence. It's the same relation as the colonizer to the colonized: One sees the other as not quite human, only as labels (whore, tranny, puta, maricon), and can thus rationalize violence against them.

Worst of all, some people--mostly adolescent males and young men--go to places like Roosevelt Avenue (and parts of Chelsea or the Village) for gays and transgenders to beat up or even kill. Those same young males also go to places like Roosevelt Avenue and commit the same kinds of violence against immigrant day laborers. They are the people "no one will miss," so they are easy targets.

As was Leslie Mora. Any young woman leaving a club on a place like Roosevelt Avenue is vulnerable; that she is trans practically made her a target. Her attackers, who shared her ethnicity, didn't see her as one of their own; she didn't belong on "their" turf. And, ironically (at least to anyone who has not spent time in these communities), she also didn't belong in the "gay" areas: She is younger than they are; she is poorer. She is a woman--a transgendered woman. And she got caught in the middle of a ethno-socio-economic battlefield whose barbed wire and mines consist of sex and gender expression.

I hope you recover well, Leslie Mora.


RMJ said...

Hey there! Thanks for the comment. I'm going to link this in my OP - hope that's okay!

Justine Nicholas Valinotti said...

Sure. I'd love that!