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.

One Week To Go

Exactly one week from today, I will be undergoing my gender reassignment surgery. In four days, on my birthday, I will go to Colorado, where my surgery will take place.

I pulled out the suitcase I'm going to use for the trip and started to pack. I don't usually start packing so far in advance, and I really don't need to bring very much, as I will be in the hospital for the majority of my trip. Perhaps this is all making me a little obsessive. Just a little. Or maybe it's my giddy nervous energy. Yes, yes, yes, I want that surgery and I want it now. I can think of a hundred things to do between now and then. I will do maybe ten of them; four or five, if that many, absolutely must be done before I leave.

Let's see: The must do's: Pay my rent. Buy a box of maxi-pads. Get haircut and manicure on Thursday. (I have an appointment.) Leave cat food and litter for Millie, who will care for Charlie and Max. And, of course, pack.

The want-to-do's: Go for long bike ride tomorrow. (It will probably be my last opportunity.) Lunch with Bruce on Friday. Buy an iPod. (No, I don't have one. I'm such a dinosaur, aren't I?) A meal and/or tea with Millie and John some time in the next couple of days.

Actually, there are lots of other things I'd like to do that simply aren't realistic possibilities. One is to spend a couple of days in Paris with Marie-Jeanne and Janine. Not only is it logistically all but impossible, it's not do-able because Janine hasn't been well lately. She would try to accomodate me in all kinds of ways, as she's done whenever I've visited her, but I wouldn't feel right about that.

And I'd like to see everyone in my family. But, getting everyone in one place happens about as often as a full solar eclipse, and not everyone in my family wants to see me. Mom's talking about coming "up north" in late July or early August to visit me, my brothers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (where her aunt also lives) and my aunt and uncle upstate.

My mother's aunt and I talk to each other regularly, and she has been very supportive emotionally. However, I haven't seen her in at least twenty years--during the funeral of another of my uncles. So, whatever pictures we have in our minds of each other are very dated, to say the least.

One week until the surgery...Will this one go by even more quickly than the previous 51 weeks have? Or the previous 51 years? Well, OK, I haven't gotten to that second milestone yet. But when I do, I'll marvel at and lament how quickly tempest has fugitted. I know, no Latin verb is conjugated that way. Then again, who speaks Latin, anyway?

I don't. I also don't wear a beard or drink beer (or any other alcoholic beverage, for that matter). Not anymore, anyway. They are behind me now, just as the military drills and the conquests of mountains and women. As is my attempt at being a husband, as are my attempts at being a male lover. All behind me; the surgery and so many things I can and can't imagine are ahead of me.