New York Times December 2, 2007
In a Progressive State, a City Where Gay Life Hangs by a Thread
By ANDREW JACOBSNEWARK, Nov. 30
To live in Newark often means grappling with unrelenting poverty, the
anesthetizing lure of drugs, murderous gangs, a lack of decent jobs. But for gay
men, lesbians and transgender people, there are additional obstacles that are
seldom acknowledged: gay bashings, H.I.V., open hostility from many religious
leaders and sometimes callous treatment by the police.
When venturing outside his Central Ward neighborhood, Tyrone Simpson, 19,
stays on main thoroughfares and steers clear of the men in gang colors looking
for easy quarry. Dynasty Mitchell, 21, an aspiring poet who works at a
supermarket, has learned to blend in by stretching a do-rag over his head and
adopting a thuggish gait in public.“If you’re not prepared to fight, you’re not
going to survive in Newark,” said Mr. Simpson, who is unabashedly gay.
But here in the state’s largest city, gay men and lesbians might as well
live on another planet.“You wouldn’t know that Greenwich Village is 10 miles
away,” said James Credle, 62, a Vietnam veteran who is working with about a
dozen other activists to revive the Newark Pride Alliance, a group established
three years ago after a 15-year-old lesbian, Sakia Gunn, was stabbed to death by
a man who, the police said, was infuriated that she had rejected his advances.
“People here feel like we don’t deserve to be alive.
For us, it’s about survival,” Mr. Credle said, “and all this talk of gay
marriage is just a luxury.”The city has no gay community center, no gay pride
parade, no established gay organizations; there are no bars devoted exclusively
to gay or lesbian clientele. “Newark is like one big closet,” said Ron Saleh, a
consultant to the John Edwards presidential campaign, who moved here two years
ago. “And there’s nothing going on for gay people.
It’s like a desert.”There are, however, a few hints of change.
In June, Mayor Cory A. Booker became the first public official to embrace
the issue by hoisting a rainbow flag over City Hall in recognition of Gay Pride
Month. Yesterday, Gov. Jon S. Corzine was expected to attend a World AIDS Day
event here. Last year, voters elected Dana Rone to the Municipal Council; she
became the city’s first openly lesbian official when a newspaper, after her
inauguration, reported on her sexual orientation.And while many gay men and
lesbians complain that they have been ridiculed and intimidated by the police,
Garry F. McCarthy, the city’s police director, has begun requiring sensitivity
training for all members of the force as part of biannual sessions that focus on
sexual harassment.Even those steps have met with resistance. When he presided
over the raising of the rainbow flag, Mayor Booker said, he was stunned by the
flood of angry phone calls to his office. “There’s a lot of silent pain in the
city of Newark, and perpetrators of this pain “those who promote the bigotry and
the alienation must be confronted,” he said.
For a handful of gay activists in the city, the schoolyard shooting of four
young people in August was a measure of that pain, if not of bigotry. They have
been pressing law enforcement officials to investigate the shootings as a
possible bias crime.Mr. Credle, an organizer of Newark Pride Alliance, said that
one of the teenagers arrested after the killings attended the same high school
as three of the victims and may have thought they were gay because they hung
around an openly gay crowd.
The police have said the killings were carried out during a robbery, but
the Essex County prosecutor, Paula T. Dow, said investigators were still working
to establish a motive.James Harvey, the father of Dashon Harvey, one of the
three who died in the schoolyard shootings, dismissed the suggestions that
antigay bias played a role. “That’s so baloney, I don’t even want to give it a
thought,” he said. “I’m just trying to get over my son being buried and gone
In some ways, the lack of a vibrant, organized gay community mirrors many
other aspects of civic life in Newark, a city stunted by poverty and lacking the
kind of comfortable middle class found in cities of similar size.“We are an
underdeveloped community in every area, so it is no surprise” that homophobia
persists, said Ms. Rone.
Many churches in the city remain openly hostile to homosexuality.
Gary Paul Wright, executive director of the African American Office of Gay
Concerns, a group that provides education and counseling on H.I.V. and AIDS,
said his five-year effort to dispense AIDS educational material at local
churches had been universally thwarted.“There’s a whole lot of preaching about
homosexuality and sin,” said Mr. Wright. ?It really hurts and it makes me mad,
but it also reinforces the stigma associated with H.I.V. and AIDS, which makes
our job that much harder.”Such institutional antipathy drives many people into
lives marked by secrecy. Some turn to the Internet for connections.
One site that is popular among black and Hispanic men here, Adam4Adam.com,
has more than 500 active members in Newark; on a recent night, nearly 200 of
them were online.Not everyone feels the need to stay in the closet. June
Dowell-Burton, 38, a social work student at the Newark campus of Rutgers
University, said her neighbors did not seem bothered that she and her partner
shared an apartment, a car and grocery shopping forays. “We don’t hide anything,
and no one seems to mind,” she said.Sharrieff Baker and his partner, Edwin
Rosario, who own a house in the North Ward, said they had a very different
experience when one of their tenants found out they were a couple.
Last month, they said, the tenant tore up a shared bathroom, called them
“faggots” and threatened to blow up their house. When they called 911, they
said, Vincent Cordi, the responding police officer, appeared unconcerned and
agreed only reluctantly to take their complaint. Back at the station house, they
said, Officer Cordi sniggered with co-workers as he typed up the paperwork, at
one point blurting out, “How do you spell ‘faggot’”When they returned home that
day, they were attacked by the tenant in the hallway, they said; Officer Cordi
responded to their 911 call and arrested all three men.
Mr. Baker, who lost a front tooth in the skirmish, was charged with
aggravated assault, as was the tenant; they both spent the weekend in jail. Mr.
Rosario was not charged. Neither Officer Cordi nor officials in the Police
Department responded to requests for comment.Mr. Baker, who has filed a
complaint with the internal affairs department, said he was especially angered
by the Police Department’s refusal to designate the incident antigay. Newark,
unlike many cities its size, does not compile data on antigay violence.
The day after he filed the complaint, Mr. Baker said, his car was towed
from in front of his home. He suggested it was an act of vengeance; the police
said it was removed for street cleaning.Mr. Baker, 32, a real estate broker who
moved to Newark from Jersey City last year, said that because of the incident,
he and Mr. Rosario, a schoolteacher, want to move away. “I came here because I
wanted to be part of Newark’s renaissance, but now I’m afraid even in my own
house,” he said.
The Booker administration’s efforts to help establish a gay community
center have been largely hamstrung by what veteran gay activists acknowledge are
internal disagreements.Then there is the apathy. When Laquetta Nelson tried to
start a Newark chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, she gave up
after a few months. “In the end, no one came to the meetings,” she said.For now,
the only refuge for gay people is in a nondescript building on the outskirts of
downtown. Project Wow, as it is called, is a no-frills drop-in center run by the
North Jersey Community Research Initiative, an organization that devotes most of
its resources to research on AIDS drugs and free medical care. Project Wow draws
a few dozen young people each night who come for counseling and H.I.V.
prevention advice but mostly for the camaraderie and shelter from the city’s
Alex Williams, Project Wow’s director, asked that the center’s location not
be printed, noting that 15 of the center’s employees and clients had been
attacked on their way to or from the building in the last six months.Sitting in
the lounge at the center, Tariq Pickens, 23, recalled how he and a friend
dressed in drag were ambushed on the street by a group of men and women three
years ago. During a few hellish moments, he said, they were slashed, punched,
robbed and doused with lighter fluid, although the fuel failed to ignite. “I’ve
had so many friends killed, beaten, raped, I can’t even count he said.Kira
Henry, too, has felt fear. Ms. Henry, 20, who is transgender, is taking a
cooking class. When she walks to school in the morning, she said, she tries to
look straight ahead and meet the inevitable taunts and catcalls with a forced
smile. But when the bottles and bricks fly, she said, she knows how to fight or
sprint in six-inch heels.“If you beat me up or shoot me,” she said, “I’m still
going to be me.”Like many of Project Wow’s clients, Willie Harden, 20, is
homeless and jobless. He is also effectively orphaned, although his mother, a
drug addict, is reputed to be somewhere in Jersey City.Since aging out of foster
care two years ago, Mr. Harden has lived at a series of shelters, the latest
being Covenant House. He said he tried to hide his sexuality from strangers. The
last thing he needed, he said, was more ridicule, or an uninvited beating.“It’s
hard living a double life,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but one day I’d like to
walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand with nobody saying one bad
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company