At the end of this month, New York will celebrate its annual gay pride march. But the parties and marches – a moment in the year when the city asserts a stand against discrimination against LGBT people – will be shadowed with an increased police presence and tarnished by the string of recent hate crimes that prompted that presence. The most notorious of those recent crimes being the murder of 32-year-old Mark Carson last month in the city's apparently gay-friendly Greenwich Village.
“Look at you gay faggots, you look like wrestlers,” is a snippet of the homophobic tirade aimed at Mark Carson before his killer, 33-year-old Elliot Morales, aimed his revolver at the Brooklyn resident’s cheek and shot point blank. The wrestler comment is a little confusing, but then so is homophobia in a supposedly progressive country where around 11.7 million people are openly gay.
I called up New York writer and activist Darnell Moore to speak about Carson’s death, the rising homophobia in New York and where the future lies for gay tolerance in the city. Moore is a co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire and currently a visiting scholar at the Institute on Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. He was also the inaugural Chair of the city of Newark, New Jersey’s LGBT Concerns Advisory Board and, like Mark Carson, black, gay and from Brooklyn.
VICE: Following Mark Carson’s death, what’s the mood right now in New York's gay community?
Darnell Moore: People are angry. Marches, rallies and protests have been planned. Christine Quinn – our City Council president, who happens to be a lesbian – organised a rally in response about three days after Mark was murdered. It was estimated that 1,500 people attended. The day after he was murdered, residents from the neighbourhood held a silent vigil on the corner. People are raising their voices. That’s generally the mood right now.
With Mark Carson being African American, do you feel especially connected to this story, being both black and gay in New York yourself?
I do. But the questions that came to mind as I stood at the rally were: Would this protest be taking place if Mark Carson wasn’t gay? What if we didn’t know his sexual identity and he was murdered in the same gay, queer part of the city? Would people still be angry? Black young men are dying all the time in New York. We’re not only dying, but we’re being stopped and frisked by police officers. We are the majority of the people being locked up within the prison system. And it seems like there doesn’t appear to be a public outcry. Moments like this really remind me that sometimes we are so invested in the sexual identity of individuals that we forget all the other parts that define them.
Yeah, it seems that when there’s a homophobic crime on a black man in New York, it receives so much more attention. For example, the Michael Sandy case in 2006.
Yes, the “gay” aspect of the victims’ identities seems to make both cases exceptional to some. Black death is mundane; it’s common. And I think that's problematic. It's problematic, one, when anybody is murdered, whether it’s a hate crime perpetrated because of someone’s sexual identity or race. Any crime that results in the death of someone should similarly provoke people. All of the folk who showed up to Mark’s memorial should also show up to a protest if any non-gay identified black man in New York City was shot down.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently said that, “anti-gay hate crimes are up over 70 percent [this year]”. What do you think the reason is for this rise?
Yeah, I read that. A lot of people here seem to think that has something to do with the current visibility of LGBT issues, not only in the media, but within the political arena. Same-sex marriage is a big political issue in many states. In the midst of this seemingly progressive LGBT moment, it seems like America’s anxiety around homosexuality has increased. In the same way that we saw a lot of hate and racist comments directed towards Barack Obama when he was running for office, now that LGBT people are visible in the media, homophobia is seemingly more pronounced.
But the thing is, like racism, homophobia, is always present. It might be the case that we have become more attuned to it when it shows up. But a moment like this brings it much more visibly to the surface. In fact, when I was at the rally, a black brother was walking by angry. I don’t know who he was and I don’t really recall everything he said. But one thing he did say was, “This is y’all fault.” The “y’all” he was referencing to was the gay community, and I was taken aback. This is at a rally for someone who has died, and homophobia was still taking place in that place; a moment of homophobia even at a protest that was supposed to be responding to it.
Do you feel noticeably more unsafe as a gay man in New York?
No, I don’t. And let me be specific – I live in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, which is a predominately black neighbourhood. The home of Lil’ Kim, Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z – what many have referred to as “Bed-Stuy, do or die.” People have this idea that Bed-Stuy is violent, but I never feel unsafe at home. Don’t get me wrong, shit happens in Bed-Stuy. People die. However, I love my neighbourhood. It’s home to so many different types of people and, yes, gay people – LGBT folk – live in the neighbourhood, too. I’ve never experienced any type of homophobia in that black urban space. But let me say this; what happened to Mark Carson can happen to any of us, anywhere – including white, seemingly progressive spaces like Greenwich Village.
Yeah, it seems odd that it happened there, arguably the most LGBT-friendly area of Manhattan.
Right. It happened in Greenwich Village, the home of “gay liberation”. Now, the fact that this happened there may say something about the perpetrator. Maybe this was the perpetrator’s M.O – to start trouble and to kill someone in a space that he well knows is a safe haven to a lot of LGBT people. But it’s interesting that this type of thing happened there. Don’t get me wrong; it happens in a lot of other places, too. Sakia Gunn was a 15-year-old lesbian woman. She was black and stabbed to death in mostly black and brown Newark, New Jersey in 2003. I remember going to Greenwich Village in my younger years because that was the place you knew you could be gay, and it was cool to be public about it without fear of being ridiculed or physically hurt.
I don’t recall the Sakia story.
That case didn’t get a lot of attention at all. Maybe because she was a woman, or because she was a young lesbian without a lot of economic privilege? I’m not trying to make it seem like this doesn’t happen in black spaces – it can happen anywhere. But again, it makes me think, 'Whose stories matter when this type of violence happens? Whose stories are actually showing up in the media? Which spaces matter?' The lack of visibility regarding who’s represented in the telling of these stories points to a set of large dynamics we don’t think about.
Before he was shot, Mark Carson is reported to have confronted his killer Elliot Morales in regards to the homophobic remarks Morales was making towards him. Do you think Carson made the right decision?
I don’t know what I think about it. My heart is heavy. I don’t know Mark, I’ve never met him. But I hear from friends that he was the type of person who would always stand up for himself. Here was a person who was committed to living in his truth even if it meant the ending of his life. And I would hope that I would do the same. But at the same time, I don’t know if I would tell a young person in the same situation encountering someone who looked like they could hurt them to stand their ground. I think I would tell them to leave, though leaving may not guarantee survival.
When I was younger, I used to play around and say things like, “I’m not going to get gay-bashed – I’m going to retaliate with a straight bash.” But my mind is changing. I saw a sign someone left on a makeshift memorial calling him a “gay angel”. Mark and so many others are not martyrs; their deaths are inexcusable. I don’t want any of the young LGBT people we serve at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, or any of my LGBT friends, to have to aggress or feel like they have to fight that to survive.
New York gay pride. (Image via)
Mark Carson’s choice of clothing (a tank top and cut-off shorts) is reported to be what provoked the attack. Would you say that gay men in New York normally subscribe to a more masculine way of dressing and acting to avoid a situation like Mark Carson's?
Yes. A lot of the violence tends to be a result of some screwed up gender politics. When you see someone walking down the street, regardless of whether they don’t fit within a prescribed gender box or not, you don’t know who they’re having sex with behind closed doors. In my own life, people tend to get really provoked by what they see in terms of my gender presentation. Folk see a man walking down the street with cut off shorts, cowboy boots and a tank top, and assume that he's gay. How do we get folks to think differently about gender?
True. It was reported that Morales was imprisoned four times and had spent a total of ten years in prison. Do you think outreach work can be done in prisons to promote tolerance towards the LGBT community?
No. Many argue that prisons can be redemptive, but prisons aren't the answer. I’m not sure if that type of outreach work is going on. You can send a person to jail for a hate crime, but it doesn’t mean their thoughts will change. I’m not necessarily certain that putting a white racist behind bars is going to make him or her any less hateful to black people. And, in the same way, I don’t think that it can change a homophobe’s mind about sexuality or gender, particularly when some of the people who are working in those prisons generally maintain the same beliefs that resulted in Carson’s murder.
So what do you see as the solution to tackling homophobia in New York?
I think the change will come by working with our young people. And it sounds very pessimistic, but older folk are sometimes stuck in their ways. I'm interested in working with our young kids – five, four and three years old – so they can be and think differently. I want young people to know, for example, that a boy wearing pink or playing with doll or not wanting to play sports doesn’t mean that he is less of a boy than the kid wearing blue and playing in the little league. Eventually our world will be in their hands. If I can get young people to start thinking differently, my hope is that the world will look different in the future. That’s not to say we give up on everyone else. I think that our minds can change. Mine has. I’m a gay man who thought being gay was wrong and I’ve experienced my own shift. I'm hopeful.
Follow Alexander on Twitter: @aaplerku
More horrible homophobia: