Tuesday, December 4, 2007

To Be Gay in Newark…

New Jersey used to be the butt of jokes (“You’re from Jersey? What exit?”), but in the last few years it has become a leader in gay equality; one of the three states that allow civil unions and some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws on the books. It even had a gay governor, although his outing wasn’t exactly a Gay Pride moment.

Unfortunately, one of the places that got left behind is Newark. It has never fully recovered from the race riots of the 1960’s and it still gets a lot of bad press for its reputation as a gritty industrial slum, a sharp contrast to the rest of the state and the bright lights of New York across the Hudson. And if you’re gay, Newark is a war zone.

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.

New Jersey has become a national beacon for gay equality. It boasts some of the toughest anti-discrimination laws in the country, and recent legislation makes it one of only three states that recognize same-sex civil unions. Gay marriage, some say, is just around the corner. Across the state, same-sex couples and their children have become integrated into suburban life.

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.”

[…]

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.

[…]

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 unsympathetic streets.

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.

I’m no sociologist, but it seems that when poverty and a lousy economy are part of the picture, people turn on the easiest target they can find…which is usually a group against whom overt prejudice and discrimination is acceptable and against whom violence is tolerated by law enforcement.

Cross-posted from Shakesville; H/T to Shaker Betsy.