As I sit here today, employed by GMHC as a counselor, HIV tester, and outreach worker for at-risk youth, I think back on how I got here and what empowered me to take this path. I remember it like it was yesterday: my first time in the neighborhood of the West Village in Manhattan (also known as the Village). It was the most heart-racing experience I could've ever imagined! I'd moved to New York City to find myself. I was at the basketball courts at the West 4th Street subway station, trying to figure out where all the gay men hung out. Standing there for a whole hour, I wanted to ask passing pedestrians where the "gay area" was, but I was just too scared. Nervous and flustered, I saw a group of, let's just say "very colorful," young men walk past me. I carefully followed the group, hoping they were going to this gay sanctuary I'd been told about. After several nerve-racking and curious blocks, I could see for certain that I'd finally arrived home. The Village, including the piers by the Hudson River, where many young men hang out, became my safe haven. I had never felt so alive, comfortable, and protected all at the same time, not only because the people there were just like me but because I was treated like family. I knew then that I needed to help do my part to make this place safe and welcoming for others after me.
Years have passed since my first day in the Village, and since then I have become a fixture there, doing outreach to young men who have sex with men, recruiting them to be tested for HIV and to receive sexual health education, as well as counseling services through the Outstanding Beautiful Brothers (OBB) program. I have come to know the piers and the people who frequent them. Nevertheless, I was not prepared for the horrific incident I witnessed a few weeks ago on the Christopher Street Pier. A friend and I were having a conversation on the wooden benches at what is known as the "Second Pier" when we saw a group of young black men who I had never seen before. It was obvious to me that the men wearing red were not regulars on the Second Pier. The group approached and asked us if we knew anyone who was selling bud (marijuana) or nutcrackers (mixed alcohol sold on the street), and we replied, "No." They then approached a young gay man whom I had seen before, sitting alone on the pier, eating Chinese food from a local eatery. The group of young men exchanged words with him, and in less than a minute he leaped up and ran to the end of the pier, yelling, "They got a gun!" As he ran, the group chased after him, and the young man leaped over the railing and off the pier, into the river. The group chased him to the end and then looked over the railing to see where he'd disappeared to.
All the people on the pier started running away from the wooden tables where the situation was taking place. A few minutes after someone yelled out, "I'm calling the police," the group of young men fled toward the West Side Highway. My friend and I stayed to see whether the man who'd jumped would resurface. The guy eventually leaped back on to the pier, dripping wet. Trying to maintain some level of pride, he yelled, "Where they at?" indicating that he was ready to fight, and walked off toward the highway. I was beyond shocked and scared out of my mind by what I had just witnessed. I felt like it was a scene out of a rap music video. The park police arrived about 15 minutes later. They approached people on the pier and questioned us about what we'd witnessed. I was later informed by a few of the locals in the area that all the young men involved had been frisked and placed under arrest.
The hate crimes, violence, and stigma against LGBTQ people must stop! That is why the OBB program was created, to help young men of color who have sex with men stay healthy and receive support. Through access to HIV testing, mental health services, and workshops on building healthy relationships and reducing bullying and domestic violence, OBB offers an opportunity for our young men to develop trusting bonds through brotherhood. While more and more young men come through doors for the OBB program, sadly our funding has been reduced, which is another blow to the very limited spaces where young men of color can feel safe and at home to be themselves without judgment and harassment. We as a community must continue to find ways to end hate crimes and increase funding for programs that work with LGBTQ youth. Young gay men should not have to jump off a pier into a river to avoid homophobic attacks.