In response to a recent series of vicious hate crimes against LGBT New Yorkers, City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn is sponsoring an insulting series of classes in "street smarts" and self-defense. As a policy response to these tragedies, Quinn's offer is both inadequate and inappropriate.
The paltry gesture is even less generous than it might seem. The Williams Institute estimates that about 570,000 gay people live in the New York City metro area, for whom two self-defense classes scheduled are clearly insufficient. In light of their extreme insignificance, this gesture of hers is revealed to be no more than merely that: a gesture.
Furthermore, street smarts and self-defense would have proven woefully inadequate to deter recent high-profile incidents. The West Village is known worldwide as the birthplace of the gay rights movement and home to the LGBT community. Mark Carson's shooting occurred there in a highly trafficked location. How could street smarts have helped him avoid his fate? Could self-defense really have taught Carson to disarm his attacker?
Regarding how LGBT individuals can avoid being targeted, Quinn coaches us that "we are more powerful than we realize just by how we hold ourselves." However, this language proves loaded and problematic for a group of people whose comportment is so often the crux of their victimhood. Many of those who become targets of hate crimes are selected based on their gender presentation or obvious homosexuality. In other words, they are singled out because they don't "hold themselves" in the typical fashion. Learning to carry oneself differently doesn't sound like empowerment to LGBT people; it sounds like the closet.
To focus on ways in which LGBT people might individually deflect or avoid attacks is essentially to blame the victims. Homophobic animus isn't the fault of the LGBT community, and its weight should not be ours alone to bear. Quinn's call for self-defense is an admission that the city expects us to fend off our own attackers. It declines to resolve the issue; it refuses to mend these tears in the social fabric that wreak terror in the hearts of an already marginalized population. The city sees it as unfortunate but ultimately permissible that people do us harm. LGBT people merely need to avoid conservative parts of town and the dark side of the street. We must learn how to navigate a city landscape littered with landmines; we need "street smarts."
Quinn is suggesting that we arm ourselves against our fellow citizens, that we live with the expectation that we will be targeted. In a way, the encouragement to self-defense differs little from the "shelter in place" order to Bostonians facing terrorism. The government advises us to protect ourselves, because it either cannot or will not protect us. In Boston, the directive carried a time limit, but Quinn's does not.
In this context, Quinn's recommendation seems irresponsible. Perhaps Quinn does not feel as threatened as the rest of us, but she ought to know that her message of empowerment is poorly chosen. Such rhetoric would be useful to whip up fervor against a despised foe, but that foe is missing here. Instead, we face a bully, one who is anonymous and omnipresent. We do not wish to be trained to win a street war against genocidal assailants, and to frame the issue thusly is to reveal a vulnerability to be sidetracked by the friction of cultural change. We seek to build community, not the training to survive in its absence.
These attacks serve to underscore the reality of rejection familiar to the LGBT community. We have seen in recent months that our marginalization has begun to subside, and many of us have looked forward to a time when we could live openly and engage proudly as a part of society. While legislative gains have moved the greater dialogue in our favor, though, the reality on the streets has shifted in the opposite direction. We can now marry, but we must fear for our safety on the way to the courthouse.
Instead of accepting this state of affairs, it is time to offer a renewed sense of support. Quinn marched with us on May 20 in the West Village to express outrage against the crimes. She has promised heightened security in Greenwich Village during Pride Month and an interfaith conference against hate. These are better measures, but more remains to be done.
A more appropriate response would also have detailed comprehensive security measures the city will undertake to ensure our safety until the threat has once again abated. It would focus on recruiting a larger LGBT contingency within the police force and repairing relationships with the transgender community, whose warranted mistrust of law enforcement leaves them with nowhere to turn. It would tell us that the city wants to walk with us hand-in-hand to ensure our safety at night, and that rather than arm ourselves with new defense techniques, we should relax and be secure in knowing that we are not alone.