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Beaming faces, white dresses, tuxes, and rings. Lines of families politely requesting marriage licenses week after week. For the past nine months or so, the public face of the gay-rights movement has been primarily about marriage. It’s a long way from the horror and outrage that spilled into streets across the country after Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998.

But anti-gay violence hasn’t gone away. In fact, in the face of high-profile gains in the courts and high-profile actions like the San Francisco weddings, a backlash of harassment and violence is quietly afoot.

The Capital Region has not been exempt. Last fall, Albany saw a small rash of attacks, including one very serious one, on patrons of gay bars, and some gay residents say they feel less comfortable on Lark Street—long a center of gay culture for the region—than they used to. Overall, however, the attacks got very little attention, in the media or in the gay community. Activists and other community members are split over whether that’s a bad thing or a perverse sign of progress.

One of those attacks happened to Josh Banks. Banks, who grew up in Poestenkill and had been living in Albany for 10 years, always knew he was gay and came out early. He says anti-gay violence “was never something I thought about.” He did think about his safety in the city, but it was always just as a resident concerned about general crime. “It never crossed my mind to be worried when I was entering or leaving a gay bar,” he says.

Banks has very little memory of that October night, when Bart Browne approached him from behind and without warning punched him so hard in the temple that he needed several surgeries to repair the broken bones. Banks was planning to move to New York City in a few days, and was just leaving his own going-away party at Oh Bar, smoking one last cigarette before calling a cab. Because he didn’t see Browne approach or hear what he said, Banks didn’t associate what was happening to him with a hate crime at the time. He remembers thinking maybe he’d been standing too close to the road, and had gotten hit by a truck mirror. He felt for his eye and his teeth and asked for an ambulance.

According to the Times Union’s April 30 coverage of Browne’s impending trial at the end of April (there was no coverage at the time of the attack), Browne told police that homosexuals “think life is a big joke,” and prosecutors said it appeared he’d specifically gone looking for gay men to take out his bad day upon. (Browne was going to be sentenced today, June 24, but on May 15 he took his own life.)

The Banks incident was unusual in its severity, suddenness and the openness of the perpetrator about his bias. But it was also strange in the minds of many who witnessed it or heard about it for how little stir it caused.

Josh’s brother, Brian Banks, says he talked about the incident with friends in the gay community and “no one had heard about it, no one had any idea. I’ve never heard it mentioned from anyone besides myself.”

Albert Day, who lives with his partner in West Hebron and knew members of the Browne family, says “I tried desperately to find out who this was who got attacked and if he needed anything, and no one knew anything. I was amazed by that. . . . No one even knew it had happened. How is that possible?”

Of course, “no one” is a slight exaggeration. Keith Hornbrook, executive director of the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center, says the center had scheduled a community forum around the time of these incidents, and “75 percent of the issues [raised] were about community safety.” In response, the center organized a series of workshops on public safety and meetings with the police department and Citizens Police Review Board, but by that time, the concern seemed to have already dissipated. Hornbrook says “turnout was pretty poor.” The same thing happened a few years earlier when someone was attacked coming out of a gay bar on Central Avenue, he said: initial worry, but no sustained response.

Some people have changed their behavior in small ways. Mark Fisher, who used to own the now-closed State Street Pub, says that since the small rash of incidents last fall, when he’s out late at a gay bar he’s started walking people to their cars more often. But he says it hasn’t changed things much beyond that.

The possible reasons for the lack of waves are many, and no one really feels they have a handle on it. “Part of the feeling in the community was that this wasn’t necessarily a crime against someone who was gay, but a crime against someone who was vulnerable and targeted for a crime,” says Hornbrook. He says he doesn’t think the revelation that Browne admitted specifically targeting a gay man was widely known. Anyone coming out of a bar late at night is more vulnerable to non-bias-based crimes such as robbery, notes Hornbrook.

There’s also a sense among many in the gay community that harassment, and even violence, is almost a given, paradoxically coupled with a feeling that really serious attacks have become less frequent. “I’ve known people who’ve been attacked in the park,” says Albany resident Rex DeVoe, who recently organized a group of same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses at Albany City Hall. “My partner and I have been called names on Lark Street, and god forbid we walk down the street holding hands.”

Hornbrook says he can think of “only” three incidents of serious gay-bashing in the region in the last five years. Day almost casually describes having rocks thrown through his windows when he and his family first moved to West Hebron.

“I don’t think it’s gotten any better, but I don’t think it’s gotten any worse,” says DeVoe.

According to Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, it is getting worse. “One of the things that’s widely recognized in doing this work,” he says, “is the higher the visibility of the community, the higher the possibility of the community being targeted for violence.” Starting last June with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned anti-sodomy laws, and continuing with the high visibility of gays in popular culture, helped along with television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word, and the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage there, gays have been very highly visible over the past year.

And NCAVP’s annual report, which collected information from 11 member agencies that work with victims of anti-gay violence, found that not only had incidents of anti-gay violence risen substantially from 2002 to 2003, but that most of that rise happened after June—in some cases reversing what had previously been a decline. “A lot of anti-violence projects describe themselves as the clean-up crew,” explains Patton. “Our work gets harder as things get more visible.”

Anecdotally, Patton adds, many of the coalition’s member groups are reporting that the first quarter of 2004 has continued the trend with “record-breaking” numbers. “Historically, we’ve seen spikes,” he says. “What we have not seen is such a sustained increase that’s so widespread. . . . Most of us believe it will continue into the fall elections.”

Since Albany didn’t report numbers to NCAVP’s report, it’s hard to know how much the backlash has really touched the Capital Region. And even for the areas it did report upon, NCAVP and others caution that anti-gay violence and harassment is still consistently underreported. This is true even in a relatively gay-friendly city like Albany. “If you can’t get people to come to a rally in a huge crowd where they won’t even be named, how will you get them to put their name on a piece of paper and say ‘I was attacked because I was gay’?” observes Day, who has had trouble talking other gay people he knows into attending public events like the group that lined up to request marriage licenses at City Hall.

And lower-level harassment—DeVoe and Libby Post, president emeritus of the CDGLCC and president of the Albany-based PR firm Communication Services, both report being called names on Lark Street recently—is almost never reported, though the NCAVP notes that perpetrators of anti-gay violence often start with harassment.

It’s nothing new to Patton for these problems to be flying below the radar of both gay advocacy organizations and the wider gay community. “People’s first reaction is often,‘God, I don’t want to have to think about this, this is so horrible,’ ” he says, though he adds that people often do want to talk about it given the chance, and will get involved in a consistent and comprehensive effort to address the question.

On a larger scale, however, anti-gay violence is treated almost as a passé issue, with many people feeling like things have actually gotten safer, at least compared to 10 or 20 years ago. “The focus has shifted because it happens less frequently,” says Brian Banks. “Each generation gets further and further away from that.”

And with marriage suddenly looking like an attainable goal, attention (and dollars) have been flowing to groups at the forefront of the marriage fight, at the same time as the budgets of the agencies that run anti-violence programs were already suffering from the downturn in the economy and the government budget cuts that have been hitting social-service agencies across the country.

“If [Josh] had quietly walked to City Hall and applied for a marriage license, he would have gotten more coverage than getting his face caved in,” says Brian. “That explains why the marriage issue is so important to the community; they can get coverage.”

“I don’t mean this to sound bitter,” Patton agrees. “Unfortunately as a community, we often have difficulty maintaining focus on more than one issue at a time. So much of the focus is on marriage as if all the other things folks have been working on for so long aren’t in the pipeline. This is not about stopping the progress [of the marriage fight], but we know, unfortunately, that a by-product of the struggle is this [violent] reaction.”

Post agrees that the focus has shifted, but she doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Issues come and go—in 1992, she notes, it was gays in the military. It also took New York state’s gay community 25 years to pass a hate-crimes bill, she says. But now that’s done, and between that victory and the outcry over Matthew Shepard’s murder, Post thinks anti-gay violence is less of a political wedge issue to organize around than something like marriage.

“People are still victims of hate crimes,” she says, but “no right-wingers are going to say ‘Go out and beat up fags or fire all lesbians.’ Politically it doesn’t work for them.” Marriage, she says, is much more sexy as a political issue because “rational people can disagree, and . . . it’s our culture at issue.”

While the attack on Banks was horrible, says Post, at least the police responded well (Banks strongly confirms this—he says he was treated better by the cops than by the hospital), and at least the district attorney’s office was firm in prosecuting it as a hate crime. “From two steps away, it looks like it’s going like it’s supposed to,” she says.

Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

The question of violence also affects some people—clearly members of the transgender community, but also possibly those who spend a lot of time in the bar scene—more than those on the putative marriage track, just because they are more visible. “For those people who are more family-oriented, more about staying at home, they do feel less vulnerable,” says Hornbrook cautiously. But that’s not just a gay thing. “If you interviewed a more typical family in a rural suburban area, they [also] feel less vulnerable to community violence,” than someone in an urban area who goes out at night a lot, he argues.

It’s a distinction that many would quibble with, however. DeVoe notes that gay families may be more obvious in their neighborhoods. “When you’re walking down Lark Street you don’t have a label on that says you’re gay.” But he adds, “I’ve never been called names on my street, though.”

Patton says that feeling separate from the risk of violence is just a matter of degree. “We can all believe whatever we want to believe, focus on what we want to focus on,” he says, “but if probed, we have to acknowledge, if you don’t hold your partner’s hand or let go of it when you turn the corner, you are a victim of bias . . . the behavior-modification part. [When] you start making decisions based on the possibility of retribution, you have been a victim of hate.”

There are things that can be done about anti-gay violence, Patton says, starting with letting people know that these attacks still happen. Providing “capable, competent, and compassionate services” to victims and working with law enforcement are the next steps, he adds, though the long-term “way to diminish these types of acts of violence is changing the environment so it’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Changing the environment is exactly what marriage advocates hope to do, and many feel that in that way they are doing long-term anti-violence work. “Now that Massachusetts has it, and hopefully New York will soon, hopefully people will realize it’s not such a big thing, and hopefully things will get better for gay and lesbian people because we will be out there more,” says DeVoe. He also notes the essential work of groups like the Gay and Lesbian Student Network in schools.

Though marriage advocates recognize that there will be a backlash, and that there will probably always be, as Post puts it, “a few idiots still out there,” many seem to be hoping/expecting the violence issue to dissipate on its own as the current, more tolerant, generation comes into its own. “In 20 years, it won’t be a big deal,” says Post. “There will be a new generation of leaders.”

Josh Banks is still figuring out how his experience is going to affect him long-term, while joking that the main lesson it taught him was “it’s dangerous to smoke cigarettes.” He is planning on moving back to Albany after a fruitful stint honing his chef skills in the Big Apple. Since he kept his plans to leave for New York City as soon as he was physically well enough after his surgeries, and kept himself pretty busy while he was there, he’s expecting that he still has some processing to do when he comes back here. But he stills loves Albany and thinks it’s overall a gay-friendly place.

He still thinks that in terms of safety, the attention should be on general levels of violence and crime, not just on the gay community. Not having seen the attack coming has left him with less trauma than those who can anticipate the situation and see their attacker, he notes. But he also admits that he’s no longer going to walk down Lark Street at 2 AM, where “before it wouldn’t have been a problem.”

The incident spurred him to put his life together a little bit, he says, and he does expect to be spending less time in the bar scene than he used to, though the attack is only one of many reasons for that.

He says he is likely to get more politically involved. “I didn’t expect [what happened to me] to be the cornerstone of a movement,” he says. “I did expect people to get together and say ‘Should we do something?’ ”

maxel-lute@metroland.net


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