Queers hanging out in public were once considered a staple of West Village street culture. Yet within the climate of the Giuliani/Bloomberg “quality of life” crusade, the presence of gender insubordinate young Black and Latino queer youth, as opposed to white men with moustaches, is often viewed as a problem. […]
The crackdown is part of a campaign designed to privatize, sanitize, and control public spaces such as the piers throughout New York City. It began in 1994 as a cornerstone of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s pledge to clean up New York City. Existing “quality of life” legislation falls under Article 240, Title N, Offenses Against Public Order, Public Sensibilities, and the Right to Privacy. Such “offenses” include “rioting, unlawful assembly, criminal anarchy, disorderly conduct, harassment, loitering, public intoxication, and criminal nuisance in a public space” (McClean, 2002). [… In 1995] the New York City Council passed a zoning law intended to restrict and shut down adult-use spaces such as strip clubs, bookstores, video stores, and movie houses. Mayor Giuliani hoped to shut down almost every adult business that dealt with sexual materials or entertainment.
When quasi-private interior spaces targeted by the zoning law were shut down, people with nowhere else to go moved outside. But visible signs of public sexual culture were further targeted with the police carrying out undercover sting operations, resulting in stepped-up arrests of men charged with indecent exposure, soliciting sex, and other “lewd” acts. Some were based on entrapment, while others were wrongful arrests. During one three-day sting by the Port Authority police in 1997, ninety men were arrested in the men’s bathroom in the PATH station concourse of the World Trade Center (Schindler, 1997).
Adonis elaborated: “If two heterosexuals were in the park making out and the police walked by, they wouldn’t say anything. If two homosexuals were doing things, they would say something.” Many of the “quality of life” initiatives appeared to specifically target queers. Selective enforcement of a Prohibition-era cabaret law, zoning ordinances, a ban on dancing, and fire codes were used to produce a constant flow of legal assaults narrowing the types of clubs and bars functioning in Manhattan. Before summer of 1997 some seventeen gay businesses, nine theaters, and eight clubs—including five in close proximity on Fourteenth Street—were closed for violations of the state health code banning oral, anal, or vaginal sex on business premises. That summer, fifty queer businesses faced some fourteen hundred inspections (Schindler, 1997). Many clubs could not endure the legal barrage and were forced to close their doors.
One such space was the Two Potato, a bar at the corner of Christopher and Greenwich Streets, close to the piers. […] L.P. and several others I interviewed recalled the Two Potato as a “legendary” gathering place for queer and transgender people of color. Like the West Village in general, the Two Potato provided a refuge when the AIDS epidemic hit. “At night people could spread out to Fourteenth Street and over to Two Potato on the water and just drink and wild out and have sex, and feel like we were still normal,” L.P. recalled. Yet the feeling of safety engendered within the queer spaces of the West Village was placed in jeopardy by phobias accompanying the epidemic. As L.P. explained, “We’d have to do a lot of fighting because there was a lot of prejudice.”
The pattern is simple enough. Moral guardians use fears about the AIDS crisis to justify restricting access to spaces such as the piers and Two Potato, supposedly in the name of community health and “the children.” What unfolds is a general “not in my backyard” thinking stirred up by the “quality of life” campaign. The result is simple. “He [Giuliani] used the excuse of AIDS. He was saying that [public sex] was a way to spread the virus, but responsible adults who knew about it used condoms. They were consenting adults,” Adonis explained.
Yet as the AIDS era wore on, anxieties about the epidemic coincided with countless other cultural phobias and inequalities. L.P. explained that just getting off the train at Fourteenth Street could be an ordeal. “If you got off the train and you looked gay, you might get beat up by a group of kids. ‘Faggot, we don’t want you in New York.’ And the police were no help. The cops would stand there and watch because they were in agreement that this was the gay man’s disease and that they didn’t want to get any bodily fluids on them or get involved. Let the faggot get what he deserves.” For L.P., navigating from the Bronx to the Village “was like going through a gauntlet.” Between the antivagrancy laws, a social purity crusade described as a “quality of life” campaign, and AIDS hysteria, L.P.—like many other queer youth—engaged in a struggle against what amounted to a panic over queer space.
In August 2001, after years of “quality of life” complaints, the Two Potato’s liquor license came up for review prior to renewal, and the bar was closed (McLean, 2002). For L.P. and countless others, the impact of the club’s closure and the subsequent erection of fences at the piers was immediate. “It made it very hard for us to function,” L.P. recalled. “You couldn’t hang out by the water anymore. They were doing construction on the highway so you couldn’t really go down there.”
Sylvia Rivera struggled for over thirty years to force the city to accept and protect the right of transgender people to walk or work in public space. In many ways, the youth who continue to struggle for queer spaces are working from the same vantage point. Queer space is about creating room for the spectacle of difference as opposed to assimilating sameness. As long as autonomous zones pop up, the possibility remains.
Benjamin Shepard, “Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children: A Battle for a Queer Public Space,” in That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (2008), ed. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
some context people don’t realize is their inheritance when they panic over lgbt sexuality