New gay culture clashes with old in West Village

May 20, 2007|By Erika Hayasaki | Erika Hayasaki,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- The young gay men and lesbians stream from subway stops dressed in their flashiest gear: rainbow sunglasses, 6-inch-high gold wedge sandals, a fatigue-printed hoodie, a rhinestone-studded pink Playboy bunny bag.

Hundreds of them make their way through the West Village - home of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s - toward the pier overlooking the Hudson River, where a drag queen in a platinum-blond wig and gold bamboo-style earrings swishes past a group of boys in baggy jeans. One shouts, "Hey, baby!" and she stops. With her backside facing the boys, she bends over in her pleated jean miniskirt and flashes them.

They come to this Manhattan pier at night from Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, New Jersey. The black and Hispanic young gay men and lesbians say this is the only place where they can be themselves. Here, boys in Timberland boots and fluorescent sweatshirts know they won't get beaten up for kissing each other, and girls with cornrows beneath backward baseball caps are not embarrassed to cuddle with other girls.

"This was like the first place I could really be exposed to people of my kind, without having to worry about getting bashed," said Cliff Jones, 20, of Harlem, whose neighbors don't know he is gay.

Jay Jeffries, 65, is white and gay. He has lived for 40 years in the West Village, where he participated in the first gay rights marches. From his second-floor window, he watches the roller-skating boys with boom boxes pressed to their ears and the fist-fighting girls wearing do-rags and jerseys.

He has never felt so out of place.

Residents such as Jeffries say they want the gays of the hip-hop generation to take their rowdiness elsewhere. They have demanded stricter curfews at the pier. They have lobbied to close a train stop on weekends to make it more difficult for gays from New Jersey to travel to the West Village, and to ban loitering in their neighborhood. They have suggested that park patrol officers - who police the pier - carry guns.

For decades, the West Village has welcomed gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual people of all backgrounds. It was here that a police raid of the Stonewall Inn - which happened frequently in gay bars during that era - set off the most famous gay riots in this city's history and fueled the start of the national gay rights movement. But gay old-timers living in the West Village are more subdued now. While some accept the young gays who flock to the village in the spring and summer, others can't relate.

Most of the gay teens and 20-somethings who flirt, kiss, smoke, dance and gossip on the pier, across the street from apartments and brownstones, don't know about the Stonewall riots, Jeffries said. "They're another generation. These are the people who got the rights" because people of his generation fought for them.

Part of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the West Village neighborhood is a shadow of the gay capital it once was, residents say.

Like the gays of color who hang out there today, the white men who surreptitiously cruised the neighborhood in the 1950s to meet other men were not always welcomed by the people who lived here, mostly Italian families. Long-timers say gays back then could not safely walk some streets and restaurants posted signs that read: "If You're Gay, Go Away."

With the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, the West Village came out to the world. It was the first time gays united to challenge police. Christopher Street, the area's main drag and where the riots began, became famous. More gays and lesbians moved in. So did bars, nightclubs and restaurants that catered to them.

In the 1980s, AIDS killed many residents of the neighborhood. The younger gay scene moved to Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen. Straight couples with children and wealthy gays snapped up vacant apartments. The West Village is a mixed neighborhood now, where one-bedroom apartments rent for about $3,600 a month. The pier was renovated and now has green lawns, picnic benches and bathrooms.

Bob Kohler, 80, a gay rights advocate who has lived in the West Village for 60 years, said the discrimination young people face in the West Village is no different from decades ago when gays could not hold hands in public. He said his neighbors simply "don't want black faces on Christopher Street."

But Jeffries, a playwright, said the newcomers disrupt the area. He can't sleep at night because they yell and curse outside his window. Sometimes they jump high enough to peep inside his apartment. He pretends to call police. He says he has watched drug deals and prostitution solicitations from his maroon futon. He doesn't dare use Christopher Street when it gets dark because he said boys grab him and shout, "Hey, papi!"

Before, "You could walk down the street and not get mugged, and not get harassed. I wouldn't dream of it now," he said.

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