By David Gonzalez
Originally published by the New York Times on April 2, 2017
Nayra and Gabriela don’t go out much these days, and not just because the two roommates are homebodies. When they venture outside their apartment in Queens, their hesitation is caused as much by emotional wounds as by physical injuries. The two friends are trans women, and though their Jackson Heights neighborhood has a reputation as a welcoming community for gays and lesbians, hate crimes against transgender women have alarmed many in the area.
On the afternoon of March 17, the two women were entering a McDonald’s restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue when they heard a man screaming behind them. When they turned around, they said, he began hurling insults.
“He called us prostitutes, faggots, bitches,” said Gabriela, 33, who, like her friend, spoke on the condition that her last name not be published because of the nature of the assault as well as lingering fear. “I looked at him and said, ‘Girl, this man is crazy.’ He wanted to hurt us.”
Within seconds, the encounter escalated from insults to injuries. The man rushed them, knocking them to the ground as he pummeled Nayra, whose ankle was fractured in the fall. Gabriella said that she had pounced on him but that he had gotten up, grabbed a broken umbrella and used it to beat her on her face and hands.
When he tried to escape, Gabriella chased him, grabbing at the waistband of his pants and slowing him down until the police arrived and took him into custody. No bystanders intervened during the attack, they said.
Now, what has been called a hate crime by the police has turned a neighborhood they love into one they fear.
“I can’t go out and see too many people,” Nayra, 31, said. “If I have appointments, I’ll take a taxi and come back home. I don’t want to see anybody. If I do, I freeze. If I go outside to smoke and I hear a man’s voice, I panic.”
Patrick Omeara, 38, of Oakdale, N.Y., was arrested and faces various charges, including assault as a hate crime. He could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Howard Turman, did not respond to several voice messages requesting comment. The case is in the pretrial stage, and the next court date is scheduled for Tuesday.
Jackson Heights has come a long way since skinheads lured Julio Rivera, a gay man, into a schoolyard and killed him. That 1990 attack galvanized activists and residents, and led to the establishment of the borough’s gay pride parade and a political club that has promoted laws and policies helping gay, lesbian and transgender people. Yet the attacks on trans women — three this year and 16 in 2016, according to local advocates — are an unsettling reminder of the work still to be done.
“People have this idea that New York City is free of violence and progressive,” said Shelby Chestnut, director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. “But violence is still occurring against many marginalized communities, and the trans community is deeply affected by that.
“We need to push the public to pay attention to trans issues and see it as a civil rights issue,” she continued. “We are in this moment in society where violence and hatred is emerging in a number of communities, and it exists in New York.”
Nationally, Ms. Chestnut said, transgender women are being killed in greater numbers than any other segment of the L.G.B.T. community. This year alone, she said, there have been seven such murders: Six victims were African-American, and one was Native American.
Advocates said these instances of violence were not isolated but the result of a combination of factors that leave African-American and Latina trans women vulnerable. Harassed in public, rejected by their families and uneasy in school or homeless shelters for men, they are left to fend for themselves and are at a higher risk of becoming victims of violence, advocates said. And the political debate over unauthorized immigrants has left many fearful of speaking out.
“The biggest challenge in working with transgender people is they often don’t have the self-esteem to think they are worth seeking support or help for themselves,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights.
“There is also distrust in going to the authorities, especially the police,” he said. “In the past they have gone there and faced harassment, even at night when they were coming home from the bars. That distrust causes hesitation.”
Nayra and Gabriela encountered some of this after the attack. Although the police who responded were helpful, they said, the detectives who followed up with them at the hospital made them uncomfortable by asking the same questions repeatedly, as if they did not believe them. Nor did the detectives speak Spanish, even though the women, who are Puerto Rican, have limited English proficiency.
Since that encounter in the hospital, the women said, they have yet to hear back from the police.
“We need more laws to ensure the security of trans women,” said Bianey Garcia, a transgender organizer with Make the Road New York. “We don’t need more police. We want the police who are already there to pay more attention to these cases.”
Until then, Gabriela and Nayra are paying extra attention.
“We never had anything happen to us before,” Gabriela said. “Now I walk with fear, like any woman. But now I pay more attention to what I hear around me. I notice more. I look at every little thing. If a couple of people pass by too close to me on the street, I keep walking, wait a little and then look back at them quickly to see if anyone is following me.”
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