This summer, after a string of high-profile incidents of anti-LGBT violence beset New York City, the City Council began sponsoring free self-defense classes for LGBT people in all five boroughs. Put to use, such classes could save lives. But for some, they could also translate into a prison sentence.
Across the United States, LGBT people are arrested for acting in self-defense — particularly people who are transgender, low-income, and of color.
Ask Patreese Johnson, who will be released from a New York State penitentiary in August after seven and a half years inside. When she departs Taconic Correctional Facility on August 13, Johnson will leave with family ties weakened by distance and time, little money, and tough job prospects. All this, her advocates say, for defending herself against a homophobic, misogynist attacker who ended up facing no criminal charges. So, they ask, is Johnson in prison for the offense of surviving?
For many gender and sexual minorities, they see two choices when faced with a violent situation: Take the harm lying down, or fight back and face time behind bars. In Johnson's case, she was determined not to end up like her schoolmate from Newark, Sakia Gunn, another lesbian who was killed in 2003 after turning down the sexual advances of two straight men.
In 2006, Johnson was one of a group of seven black lesbians from New Jersey who were walking down Sixth Avenue in New York City's West Village when she said a man selling videos on the sidewalk began making sexual advances toward one of them. Grabbing his crotch, he shouted come-ons like "I'll fuck you straight, sweetheart!" The women walked on, but he followed, and threw a lit cigarette at one of them. That's when a fight broke out.
The women were demonized by press accounts. The New York Post's headline read "Attack of the Killer Lesbians," while the Daily News described them as a “lesbian wolf pack.” In court, Buckle changed his story, saying that one of the women had stabbed him, and that the group was guilty of "a hate crime against a straight man." Buckle spent five days in the hospital; four of the women, none of whom had previous criminal records, got prison terms ranging from three-and-a-half to 11 years. Two of them were mothers of small children. A national campaign to "Free the New Jersey Four" followed; a documentary film will premiere next year.
A few weeks from her scheduled release, Johnson is surprisingly upbeat. “Just one day in prison is hell, but you have to make the best out of any situation,” she says. Occasional visits from her nieces have kept her spirits up over the years, as have her “girls” — close friends she’s made inside who “can always make me laugh.”
The tabloid media’s portrayal of Johnson and her friends has, predictably, made her untrusting of what she reads in newspapers and sees on TV. “If it wasn’t for my case I would most likely believe everything the media puts out,” she says. Now, “I question everything.” When she’s allowed TV privileges, she mostly sticks to The Weather Channel.