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The Frightening and Foreboding Antigay New York City of 1993

The Frightening and Foreboding Antigay New York City of 1993


<p>The Frightening and Foreboding Antigay New York City of 1993</p>
Photo Courtesy of HBO

Talking with the director of HBO’s True Crime series, The Last Call docuseries about a serial killer that haunted gay men 30 years ago.

It was very late one night in 1993, a few months after I arrived in Manhattan, and I had just come out of a gay bar called The Works on the Upper West Side. I was a bit inebriated – ok, drunk. I had about 15 blocks to walk to the tiny one bedroom that I shared with a roommate, and I was cutting through Columbus Circle, which was dilapidated and desolate – nothing like it is today.

Suddenly, a spotlight embraced me, along with the sound of a ringing siren. It was the cops. From a loudspeaker on the car, I was told to “lie down on the ground.” My life passed before my eyes. The authorities were considered the enemy back then if you were gay, so I thought for sure I was being singled out. I also heard rumors about a serial killer targeting the gay community. Could this cop be him? Who would ever know if he killed me? The anxiety was overwhelming.

Once on the ground, petrified, the cop came over, and gave me a light kick. I looked up, and he stood there laughing. It was a guy I knew from the gym playing a prank. I had to act like it was hilarious, but little did he know about the terror that raced through my mind and heart.

That was 30 years ago. 1993 New York City was vastly different than it is today for a queer person, especially one like me who was new to the city. I moved to Gotham to be an actor. I went from a prestigious job on Capitol Hill with many friends, to bouncing around odd jobs while going to acting school, with no friends. I was also going to be a big star, so I had to make sure I was firmly in the closet.

It was a lonely and foreboding time, and it’s difficult to describe. I can’t remember how I found The Works, but I do remember hearing about Uncle Charlie’s in the Village. Those were the only two bars I went to for a while, and I had to get rip-roaring drunk before I walked into those establishments.

I always felt gay men were cliquish because nobody seemed to pay attention to me, to say hi, to welcome me over to join them for a drink. But then, why would they? I was a lush, and I also had a tinge of self-loathing. I am sure that I did not give off good karma or exuded any sort of comfort drinking my beer all by myself.

It’s not that I didn’t meet or talk to anyone. I did. But for the longest time, I was suspicious of any stranger. Were they the serial killer that I read about – I’ve always been a news junkie, so I knew that someone was lurking. And maybe they weren’t the killer, but the other question that always hung over a conversation with a stranger, did they have HIV or AIDS? I knew from my reading that New York City was ground zero for the virus, so to me, I just assumed everyone had it.

Add all of this to the fact that you never saw rainbow flags in multitudes like you today to make you feel welcome. Being gay, at least a solitary gay like I was, you didn’t feel comfortable anywhere because your first instinct was to hide. I had it all planned if someone caught me in a gay bar, either someone from my very straight gym, or from my acting class. I was at the ready feigning surprise, “This is a gay bar? Oh my God!”

There was just so much to be panicky about, and I had forgotten a lot about that dark year in New York City 30 years ago, until I watched the first episode of the latest HBO True Crime series, Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, which is about that mysterious serial killer that haunted the queer community in the early 1990s. It’s a flashback to the scariest time I ever had being a gay man.

I reached out to Anthony Caronna, the director of the series and who is nonbinary. The young creative adequately depicted the era in the series. Furthermore, the series gives special treatment to the victims without centering on any psychological or sensational elements involving the man convicted for the murders.

“We let everyone have their say, from the police, investigators, and all those who were affected by what was going on and those who knew the victims both personally and intimately,” Caronna said during a recent Zoom call. “We tried to make the series even as possible. We did not have an agenda except for the fact that we wanted to highlight the victims, including Peter Anderson, Thomas Mulcahy, Michael Sakara, Anthony Marrero, and those who knew and loved the victims.”

They added that it was through rigorous research that the production team found a lot of awareness gaps with the investigation into the murders at the time. “The investigators, including the New York City Police Department, just did not know much about the queer community, which is one of the reasons the investigation was hampered.”

I asked Caronna if, as a younger queer person, they had to transport themselves back into that time period to better understand the environment.

“Yes, to a certain degree. I realize things are a lot different today, but having said that, I’ve encountered my own share of homophobia, including being called a ‘faggot’ twice while on ways to doing interviews for the film. I think having that lived experience of being gay, and that fear of having slurs hurtled at me provided a perspective,” they said.

Caronna added: “We had Elon Green’s book as a wonderful reference, and we also had a great archivist, Nikita Shepherd, who helped us with the details around major figures and events that shaped the public perception towards queer people. We also worked with Matt Foreman and Bea Hanson from the AVP (NYC Anti-Violence Project). They were invaluable, as was the Pink Panthers and Edgar Rodriguez, a former NYPD sergeant and a member of the Gay Officers Action League, who provided insight about the homophobia in the department at that time.”

For Caronna, one thing they learned was how anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric contributed to violence and attitudes towards the queer community, and how that still exists today. “Matt and Bea really point this out during the series, and how it was so prevalent during the time period of the murders, and now we still see it today with people like [Florida Republican Gov.] Ron DeSantis.”

And they also said that there was some trepidation for those who knew the victims to come forward and talk. “I think there was some apprehension because they just didn’t want to put themselves through it again, and once they saw our intent was to shine a light on the lives of the victims, they were more willing to step forward. They really didn’t get a chance to talk about them during that time period, because so many people were afraid to come forward or be associated with a queer person.”

Finally, Caronna explained that despite the awful situations that were percolating through the city at that time, it can’t be forgotten that there was immense joy and cohesiveness occurring within the LGBTQ+ community.

“Yes, there was a fear, but there was also a big step forward in terms of activism with groups like AVP and ACT-UP that sprung up that raised awareness and made people stop and think about everything that was happening, and those groups were invaluable in bringing the community together.”

Catch the last episode of the docuseries that premieres July 30 on HBO the streams on Max.

Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York | Official Trailer | HBO

"Queer bars were one of the few places where we could come and feel safe… And then, all the sudden, everything was taken away.”Last Call: When A Serial Kille...


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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.