'Gang of Lesbian Killers' Reveal the Homophobia That Landed Them Behind Bars
On a warm summer night in 2006, a group of seven friends from Newark, N.J., stepped out in the historically gay-friendly neighborhood of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. All lesbian women of color, most in their teens and early 20s, the women were seeking a reprieve from the dangerous streets of their hometown.
For lesbian and gender nonconforming women, Newark could be a violent place. Three years prior, a 15-year-old acquaintance of the group named Sakia Gunn was stabbed to death in the street for being gay.
One of the women in New York City that night was Patreese Johnson, who said when she was a teenager, “I was walking home one day and a man came up behind me, put a gun to my head, and asked me for my phone number,” said Johnson. “I even knew his twin brother.”
Instead of the reprieve from homophobia the Jersey residents hoped to find in the big city, the women were sexually propositioned by a man sitting outside a popular movie theater. After he was told the women were gay and not interested, the man became aggressive and started tossing homophobic epithets at them. His outbursts turned violent.
Video surveillance of the incident showed the man tearing the braids from the head of one woman and triumphantly holding them over his head. Moments before, he was shown on top of another woman, strangling her, while her friends attempted to clear him away. Over the course of the melee, which lasted four minutes, the man was stabbed in the stomach but survived.
The story made international headlines. Though the man survived with only minor injuries, his homophobic rants and aggressive actions were left out of the narrative—replaced by the tale of a “gang” of angry lesbians who attacked, unprovoked, an innocent heterosexual man. The New York media branded the women a “wolf pack” and a “gang of lesbian killers.”
“Nobody ever asked us our side of the story,” Johnson, who spent nearly eight years in prison for her role, told TakePart. “We stood our ground, and look at the consequences.”
Prosecutors charged the women with gang activity and assault, and three others—Renata Hill, Venice Brown, and Terrain Dandridge—were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three and a half to 11 years in 2007.
Activists dubbed the women the New Jersey Four.
More than eight years after the incident that sent them to prison, all of the New Jersey Four have finally been released and have decided to fight back once again—by telling their story in a new documentary by Blair Dorosh-Walther called Out in the Night.
A recent survey by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of women polled reported being harassed in the public sphere, and 41 percent experienced physically aggressive harassment. The problem of harassment is felt even more profoundly by women of color—particularly lesbian, transgender, or gender nonconforming women of color.
For Johnson, the harassment hasn’t stopped since she was released from prison. She recalled a recent bus ride where a man wouldn’t stop trying to proposition her. When she said no, he became angry and asked if she was scared of him.
“I told him, ‘No, I’m not scared. I’m just trying to enjoy my music. Leave me alone.’ If I had told him I was a lesbian and that’s why I wasn’t interested, I’m positive it would have escalated into something really bad,” Johnson said.
Hill has run-ins all the time too.
“I was jumped by two men in a bus terminal,” she said. “The bus driver had to jump in and break it up. You get accustomed to the fact that people have negative feelings towards you. You go numb.”
Out in the Night director Dorosh-Walther was an activist supporting the cause of the New Jersey Four back in 2006, becoming involved after witnessing the media blowback against them.
“By comparing these women to animals, the media response elevated the situation on the streets and made it far more dangerous [for the LGBT community],” Dorosh-Walther said.
After meeting the women in prison, she felt their story was too important not to share.
“The past few years have seen tremendous gains for the marriage equality movement,” Dorosh-Walther said. “But is that effort overshadowing a more basic right for the LGBT community, to be safe in the streets—especially for this demographic?”
Incidents of hate violence against the LGBT community are on the rise nationally, jumping 21 percent last year alone.
“People need to stop feeling like this is not their issue because they’re not in it,” said Johnson. “It wasn’t your daughter or your sister this time. But it could be one day.”
Both Johnson and Hill still feel anger over the injustice done to them—but they hope their story will inspire a larger conversation about the need for LGBT people to defend themselves against homophobic attacks.
“I will never be able to say I was proud the man was hurt,” Hill said. “But I am proud that we stood up. And I’m especially proud that people are now standing up with us.”