Monday, October 1, 2007

New Jersey, Lesbian 4: Lessons

I read of this case a few weeks back in one of the gay publications here in Chicago. I didn't blog about it then. (More on that later). As real life called, and other news items caught my interest, I kind of forgot about it. While writing about the Jena 6, however, I remembered the story I read of 4 black non-heterosexual women in New Jersey where something similar was going down.

So, I turned to the internet.

I remembered that some were calling them the "New Jersey 4" or the "Lesbian 4." I googled that term. Amid the search results was information about the New Jersey 4-H club, New Jersey Route 4, and some New Jersey hockey scores.

Compare that to a google search for the Jena 6.

After having said that, I'm going to resist comparing the acts of violence in this case to the acts of violence in the Jena 6 case.

I wasn't there. I don't know what happened.

Accounts of the facts vary from one article to the next.

Here is my nutshell summarization:

A group of 7 women were walking home in the early morning hours in New York City. They walked by a man who, according to them, made sexual advances on one of them. The women claimed that after they told the man they weren't interested, he began calling them "fucking dykes" and that he claimed "I'll fuck you straight, sweetheart!" The man admitted that one of them was "slightly pretty," that he called one of them an "elephant," and told another that she looked "like a man." The women and the man began fighting each other (there are conflicting accounts as to who started it). Some men on the street joined in the fight. And, the man ended up being stabbed. Surveillance cameras captured some of this incident, including pictures of the fight- where it shows the man choking one of the women and holding clumps of her hair. One of the women was carrying a knife, yet DNA evidence was never entered into evidence at her trial. The knife-wielding woman is 4'11" and weighs 95 pounds.

The women were arrested. 4 of them went to trial. None of them had prior criminal records. They received sentences of between 3.5 and 11 years in prison.

Mainstream media coverage of this incident is telling.

1. Mainstream Media Accounts Largely Assume That the Women Were Guilty, Violent, and Not Acting in Self-Defense.

I found many (most?) mainstream media accounts, written by alleged "professional" reporters who were also not there that day, to be infuriating.

One particular article by someone named Laura Italiano from The New York Post had the misleading and dramatic headline: "Attack of the Killer Lesbians." Within the article, the reporter describes the women as "bloodthirsty young lesbians" and reports that the man only wanted to say "hi" to one of the women who was (only) "slightly pretty." The reporter presents the "victim's" side as fact and as though his side has a neutral point of view. For instance, she writes "One of them was 'slightly pretty,'" so the freelance film director decided to say hi." This sentence starts the article. Notice how it doesn't end with a "according to the man" or "he claims."

Meanwhile, she presents the women's side as their "claim." For instance, the reporter writes, "[the victim] began calling them 'f----ing dykes,' they say." Yes, they do say, don't they? Clearly, the implication goes, that is just their dishonest? side of the story.

Again, I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. But this reporter wasn't there either, yet she has presented a one-sided story (to say the least).

The New York Post, it seems, cares more about coming up with dramatic and irresponsible headlines than they do about getting to the bottom of a case or presenting a neutral story.

What is telling to me is that most mainstream media accounts assume that the women violently attacked the man without cause, or without just cause. Even if the man made homophobic comments, the implications go, this is no excuse to attack him. For, lesbians are not "real" women, and therefore, they do not feel threatened or scared of men in the same way that straight women can and are. Also, the man was making disapproving comments of the women's sexual/gender identities-- this disapproval is something he shares with many Americans. His comments, therefore, are justified in their eyes, and as some heterosexuals cannot or do not see how such comments are threatening, the comments provide no valid reason for the women to "defend" themselves.

Secondly, when we hear of women being attacked or threatened in the news, the women are usually the ones who end up in the hospital. Women are usually the victims. And because these women put a man in the hospital, it is easy for people to assume that the women must have just jumped him without good reason. If the man wanted to attack the women or rape them, he just would have. See, many people assume that women are incapable of successully defending themselves against a man who threatens or attacks them.


2. The Media Paints "Other" People As Inherently Violent

As a blogger who considers herself politically aware, I am somewhat ashamed that I didn't write about this story earlier. But as with the Jena 6 situation, I wanted to read more about the case. What I found, however, was that there aren't many prominent articles about this. And, disturbingly, in most mainstream media articles, the headline includes the word "Lesbian." This trend of pointing out that a perpetrator is somehow "other" (Than white? Than heterosexual?) is all too common in media coverage of violent events. When was the last time a white heterosexual assaulted someone with subsequent headlines stating "White Avowed Hetero Kicks Someone's Ass"?

Yes, lesson #2, "others" are inherently violent. When white people kill, it's because they're mentally ill or something. And it's not a reflection on their entire race or gender.

3. Blogs and Alternative Media Remain Essential

It is cases like these where, once again, I appreciate alternative media and the blogosphere. This blogger's take on the situation counters the mainstream view and gives insight into what may have happened at the trial. This is why blogs are relevant and essential. Most news reports are biased. Most blogs are biased. Most bloggers, me included, write from their own perspective and worldview. But at least my worldview is based on my own sense of morality, and my point of view isn't dicated by corporate media interests. In other words, when I write articles I'm not scared of offending The Man.

The blogosphere brings democracy and greater participation to current events. People of all political stripes lambast the "MSM" (mainstream media) for being too liberal/conservative. Blogs give people the ability to do more than bitch about these biases, but to write about them, expose them, and offer their own takes on what's happening in the world. Isn't that all any article is, really- Somebody's take on a situation? Or, somebody's edited take on a situation that won't offend corporate interests that control the media?

4.'s my last lesson- my humble take on the New Jersey 4:

To me, the (scarce) coverage and the case reeks of a situation where the word of 7 women mean less than the word of 1 man. Reading the blog about the trial, it is easy for me, as a lesbian attorney, to imagine that sexism/homophobia really happening. It is still pretty much a man's court. Less so than in the past. But I can imagine many courtrooms being hostile to black women who "look like men."

It is analagous to Sharia where a woman who has been raped needs 4 male witnesses to prove that a rape occurred. The basic idea is that a man's word is somehow more "honest," more valid, than a woman's.

Yet, this case is complicated by the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality. As black women who identify as something other than heterosexual, they face discrimination and oppression on several levels. Perhaps, their word as multiple "other" women- black, non-straight, and poor women means even less than the word of women who are white, or heterosexual, or wealthy/middle-class.

As Frances from Queer Woman of Color blog writes:

Look I don't think gays suffer more that [people of color] or that [people of color] suffer more than white women or that women in general suffer more than trans folks or anything like that. But I do think when different minority classifications get combined the likelihood of something being written off faster is likely.

Part of me wants this case to explode, like Jena 6 has. Yet part of me fears these women becoming the case du jour of the homobigot crowd who will claim that this is proof positive that lesbians are violent, sick, and hate men. I can see them invoking the New Jersey 4 as a scare tactic that gay people are getting too powerful. And that it's not the bigots who are full of hate, but gay people who are full of hate. The male so-called victim is already accusing these women of committing a hate crime against him (for being a man) using the age-old stereotype that all lesbians hate men.

And then..... part of me wants to admonish the gay community for ignoring our own. How about less drunk pride parading and more social protesting, eh?

Spread the word.

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