Just before 2 AM on an August morning in 2006, seven gay black women were harassed as they walked down a street in New York City’s West Village. A man seated on a fire hydrant outside a movie theater called them “dyke bitches,” according to one of the women. He told them, “I’ll fuck you straight.” Dissatisfied by their response, he spit at them and threw a cigarette.
What happened next, a confrontation which led to four of the women being convicted on felony charges and spending years in prison, is the subject of Out in the Night, a documentary streaming online until July 23 and which premiered on PBS and Logo TV last week.
In short, the man—who was discovered to have commented online that “women should welcome your advances because that’s how the race should propagate itself” and that “80 percent of serial killers are homosexual”—sustained stab wounds after one of the women pulled a knife in the midst of the melee that followed. The women, who had traveled to the Village from New Jersey that night, suffered among them a bruised eye and busted lip, a fistful of dreadlocks pulled from the scalp, and choke marks on the neck, among other injuries. The women maintain that their harasser swung first, and that his aggression eventually drew the attention and involvement of onlookers.
But in the eyes of many of the corporate media outlets that reported on the incident, the women were the savage and bloodthirsty aggressors. A New York Post headline called the incident “Attack of the Killer Lesbians.” Other headlines read: “The Case of the Lesbian Beatdown,” “Gal’s Growl: Hear me Roar,” and “Girls Gone Wilding.” Even the staid New York Times ran a headline that implied that a benign encounter had gone wrong because some woman couldn’t lighten up: “Man is stabbed in attack after admiring a stranger.”
It wasn’t just the media that treated the women harshly, the film argues: the criminal justice system did as well. They faced felony charges, including gang assault (simply on account of the size of their group), attempted murder, and criminal possession of a weapon. Three of them were, as an attorney interviewed puts it, “coerced by circumstance” and pled guilty. Presumably the risk of doing serious time behind bars was too much. The women who went to trial—Venice Brown, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, and Terrain Dandridge—became known as the New Jersey Four.
In the June issue of the The Journal of American History, University of Texas at Austin professor Kali Nicole Gross offers context that helps explain why those dehumanizing headlines made it past New York City’s copy desks and why the courts handled the incident as a gang case. In an essay about the historical experiences of black women and incarceration, she writes of late-19th- and early-20th-century architects of criminology: “Criminal anthropologists assessed female deviance, in part, by subjects’ proximity to, or distance from, Western ideals of femininity, morality, and virtue—standards against which black women failed to measure up. Proponents…masculinized black women, claiming that their physical ‘correspondence with the male is very strong’—an aberration reputedly indicative of congenital criminality.”