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Harlem LGBTQ Residents at Risk, Transphobia in Light of Vaughn Nettles Death

Harlem LGBTQ Residents at Risk, Transphobia in Light of Vaughn Nettles Death

Gentrification of neighborhoods always disrupts existing communities within them. Sometimes the disruption brought on by gentrification is expressed in anger and violence toward not only the transitional group ushering in the change, but also toward its existing denizens of the community.

In the pre-dawn hours of a Saturday in August, Islan Nettle, 21, who also went by the names Vaughn Nettles and Alon Nettles, was strolling and lollygagging with a group of her sister-friends on Frederick Douglas Boulevard between 147th and 148th Streets in Harlem. When she and the girls were recognized as transgender women, Paris Wilson, 20, began spewing homophobic epithets. Enraged by the sight of the women Wilson crossed the street to where the women were and savagely pummeled Nettles, resulting in her death, for allegedly being teased for flirting with a transgender woman.

Nettles death has shaken parts of Harlem, especially the Hamilton Heights community where Nettles was killed. Hamilton Heights in the last decade has gradually emerged as an LGBTQ community. A clear example of a new queer Harlem was in April 2010 when the Harlem Stage premiered the new documentary short film, "Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness," allowing the largest public dialogue on same-sex marriage by LGBTQ people of color in the country. New York native and award-winning African American gay filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris directed the film, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.

In June 2010, Harlem saw its first Pride. But Harlem still remains as both a complicated open and closeted queer social hot spot. Harlem’s transgender community wrestles more than any of us LGBQs with Harlem’s homophobia.

"In Harlem, it can be dangerous for transgenders to approach men. Some of the men are very aggressive and close-minded. You have to be careful who you approach, " Ms. Jennifer told DNAinfo New York.

The struggle of Harlem’s transgender community dates back, at least on record, to the early 1900’s.By the time of the Harlem Renaissance, roughly from 1920—1935, LGBTQ African Americans carved out for themselves a queer space of self-expression. Its transgender community during this era was notoriously cheered and despised for their drag ball extravaganzas. Langston Hughes depicted the balls as "spectacles of color." George Chauncey, author of Gay New York, wrote that during this period, "perhaps nowhere were more men willing to venture out in public in drag than in Harlem." But the visibility