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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

For gays, a generation gap grows

Young people from the hip-hop era flock to New York's West Village, where the gay liberation movement began. They aren't accepted by all.

May 18, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE young gays and lesbians stream from subway stops dressed in their flashiest gear: rainbow sunglasses, 6-inch-high gold wedge sandals, a fatigue-printed hoodie, a rhinestone-studded pink Playboy bunny bag.

Hundreds of them make their way through the West Village -- home of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s -- toward the pier overlooking the Hudson River, where a drag queen in a platinum-blond wig and gold bamboo-style earrings swishes past a group of boys in baggy jeans. One shouts, "Hey, baby!" and she stops. With her backside facing the boys, she bends over in her pleated denim miniskirt and flashes them.

They come to this Manhattan pier at night from Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, New Jersey. The black and Latino gays and lesbians say this is the only place where they can be themselves. Here, boys in Timberland boots and fluorescent sweatshirts know they won't get beaten up for kissing each other, and girls with cornrows beneath backward baseball caps are not embarrassed to cuddle other girls.

"This was like the first place I could really be exposed to people of my kind, without having to worry about getting bashed," said Cliff Jones, 20, of Harlem, whose neighbors don't know he is gay.

Jay Jeffries, 65, is white and gay. He has lived for 40 years in the West Village, where he participated in the first gay rights marches. From his second-floor window, he watches the roller-skating boys with boomboxes pressed to their ears and the fistfighting girls wearing do-rags and jerseys.

He has never felt so out of place.

Residents like Jeffries say they want the gays of the hip-hop generation to take their rowdiness elsewhere. They have demanded stricter curfews at the pier. They have lobbied to close a train stop on weekends to make it more difficult for people from New Jersey to travel to the West Village, and to ban loitering in their neighborhood. They have suggested that park patrol officers -- who police the pier -- carry guns.

For decades, the West Village has welcomed gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people of all backgrounds. It was here that a police raid -- which happened frequently in gay bars in the 1960s -- at the Stonewall Inn set off the most famous gay riots in this city's history and fueled the start of the national gay rights movement. But old-timers still living in the West Village are more subdued now. While there are those who accept the young gays who flock to the village in the spring and summer, others can't relate.

"They're all out with their radios," Jeffries said, "and they're just hip-hopping all over the street."

Most of the gay teens and 20-somethings who flirt, kiss, smoke, dance and gossip on the pier, across the street from apartments and brownstones, don't know about the Stonewall riots, Jeffries said. "They're another generation. These are the people who got the rights" because his generation fought for them.

"There's no willingness to interact," Jeffries said, "or to really treat us with the respect we deserve."

*

PART of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the West Village -- with its cobblestone streets lined with porn shops and tattoo parlors -- is a shadow of the gay capital it once was, residents say.

The white men who surreptitiously cruised the neighborhood in the 1950s to meet other men were not always welcomed by residents, mostly Italian families. Long-timers say gays could not safely walk some streets, and restaurants posted signs such as: "If You're Gay, Go Away."

Bohemian artists, playwrights and poets moved into the West Village because of its affordable rent and central location. The neighborhood became more open-minded. Gay activity was still mostly underground, but the scene at the pier was just as rowdy as it is today.

With the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, the West Village came out to the world. It was the first time gays united to challenge police. Christopher Street, the area's main drag and where the riots began, became famous. More gays and lesbians moved in. So did bars, nightclubs and restaurants that catered to them.

In the 1980s, AIDS took its toll on the neighborhood. The younger gay scene moved to Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen. Straight couples with children and wealthy gays snapped up vacant apartments. West Village is a mixed neighborhood now, where one-bedroom apartments rent for about $3,600 a month. The pier was renovated and now has green lawns, picnic benches and bathrooms.

Bob Kohler, 80, a gay rights advocate who has lived in the West Village for 60 years, said the discrimination young people face in the West Village is no different from decades ago when gays could not hold hands in public. He said his neighbors simply "don't want black faces on Christopher Street."

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