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For gays, a generation gap grows

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.”

But Jeffries, a playwright, said the newcomers disrupt the area. He can’t sleep at night because they yell and curse outside his window. Sometimes they jump high enough to peep inside his apartment. He pretends to call police. He says he has watched drug deals and prostitution pick-ups. He doesn’t dare use Christopher Street when it gets dark because he said boys grab him and shout, “Hey, papi!”

Before, “you could walk down the street and not get mugged, and not get harassed. I wouldn’t dream of it now,” he said. “They come from a whole different background.”

On a recent evening on the pier, a man in a suit walks his white bichon, two girls kiss, a wave tumbles, and a cry rings out in the night: “Ahhh, they fighting!”

In the middle of a crush of young people, two girls are pummeling each other’s faces. They tumble to the ground, somehow finding their way upright again. The crowd follows the fight, rolling like a tidal wave from one end of the pier to the other. Suddenly, one girl is dangling partly over a rail as another girl hits her.

“They’re gonna throw her in the water!” someone shouts. She breaks free, running toward a bathroom wearing only a bra and jeans. Her shirt was ripped off in the frenzy. Fifteen minutes later, police show up, but the crowd has dispersed.

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IT takes 19-year-old Danny Watson an hour and a half -- catching a bus, to a ferry, to a train -- to get to the West Village from Staten Island. On this evening, he arrived in a Ralph Lauren shirt and jeans, and Gucci slip-on canvas shoes. He wore his hair in a low-cut Mohawk, and kept a Bluetooth device on his ear to talk on his cellphone. Surveying the chic crowd, he said, “This area is monumental.”

Watson discovered the pier after attending the gay pride parade three years ago. It was the first time he felt proud of his sexuality. In Staten Island, his neighbors and friends are mostly heterosexual Italians and Catholics, he said. There is a gay scene there, but Watson said he doesn’t fit in because he is black. He has eight sisters and he lives with his mother. They accept his orientation, he said, “as long as I don’t throw it in their face.”

People need to understand, he said, that the face of the gay movement has changed, and the West Village should not be scared of it.

“You have to look at the person inside and not just view them as ‘oh, these kids have all these crazy colors on, they’re always loud and laughing,’ ” Watson said. “You don’t know what they go through in their lives or what they come here for. This is where they feel like they have to be.”

Decades ago, white gays settled in the West Village because it was safe, said Rickke Mananzala, co-director of FIERCE, a gay youth advocacy organization. He said young people tell him that they come for the same reason, and that they have a right to hang out in the West Village even if they can’t afford to live here.

The resistance of residents caught many of the young gays off guard. It is one thing to not be accepted by heterosexuals who live in the West Village, Mananzala said, but the young people never expected to be cast off by other gays.

When Ahkeelah Mack, 22, realized some gays didn’t want people like her hanging out, “it was a big confusion,” she said. “People who are supposed to be a part of [our] community are coming down on us instead.”

Mack grew up in Brooklyn with her Christian Jamaican family. Her mother did not understand why Mack wore baggy jeans and braided hair like a boy. When she was 15, her mother kicked her out because she could not accept that Mack was a lesbian. The pier became like home.

She has met gay residents who are supportive, but she said others “forget what it’s like to be a kid. Maybe they lost sight of what they went through at our age.”

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CHRISTINE Quinn, New York City Council speaker, who is gay, has tried to appease both sides. She has called for increased police patrols and arranged for a youth organization to offer AIDS counseling. Residents say her efforts do not go far enough.

People just want peace and quiet, said David Poster, president of the Christopher Street Patrol, a neighborhood watch group. He has lived in the West Village for more than 30 years, and he said it has always been an open-minded place. It is not about being gay or straight, black or white, Poster said. “It’s about behavior. You cannot walk on the street. They force you to walk in the gutter, and if you dare to walk through them or bump into them, that’s it. There’s a war.”

The young gays’ behavior can be irritating, said Kohler, who participated in the Stonewall protests, watched his neighbors die from AIDS and refused to move when the neighborhood became straighter and wealthier.

“Do we crucify people because they’re a nuisance? Do we go up to them and say, ‘You don’t belong here for being young and loud, and being people of color?’

“It’s life,” he said. “It changes, and we have to change with it.”

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com


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