Media bias

“Out in the Night” examines how four black lesbians ended up in prison for defending themselves

The media painted them as “bloodthirsty lesbians” — now, a documentary is telling their side of the story

On August 18, 2006, what should have been a peaceful night out in a “gay-friendly” New York City neighborhood turned violent for a group of African-American lesbians. When the women were threatened by a man on the street in the West Village, they fought back and, ultimately, were charged with gang assault and attempted murder. For defending themselves from violence on the street, they would soon be defending themselves in court. Now streaming on PBS’ POV, the documentary Out in the Night follows four of the women from the time of the explosive event up to the present.

The film examines how race, gender identity, and sexuality intersected in the case, and impacted the trial, in which a jury found all of the women guilty of gang assault. Particularly troubling is the role the security footage played in the trial — or the role it didn’t play. The footage, which corroborated the women’s version of events, seems to have been overshadowed by bias against gay women.

The women’s version of events that night would certainly have justified self defense: They said a man called out to them as they walked by him, and threatened to “f**k them straight.” The situation escalated, and they were physically assaulted, they contended. The man’s actions turned violent as he ripped dreadlocks from the head of one woman and began choking another. One of the women (Patreese Johnson) pulled out a knife from her purse. During the altercation, the man was stabbed in the abdomen, and spent five days in the hospital. The entire incident was caught on security footage.

A media frenzy ensued. Filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther, who followed news coverage of the case closely, was shocked by the portrayal of the women in the days following the incident: while the male assailant was given the benefit of every doubt, the women were collectively smeared in a blame-the-victim campaign. “The idea that a man was an ‘admirer’ on the streets at 2 a.m. was really infuriating to me,” said Dorosh-Walther in a phone interview with Women in the World. “There was no understanding of these women. There was a disconnect … the media couldn’t identify with them, and I thought that was really a reflection of how they looked. Not just their race, but their gender presentation.”

Dorosh-Walther paid particular attention to the language used by the media to describe the women. “Seething saphic septet” and “Killer Lesbian Gang” were just a few of the sensational phrases published by The New York Post, the Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, and others in stories about the case.

“The word ‘gang’ creates this notion of someone not worthy of our sympathy. They weren’t looked at as the survivors of an assault that night,” said Dorosh-Walther. When the press “used an image of Terrain, [one of the women charged] with her head shaved and a white T-shirt, with the word ‘gang’ underneath it, it perpetuated this stereotype about what a member of a gang is supposed look like. I really think the media really did help create a more dangerous environment for queer women of color.”

The women involved in the incident, including Patreese Johnson, 28 and Renata Hill 33, were also acutely aware of the ways that the media were painting them. “Seeing the way they wrote about us and dehumanized us, they talked about us like we were animals. Anyone reading that would have been influenced,” said Hill in a phone interview.

“I feel like they had no consideration for our lives,” Johnson told Women in the World. “I wasn’t totally out yet to my family and my mom didn’t know I was a lesbian. So, they were the ones to tell my mom. And the way they tried to paint an image of us, it really did a job on us.”

Indeed, the women’s lives were torn asunder — all seven were given jail time. Though three pleaded guilty, four, including Hill and Johnson, maintained their innocence and received sentences between three-and-a-half to eight years.

“I think it really came down to the fact that these women were not believed,” said Dorosh-Walther of their contention that they acted in self-defense. “I think the second they walked into the courtroom, they were guilty,” she said. “It was as if the jury said, ‘We just do not believe black women who are gender nonconforming, especially when they unapologetically defend themselves.’ There was no acknowledgment that he approached them in a negative way.”

Johnson said the jury, “downplayed that this was violence against women. I feel like they turned it over and didn’t want to look at it because we were gay, and some of us were gender non-conforming.” Certainly, the women’s faith in the justice system was shattered. Hill said, “I did have trust in the police and the justice system. I didn’t have any other reason not to, until we were put in that situation.”

Beyond the particular case, Dorosh-Walther draws attention to the troubling lack of understanding on the part of the public about the ways that LGBT women experience street harassment. “If you’re perceived as gender-bending or gay, your chance of street harassment escalating to physical violence skyrockets. I don’t think that was understood,” said Dorosh-Walther.

This statistic is one of several findings from Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization working to document and and end such gender-based incidents, that point to a continued lack of safety on the street for women. “I think street harassment is becoming this word we’re aware of, but I don’t know that anything is happening,” said Dorosh-Walther. “Journalists are talking about LGBTQ issues, but aren’t talking about the violence that’s going on,” said Johnson. “They’re talking about successes, but can we get to the point where we actually start feeling safe?”

Since the film’s release, Dorosh-Walther says, it has been received with support — and outrage. “When we were making this film, we applied to many grants, and were told by a few funders that they didn’t believe the women because they laughed too much and didn’t cry. It really stuck with me, again, how we judge people.” And, some reviews criticized the film for not including interview footage with the judge or prosecutors, who chose not to be on film. (Contacted by WITW, the judge in the case chose not to comment). “I feel like if [the defendants] were white, I don’t know that they would have to be validated by another perspective,” the filmmaker added.

Having served their sentences, both Hill and Johnson are traveling actively with the film. This fall, Hill will enter her third semester of college, where she is studying human services and social work. Johnson has also enrolled in college. “I just want more people to not only have a voice, but to take action. I feel myself speaking so much, but I’m so ready for the action, for things to get moving, so women can really feel safe,” said Johnson.

Out in the Night will be streaming on PBS’s POV through July 23. Click here to watch it.

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