The case of the “killer lesbians”
By Laura S. Logan
Several African-American lesbians who fought back against an alleged attack spent time in jail and prison after being convicted of crimes related to the incident. Laura S. Logan looks at how press coverage of the group, dubbed the New Jersey 7, shaped a narrative about the women that portrayed them as predators rather than victims – a story at odds with how we usually think about LGBT people who’ve been harassed. In light of a recent popular campaign to end the bullying of LGBT people, Logan says, this case begs the question: It gets better for whom? Laura is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Kansas State University and managing editor of the journal Gender & Society.
A few young friends, all lesbians, all African American, waited at a bus stop near Newark’s Penn Station on May 13, 2003. It was 3:30 a.m., and they were returning from a night of fun in the West Village. Two African American men approached the small group of women, which included 15-year-old Sakia Gunn. The men made sexual advances. Gunn and her friends identified themselves as lesbians and rejected them. Shortly thereafter, one of the men, Richard MuCullough, stabbed Sakia Gunn in the chest, killing her on the street.
Three years later, in August 2006, another group of African American lesbians from Newark were harassed on the street, this time while they were still in the West Village. Dwayne Buckle, an African American man selling DVDs on the sidewalk, allegedly propositioned them as they walked past him. Buckle’s first remark was directed to Patreese Johnson: “Let me get some of that.” Thinking he was homeless and hungry, Johnson said, she asked if he wanted some of her friend’s soda. “No, some of that,” she recalled Buckle replying, pointing to below her waist.
Several of the young women yelled at him, and told him that they were lesbians and not interested. Buckle allegedly continued his harassment, adding homophobic threats and taunts. He said would “fuck them straight,” according to reports and court testimony. He threw a cigarette at one woman and spit at another, according to the women, leading to a brief physical altercation. Afterwards, the women turned to leave; a video camera from a nearby business shows them walking away. The same film shows Buckle following them. He continued to taunt them with anti-lesbian slurs, the women said, grabbed his genitals through his clothing, made explicitly obscene remarks, and threatened them –leading quickly to a second fight.
Buckle grabbed the women by the neck or hair, according to reports. They tried to defend themselves, but as they would free one woman from his grasp, Buckle grabbed another by the hair or throat, according to the women’s reports of the incident. Throughout the attack, Buckle yelled homophobic slurs and threatened them with sexual assault, they said. Much of the incident was caught on film by the nearby video surveillance camera, though a portion of the view was blocked by a pillar. At one point at least two or three male bystanders can be seen joining the fight in defense of the young women.
When the incident ended, the women were hurt: three had hair pulled out of their scalps, one had a bloody lip and two suffered neck injuries. Buckle was stabbed and required surgery for a lacerated liver. He spent five days in the hospital. At trial, Buckle was unable to identify who stabbed him. The prosecutor alleged that the woman who wielded the knife was Patreese Johnson, who did indeed have a knife that night (although her knife had no blood on it). The defense suggested that one of the bystanders stabbed Buckle. None of the bystanders, all men, were ever apprehended and none stepped forward to identify themselves.
All but one of these women, dubbed the New Jersey 7, were convicted for the incident. One of them remains in prison today. The women, their advocates, family and friends, and their attorneys say that the New Jersey 7 were unfairly prosecuted and too harshly sentenced and that the women’s self-defense was criminalized. All of the New Jersey 7 either knew Sakia Gunn personally or knew that she had been murdered in a street harassment incident three years earlier. The media, they say, helped foster an environment that made it easy to mischaracterize the women’s acts of self-defense.
There are obvious similarities between the Sakia Gunn murder and the New Jersey 7 incident. The big difference in the case of the New Jersey 7, however, is that the women who were allegedly harassed and attacked on the street fought back and all survived. This is how one of the 7’s prosecutors described it at trial: “They didn’t run away. They were not fearful. They were emboldened.” (NY Post 6/15/07).
This case resulted in a flurry of sensational headlines, such as this one from the New York Post: “ATTACK OF THE KILLER LESBIANS: MAN ‘FELT LIKE I WAS GOING TO DIE’” (4/12/2007), and this one, also from the Post: “GIRL GANG STABS WOULD-BE ROMEO” (8/19/2006). Television media also sensationalized the case. Bill O’Reilly titled a segment about the case on his Fox News show “Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem.” The Southern Poverty Law Center noted in response that “there is no evidence the women are members of a criminal gang, and O’Reilly failed to report that the attack was prompted, according to the New York Daily News, by Buckle spitting, cursing, and flicking a cigarette at the women after one of them rebuffed his sidewalk sexual advances” (Intelligence Report, Fall 2007, Issue 127). In spite of this, the women were charged and most of them convicted of felony gang assault.
Despite these mostly local lurid headlines, however, the New Jersey 7 case attracted little sustained attention from the media. Even so, the framing of the incident is disturbing. Media reports illuminate the intersecting social inequalities in this case – that is, how it matters to be Black and lesbian and from a poor/working class New Jersey neighborhood and to be harassed and attacked on the street in New York City by a Black heterosexual man.
Moreover, the assault against these lesbians, the consequences they faced, and the relative public silence about the case stand in stark juxtaposition with the thriving – and largely white and middle-class – movement against the bullying of LGBT youth and the “It Gets Better” campaign – a campaign inspired in part by the suicides of several young gay men.
The Angry Black Woman, Transformed
I analyzed all of the thirty newspaper stories about the case from U.S. newspapers, and found that advocates for the New Jersey 7 were correct. The media did help to foster a context where reading the women’s actions as self-defense was very difficult. These stories presented the 7 as wild and animalistic, playing to our worst stereotypes about “angry black women.” The stories also had an odd and disturbing narrative arc – after their convictions and sentencing, some of them stunning in their length and severity, the media re-imagined the 7. They were transformed from rampaging beasts to weepy young girls, suggesting that in their punishment for self-defense, they were redeemed and no longer dangerous.
The angry black woman, prone to impulsive acts of random violence, is a longstanding racialized stereotype. In accounts of this case, that image was hammered home again and again. In addition to characterizing the women as furious and out of control, news reports repeatedly emphasized that the New Jersey 7 were lesbians, and used animal imagery and language to describe them and their actions. The women were referred to as “a gang of angry lesbians” (NY Daily News 4/13/07); “tough lesbians from New Jersey” (NY Daily News 4/19/07); “bloodthirsty young lesbians” (NY Post 4/12/07); “a gang of four tough-as-nails lesbians” (NY Post 4/019/07); a “gang of seven rampaging lesbians” (NY Post 6/15/07); and, “a pack of marauding lesbians” (NYT 4/14/07). One headline exclaimed, “A FURIOUS LESBIAN raged, ‘I’m a man!’” and went on to describe the incident as a “wild seven-on-one beatdown,” (NY Daily News 4/13/07).
Overall, almost two-thirds of the articles characterized the women as angry lesbians in one way or another, and nearly half also used animal imagery or language. They were “wild,” a “wolf pack,” and a “she-wolf pack.” The women “pounced,” “growled,” and “roared,” they “preyed upon” the victim – and several of the articles used such terms more than once. The message is that these women were dangerously wild, masculinized monsters.
Articles that focused on the women’s reactions to the verdict, however, represented the 7 as the polar opposite of the angry black woman. The killer lesbians were transformed into tearful docile girls after their convictions. The women become wounded little girls or delicate submissive waifs. They are called “crying convicts,” “sobbing friends,” and “weepy women.” Several news stories describe the women as “led sobbing or hysterical from the courtroom” (Star Newark 4/19/07). One reporter described part of the trial: “The young women sobbed and wailed ‘No-oo!’ ‘Mommy!’ and ‘I didn’t do it!’” (NYT 4/19/07). The New York Post wrote:
The pint-sized ringleader of a gang of seven rampaging lesbians collapsed shrieking in a Manhattan courtroom yesterday as a judge sentenced her to 11 years in prison for the brutal beat-down and stabbing of a man who promised to turn them “straight” in Greenwich Village last summer. “Noooo!” 4-foot-11, 95-pound Patreese Johnson wailed after learning her startling sentence – the highest several defense lawyers had ever heard of for a nonfatal stabbing. “No!” she sobbed. “Please! Nooooo!” Johnson, 20, fell to the courtroom floor and was carried out kicking and screaming.(6/15/07)
This is how the New York Times put it: “As they were sentenced, the young women wept and wailed, one of them crying, ‘I’m a good girl!’” (6/15/07). These media accounts are a sort of Greek tragedy with dueling choruses, one joyously chanting, “You are girls after all!” the other taunting, “You are not so tough now, are you ladies?”
Another way to look at it: after passing through the criminal justice system, the wild animals are reformed, changed from bad lesbians who acted like masculine monsters to docile little girls, crying for their mothers.
It gets better for whom?
One of the most striking facts about this case is how little attention it received beyond a few lurid accounts. The New Jersey 7 incident and the circumstances of Sakia Gunn’s death suggest that a Black lesbian who has the misfortune of encountering sexualized street harassment be virtually ignored if she dies and will be punished if she lives.
There’s a sharp contrast between reaction to these cases and attention to bullying in schools. The “It Gets Better” Project has drawn substantial public attention to this issue; there are now more than 400,000 members of the movement. While it is unquestionably important to address bullying, we must also acknowledge that it takes on different forms in different contexts. Street harassment – certainly a type of bullying – is an incredibly common experience for women across almost all social categories, but particularly affects urban women, including woman of color and those who are poor.
It won’t get better for the New Jersey 7. The group included at least two couples, now felons who can no longer associate with any other felon, including each other. The women with felony convictions cannot vote, adding them to the growing rosters of disenfranchised African American voters in the U.S. Others lost physical custody of their children while in prison, and several must now navigate a depressed job market with a felony gang conviction on their records. All of which begs the question: It gets better for whom?
We need to make sure that it gets better for people who aren’t middle class, white or male. It will get better when we address inequalities, starting with those who are the most oppressed. It could get better if we put the brakes on a voracious criminal justice system and if we stop criminalizing survival. And it will get better when a group of young African American lesbian friends can walk down the street knowing they are safe from sexual harassment and threats of violence.
Chesney-Lind, Meda and Nikki Jones, eds. 2010. “Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence.” SUNY Press.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, ed. 2006. “The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology.” South End Press.
Miller, Jody. 2008. “Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence.” NYU Press.