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August 1st, 2007     by Derek Hogue     Issue 3: Issue 3: Life After High School     Comments

Gay gangs of New York?

What do you get if you’re a young, black lesbian standing up to male street harassment in New York’s famous gay West Village? If it were up to Shameless: a loud shout-out and a fat shiny medal. But for the New Jersey Four, a group of young women who decided to defend themselves when a man verbally harassed them and spat on them, the answer is a combined sentence of 27 and a half years in prison. The sentence is a clear message to young queers of colour in New York’s gentrifying gaybourhood: stay quiet or stay out.

Venice Brown, 19, Terrain Dandridge, 20, Patreese Johnson, 20, and Renata Hill, 24, were sentenced in August after a year-long court battle where the stakes were set against them from the start. The white judge repeatedly stated that he had no sympathy for the four. The courtroom drama focused on the “gang-like” behaviour of the women, reinforcing a stereotype of criminal black youth. The white women on the jury questioned the four women’s right to be in the Village, asking if they could afford it. Even with video footage that showed their male aggressor pulling out the women’s hair and attempting to choke one of them, the New Jersey Four were branded a predatory “lesbian wolfpack” by the media. National reports of dangerous “gay gangs” began circulating on conservative media channels like Fox News.

The incident provides clues to the changing nature of New York’s West Village. Historically the birthplace of the US gay and lesbian movement, the area has undergone a long process of gentrification. Condo developers and chic businesses have taken over the lowerincome areas. As new waves of rich, white and predominantly heterosexual residents move into the Village, working class people, predominantly queers of colour, can no longer afford to live in the area that they helped establish. FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) points to higher rates of bigoted violence and police brutality against queer youth of colour in the area. FIERCE teaches workshops on legal rights for queer youth and has started a campaign in support of the young lesbians. For more information on how to support the Jersey Four, check out the FIERCE website. 

Kiwi juice: Some very Shameless reasons to love New Zealand

It’s a great day when two 17-year-old girls can bring down a corporate giant. That’s what happened earlier this year in New Zealand: two high-school students took a juice company to task for misleading the public.

Three years ago, Anna Devathasan and Jenny Chuo (who were 14 at the time) tested the amount of vitamin C in their favourite juices for a school science project. One of their subjects was Ribena, a blackcurrant drink that boasted four times more vitamin C than orange juice. But the girls’ results showed differently: Ribena had no detectable amount of vitamin C whatsoever.

When the girls took their concerns to the company — owned by international pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline — they were ignored. “They kind of didn’t take us very seriously, because we were 14 at the time,” Chuo told a reporter. “We were really little.”

But the Commerce Commission was more helpful. In March, GlaxoSmithKline pleaded guilty to 15 charges, paid almost $200,000 in fines and was forced to launch a major ad campaign apologizing to the public.

The girls became instant stars. Devathasan told a reporter: “I love it. Every time I see the new Ribena ad, the one where they don’t mention any vitamin C, I’m just like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s me.’”

The story doesn’t end there. When I went looking for what’s happened to Devathasan and Chuo since spring, I found something else about the girls — and New Zealand — that was more shameless than I’d expected.

This past July, Devathasan and Chuo were both part of Youth Parliament 2007, an event that gets youth involved in democracy by participating in real government. Over four days, 121 youth MPs debated policy and questioned cabinet ministers, people from across the country voted on what topics the youth MPs would debate and a youth press gallery reported on the proceedings. An international panel of observers from eight countries also showed up to study how to engage youth in democracy.

The youth delegates were a diverse group: 60 percent women, with Maori, Pacific, South and East Asian representation and one hearing-impaired youth MP. Planned by the Ministry of Youth Development and the Minister of Youth Affairs, Youth Parliament is held about every four years.

Ministry of Youth Development? According to the ministry’s website, its purpose is to “encourage and assist the involvement of young people in the social, educational, economic and cultural development of New Zealand, both locally and nationally.” Funny, when Stephen Harper talks about youth, it’s usually gang violence, apathy and social degeneration. 

Cold comfort

This past June, 44 members of the Japanese parliament ran an ad in the Washington Post titled “The Facts.” The full-page paid announcement denied the existence of the ianfu — the “comfort women” from China, Korea, the Philipines and Japan who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the World War II.

Though women have come forward with stories of rape and horrific abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers, members of the Japanese Diet (the government body) maintain that these women, some as young as 12, were actually licensed prostitutes paid much better than Japanese generals.

What? Back in 1993, after a study estimated that more than 200,000 comfort women were forced to serve in military brothels, the Japanese government issued an apology called the Kono Statement (though compensation is still nowhere to be seen).

Then in March of this year, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe publicly denied the historical proof (Abe later ate his words after some finger-wagging from world leaders, including Canada’s then-foreign affairs minister Peter McKay). Now the global community is putting the pressure on Japan to acknowledge the crimes committed against these women.

In June, the US Foreign Affairs Committee approved a nonbinding resolution urging Japan to take responsibility for the suffering of the comfort women. And a study released by Chinese legal groups in July proved the existence of 17 women forced into sexual slavery when Japan controlled parts of China during the war.

Canadian groups are also taking up the cause and speaking up on behalf of these women. The Canada Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA) has launched a campaign to get Canadian government on the case. They are urging the Canadian government to pass House of Commons Motion 291, which would officially call on the Japanese government to acknowledge the comfort women.

Speak out! Join the campaign and send word to your MP at www.alpha-canada.org. Find personal stories of women who survived life in the military brothels. Discover the facts for yourself. 


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