On a chilly April evening in Bushwick outside the Market Hotel, 23-year-old Maxwell Vice Tong exited the club with some friends after a show, only to be met with multiple glass bottles hurled at the crowd from a passing car. Quickly following the attackers on a skateboard to catch the license plate number, Tong watched in horror as one of the car’s passengers promptly hopped out with a gun in tow.

“We were standing outside of Market Hotel and we were very visibly the only queer people of color on that corner,” said Tong, who uses they/them pronouns. “They were saying some transphobic things, and then out of nowhere, three bottles got thrown at us. 

“In all my years of going out, now there happens to be more ballsyness [in] people who take it upon themselves to put us in harm,” Tong adds. 

The incident had taken place the same week that Rash, a bar down the street that’s also frequented by gay and trans youth in the neighborhood, was doused with gasoline and set on fire. It also comes months after the Bossa Nova Civic Club (also located down the street) was set on fire, and a brick was thrown through a window at C’Mon Everybody, in nearby Bed-Stuy.

The violent string of incidents in recent months has sent a shockwave through the local queer community, according to Tong, a nightlife organizer and Bushwick native who has been a fixture in local nightlife since they were 16.

Other recent incidents – the choking of a bartender at Happyfun Hideaway, a suspected mace bomb at Nowadays and an attack on two gay men with a bottle at a local bodega –  prompted Tong to organize a queer nightlife safety town hall at Market Hotel just one week after the glass bottle toss.

“I don’t think safety for queer people is a standard that we’ve personally ever achieved,” Tong said. “Bushwick is kind of the queer mecca, but there isn’t any standard of safety or anything. I‘ve worked at a few venues like Trans Pecos and Holo and Elsewhere, and that was the first time in New York City I’ve personally seen a venue say, ‘we’re establishing safety standards for specifically queer people.’ Before, we were kind of joined in with the cisgendered in the heterosexual community, but we require a different kind of security.”

Tong’s panel, which took place on April 21 and was called Trans Day of Action, saw nine grassroots organizers, harm reduction specialists, DJs and partygoers talk about their own experiences with safety as queer and trans individuals in the party scene. The group heard from local patrons and employees about their own concerns, as well as issued recommendations for how to increase queer nightlife safety. Among the more popular suggestions that evening were standardized group trainings for bouncers and the elimination of tasers, pepper spray and the confiscation of Narcan by security staff. 

One immediate result of the panel was the creation of a safety class specifically designed for trans and gender non-conforming employees employed by the bars and clubs that make up the neighborhood’s nightlife. According to Heaven Ender, one of organizers behind the class, the class focused on self-defense reviewing what to do in situations in close proximity to attackers.

“We’ll pick out specific techniques or situations that nightlife workers face, like if someone is attacking you from behind the bar,” said Ender, a harm reductionist who has lived in Bushwick for a decade. “It’s thinking more about the context of a packed room and how you respond in a space where you don’t have the same options than when you’re walking down the street in the open.”

The Trans Day of Action panel and several of incidents that prompted it came just weeks before President Joe Biden commented on the “rising hate and violence” and “disturbing setbacks” against LGBTQ+ individuals in order to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17. Reported hate crimes in New York City are also at an all-time high since the NYPD began uniformly reporting them in 2017.

According to that NYPD data, four hate crime-related arrests were made in Bushwick in the first quarter of 2022 —  double all of the hate crime-related arrests in Bushwick for all of last year. New York police classifies hate crimes as those motivated, at least partially, by a person’s identity and includes bias motivations like anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-women, among others. The city also recently poured $3 million into a Stop the Hate campaign last year with an aim of curbing discriminatory violence, especially against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But hate has not been stopped. In fact, New Yorkers saw 52% more hate crimes in 2021 than in 2020, as well as 62.8% more crimes against LGBTQ+ people than in the previous year. For anti-trans crimes specifically, that number rose by 76.5%.

Bushwick has also been directly rattled by anti-LGBTQ+ violence – September’s attack on two gay men at a bodega landed two Brooklyn men attempted murder charges. The accused arsonist behind April’s Rash attack, John Lhota, has also been charged with a federal arson crime carrying a maximum 40-year sentence. The nightclub’s co-owner told the press there is a “decent chance” that the incident was a hate crime.

“Lhota deliberately set fire to a bar and nightclub patronized by members of the LGBTQ+ community, seriously injuring two of its employees, and endangering all present including the tenants of the building as well as the first responders who battled the blaze for approximately one hour,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in April. “The victims, and all LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, should be able to enjoy their nights out in peace and without fear of such a dangerous attack.”

But the majority of hate crimes still go unreported and hate crime convictions are hard to prove in the courts. In fact, only about 65% of all hate crime arrests result in convictions, according to a report from The City, with only 15% of hate crime arrests actually ending up with convictions tied to hate (with massive fluctuations across boroughs).

But partygoers say that in nightclubs – where many already feel on guard or unsafe – reports of inappropriate, violent or suspicious behavior are seldom.

Underreporting is so common “probably because we’re so used to it,” said Archie Cunningham, a 24-year old who lives in Bushwick. “Queer people create parties and open venues, but we can’t really control who’s going to show up. we can gatekeep as much as we can but there’s no perfect way to read a stranger to see if they’re going to harm us,” Cunningham adds. 

Tong says that, while all queer spaces have never been entirely safe, venues in Bushwick feel more vulnerable than those in neighborhoods like the West Village or Lower East Side. Tong attributes this vulnerability to Bushwick’s status as alternative queer space that attracts a steady patronage of gender nonconforming and trans individuals, compared to popualr spots in Manhattan.

“Places like ‘the Cock’ aren’t getting attacked,” Tong said, who also blames “post-pandemic gentrification.”

“There’s been a lot of new faces in the scene that’s been making it feel a bit more unsafe,” adds Tong. “Even the person who burned down Rash, not one person in the scene has seen them, and when they did a background check on him, he had just moved to New York a year and a half ago. He was [allegedly] denied a job at some of the bars and developed some type of hatred. It’s been really recent, this new wave of people.”

Tong also notices that other artists who have moved to Bushwick since 2020 have routinely started posting art gallery events and music performance addresses on public websites like Reddit and Discord, which Tong says compromises safety and privacy for everyone in attendance.

“With certain bars like Bossa Nova, Happyfun Hideaway, [events] were posted on a Reddit forum for where trans and non-binary people gather,” Tong said. “So, where there’s an influx of queer people and artists, it’s also an influx of chasers or people that have bad intentions. I think the safety issue just comes from more people being in the area.”

Earlier this year, Bossa Nova Civic Club was burnt down and has since been shuttered indefinitely. (top photo by Sam Rappaport, bottom photo by Kyle Andrew Smith.)
Bossa Nova civic club

Per many accounts, the discussions at the Market Hotel panel focused less on what bars or venues in Bushwick could do for the queer community, but what queer community members could do for themselves to stay safe in a time of uncertainty and upheaval.

“Queer and trans people have always kept themselves safe because walking out the door is easy,” Tong said. “So, most queer and trans people have their own safety measures. But what’s important is … you can’t wait for a straight or cis person to keep you safe. Keep yourself safe but do that in a way where it keeps your friends around you safe, too.”

“What I also noticed at Market Hotel after the incident was that the security didn’t have any type of protocol on how to handle our situation, but as queer people, we didn’t have any protocol on how to keep us safe either,” Tong added. “We chased the car ourselves.”

Tong also reports that, since the incident at the Rash, there has since been an established code to mark safety exits at raves. Pointing to the surveillance video released from the night of the Rash fire, Tong noted that it only took one minute and several seconds for the assailant to take out a gas canister, douse the bar floors and set a fire on the first try. It had taken too long for someone to intervene.

Tong stressed that queer safety should be a collaborative effort. 

“I find that every security guard is really a gamble,” Tong said. “We have to be more than just a liability, and security needs to know the aspects like knowing trans people are more susceptible to danger, most trans women and men carry mace on them that they need to make sure they get home.”

Tong points to Nowadays, located in Ridgewood, which has a standard of lecturing patrons on what’s not allowed before they enter and hires an identifiable group of safety workers each night should anything go awry. Over in Bushwick, House of Yes has a similar consent policy that clubgoers have to receive before they enter the nightclub’s doors.

Reports of security guards inappropriately touching patrons or permanently confiscating safety devices shouldn’t be an issue queer people have to worry about, added Heaven Ender, noting that bouncers ought to be trained in de-escalation and cultural sensitivity with less of an emphasis on strongarming.

But while large-scale change seems a bit distant right now, Tong says they hope to immediately expand the April’s panel to be a monthly conversation between community members and nightlife employees. They express the dream of one day creating a Queer and Trans Nightlife Council in Bushwick to write out a standard of what safety for the community looks like. 

A date for the next panel has not yet been announced, but Tong reports that one is currently in the works to take place to discuss Pride celebrations in June.

“There’s definitely still this uncertainty when we go out,” Tong said. “Even with our own spaces that we build, we’re still susceptible to danger. It’s not wise for us to wait for the other world to get a grip. We have to get a grip for ourselves because I’m not waiting for someone to become a hashtag.”

Top imagine taken by Nicole Rosenthal for Bushwick Daily.

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