Fenced Out: Reflections on How Youth Engagement Tipped the Power Balance for LGBT People in New York 

Jennie Blakney
Director of Communications
STARR (Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform)

Sometimes you sense change when it is happening. You feel a balancing of the power scales in the atmosphere. That balance doesn't last; it always seems to shift back, but for a moment you know that you have just witnessed a pivot toward equity and you see just a little bit of power slip from the grasp of those who hoard it and use it to oppress vulnerable people.

That is what I witnessed one hot day in New York City in 1999: I saw the seed planted for the change that was to come.

It was a typical day at the Neutral Zone in, a drop-in center for LGBTIAQ youth, many of whom were homeless, displaced, precariously housed and/or on the run from the city's child protection arm. The Zone was a small, grass roots, youth-lead organization that sat right in the heart of the meat-packing district – a stone's throw from the Christopher Street Piers, a historical home to New York's LGBT community; I was the director.

I was green at directing anything, which was probably good because I did not have much reverence for the way things were done, or any real traditional or systematic way to engage youth. I was the product of a gay father and a liberal family. I grew up wandering the streets of the Village, playing on the steps of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and sitting on my father's shoulders as he marched in the Pride Parade. I was taught to speak up, get involved and make a difference; and that made all the difference in my life.

So when the youth of the Neutral Zone hired me –  yes, they hired me, because that is what happens in a truly youth-lead organization – I made it my mission to assure that when the youth spoke up, we heard them and that we provided opportunities for them to get involved and make a difference.

It was a scorcher in the city and things were busy in our tiny air-conditioned drop-in space. Teens were vying for space and attention, and one simple misread gesture could turn into a reading session. I was distracted by people nearby voguing and running a poster-making session for a march happening later in the week, both more interesting than the grant I could not get into writing, when J.D. Melendez came into the space visibly shaken.

"I need the video camera, it is life or death."

Maybe because I was green at "directing", just plain bad at it, or maybe because of divine intervention, I replied, "okay." Just like that, our video camera vanished with hurried footsteps and shouts outside. The funny thing was, I was not worried, not one bit. This was that balance of the power scales I referred to earlier. I just knew that I was supposed to say yes to this; it felt right.

When J.D returned, I learned he had taken the camera to the Piers, where disturbing activities were going on involving a young gay man: an attack fueled by homophobia and police refusing to intervene in what was clearly a hate crime. This had been going on more and more lately: more arrests, more harassment of gay teens for simply existing in public. And so the documenting began – the intentional record-keeping of what was to become the gentrification of Chelsea and the Christopher Street Piers, and the systematic removal of black, brown, and tan queer youth who had called this place their home for more than 30 years.

Here is where the balance began to really shift, as the project coincided with other significant efforts: At the same time J.D. was video-taping happenings on the Piers, he and a group of young activists were forming FIERCE, (Fabulous, Young Independent Radicals for Community Empowerment): a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color in New York City. I had just gone to a viewing of Homecoming Queens, a documentary produced by Paper Tiger Television and a group of residents at Green Chimney's Gramercy Residence, documenting their lives in a group foster home for 15- to 21-year-olds who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexual identity.

In that moment, it all seemed so clear what needed to be done.

The Zone hosted a community meeting with our members, FIERCE, and representatives from Paper Tiger Television. The seed that was planted on that hot day with a green director, a budding youth activist and a video camera started to grow.

Over the next few months, J.D. and other youth interviewed Stonewall veterans, community members, and allies to get the history of the Christopher Street Piers and its significance to the gay community. They handed out pamphlets about gentrification, organized protests and rallied against the new community that was using police enforcement to push gay teens off the piers. They filmed, edited and produced an amazing documentary, Fenced Out. The documentary brought attention to an issue of equity and inclusion facing a very marginalized population. More rallies, newspaper articles, and film festivals followed.

 The result: A section of the Pier was renovated and kept open to the public, and the curfew was expanded from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Those activists didn't just make their mark, they made history. They inspired change and envisioned a future without boundaries based on race, sexuality, and gender identity. They fought to be heard and for space to be themselves, and they won.

On June 1, Fenced Out was inducted to the Whitney Museum of American Art and will be screened as a part of a curation by Matt Wolf entitled Invisible Monuments. It has been 20 years, and the teens who created Fenced Out are now adults, professionals, and activists who continue to work toward creating positive change in their communities. They are what youth engagement looks like when it is all grown up. They will go down in history as FIERCE, in name and in action.