Code SwitchMarch 17, 20167:01 AM ETNicole Pasulka142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City, circa 1927.Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesSince the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention in 2013, organizers have pushed to prioritize voices of black queer and transgender women. Two of the three founders identify as queer, and along with drawing attention to numerous brutal murders of transgender women of color, they have also driven conversations on how anti-black portrayals in media and popular culture can have serious consequences on black queer and trans women’s lives.One such portrayal is the experience of a group of black lesbians who were arrested and charged with felony gang assault and attempted murder in 2006. They’d gotten into a fight in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood with a man who they say catcalled and threatened them as they walked down the street. Local media branded the women as a “wolf pack” of “killer lesbians.” One article described them as a “seething sapphic septet.” But the women, who came to be known as the New Jersey 4, said they’d fought back in self-defense. Despite their injuries, they were sentenced to between three and 11 years in prison.Article continues after sponsor message”The only people who have been considered the villains in this case were the … women who were attacked and followed,” journalist Reva McEachern, who covered the story for a major newspaper in New Jersey, said in a documentary film about the case. An assumed link between race, sexual orientation, gender and violence, McEachern said, “creates this environment where you are on guard because everyone around you perceives you as a threat before they know anything about you.”The only people who have been considered the villains in this case were the … women who were attacked and followed.That case began 10 years ago. Since then, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has directed an unprecedented amount of attention to the violence and police profiling that queer black women and transgender people experience. Also unprecedented are the number of high-profile African-American women who have come out or announced that they’re in lesbian relationships in recent years. After publicly acknowledging their sexuality, comedian Wanda Sykes, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts and WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes have largely been embraced by the public.When WNBA players and then-partners Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson were arrested during a fight in their Arizona home, the media didn’t rush to portray the women as inherently violent or aggressive, as was the case with the New Jersey 4. The general tone could instead be categorized as concerned, if somewhat condescending, as captured in an ESPN headline: “How Brittney Griner Acts Is More Important Than How She Plays.”And yet, even as it seems — perhaps especially as it seems — that activism and increased conversation may be having some impact on how these more recent cases are covered and how these stories are told, it’s important to understand that there’s a long history behind how the media treated the New Jersey 4. Stereotypes and myths about black lesbianism have been kicking around for at least a century, and black people have been hyper-sexualized and stereotyped as violent in the media and popular culture for far longer. Though positive visibility of queer black women has increased, negative perceptions in the media and law enforcement remain deeply ingrained, and can still have serious consequences.How 4 Gay Black Women Fought Back Against Sexual Harassment — And Landed In JailCode SwitchHow 4 Gay Black Women Fought Back Against Sexual Harassment — And Landed In JailFor the New Jersey 4 and other African-American lesbians caught up in the media spotlight or the criminal justice system over the decades, sensationalized portrayals can be doubly harmful “because you’re getting it both from the race angle and the sexuality and gender transgression angle,” says historian Cookie Woolner, who is a teaching fellow in social justice, gender and sexuality at Kalamazoo College and is working on a book about black queer women’s lives during the early 20th century.In a recent article for the Journal of African American History, Woolner dug into early 20th century American court records and newspapers — including African-American newspapers — to study how black lesbians were portrayed at the time. For instance, on June 19, 1928, the New York Amsterdam News, a black newspaper, reported that a 23-year-old black woman named Alberta Mitchell murdered Edna Washington in the Harlem apartment the two women shared. “Woman Kills Woman for Love of Woman,” the headline read, and the story relished the details of the crime: the weeping and moaning of the suspect and another woman at the scene, the broken windows and furniture, “the cold pool of blood.”Though none of the papers reporting on the incident could agree on the exact relationship between the wome
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