Free from prison, lesbian addresses Dyke March
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Watching 21-year-old Terrain Dandridge speaking at a packed public rally June 24 at the San Francisco Women's Building celebrating her release from prison, it's difficult to imagine that she spent the last two years behind bars for defending herself from a homophobic and racist physical attack.
Dandridge is a member of the New Jersey 4, a group of young black lesbians from Newark, New Jersey who were convicted of gang assault in 2006 after they defended themselves from Dwayne Buckle, 29, who physically attacked them after they rebuffed his sexual harassment. The four – Dandridge, Renata Hill, Venice Brown, and Patreese Johnson – faced a firestorm of homophobic and racist national media coverage that decried them as a "lesbian wolfpack" who preyed on straight men.
In what her lawyer described as "a miracle," Dandridge was released from Albion Correctional Facility on June 23 after all charges were dropped in her case following a successful appeal. The court simultaneously threw out the conviction of Hill and sent her case back for a new trial.
Dandridge and her mother, Kimma Walker, flew to San Francisco the day after Dandridge was released. The two received multiple standing ovations from a packed house last Tuesday at the Women's Building, after speaking about the racism and homophobia they had faced in the legal and prison systems and the importance of the support they received from queer people all over the country during Dandridge's imprisonment.
"My mother called me up and was like, 'Hey, boo, you ready to come home?' She always does that, so I didn t think anything of it. And then she was like, 'You won it – you won your appeal,' and I just lost it – I was hysterical, crying, shaking the whole bit," Dandridge said in an interview.
Speaking of the homophobia and racism Dandridge faced during the trial, Walker said, "The assistant district attorney was extremely homophobic. One time one of the girls had to excuse herself and the ADA said really loudly, 'Oh, I'm sorry your honor, that's her girlfriend' like that – really snotty – and I was like mmm-hmmm, I know what's going on here. Excuse my language, but she was a real blond-haired, blue-eyed bitch."
The women also spoke at both the San Francisco Trans March and Dyke March last week, and helped lead the Dyke March alongside Bay Area NJ4 Solidarity, a group led by queer and trans people of color who have organized letter-writing campaigns and grassroots dance and arts fundraisers to support the four women.
According to reports, on August 18, 2006, seven young African American lesbians traveled to New York's West Village from their homes in Newark for a regular night out. Queer and trans youth, particularly youth of color, have traveled to New York's West Village for decades, searching for queer-friendly space they can't find in their own neighbo
After the women told him they were lesbians and they weren't interested, Buckle reportedly shouted, "I'll fuck you straight, sweetheart." Buckle and the women traded insults and a physical fight ensued, during which Buckle choked one woman and ripped clumps of hair from several women's heads. During the course of the altercation, the woman Buckle had first harassed retrieved a 99-cent steak knife out of her bag and brandished it in an attempt to defend the woman whom Buckle was choking. Surveillance video of the fight did not show that the woman ever actually stabbed him. It did show three men joining the confrontation and one of them, in a pink shirt, apparently stabbing Buckle. Police never apprehended the men who joined in the fight.
"There's absolutely nothing for young queers in Jersey," said Dandridge, who plans on going to business college so she can open a boys and girls club for young queers in New Jersey. "There are maybe two gay clubs in all of Jersey, and you have 13-, 14-year-olds in there, because there's no place else. I'm all for having fun but there needs to be something else for us. I was going out to the Village for two or three years before that night and nothing happened, but when the attack happened, I realized that you never know what can come out of just trying to have a good time. It's not safe. But where do you go?"
Three of the friends pleaded guilty to attempted assault and served six months in jail. Dandridge, Johnson, Hill, and Brown went to trial, charged with felony gang assault in the second degree. Johnson was additionally charged with first-degree assault. On June 14, 2007, the four received sentences ranging from three and a half to 11 years in prison.
Some New York and national media outlets had a field day with the NJ 4's case, calling them "killer lesbians," "a seething Sapphic septet," and printing Buckle's opinion that he was the victim of a "hate crime against a straight man."
To receive updates or stay involved, interested people can contact Bay Area NJ 4 Solidarity at http://freenj4.wordpress.com/. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer whose work has appeared in Colorlines, Bitch, and many anthologies.