FIERCE fights on: Ten years of youth organizing
By Ellen Vaz, Rudy Rosado and Ash Hammond
On Sunday, June 27, thousands upon thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people from across the country and, in some cases, from around the world, will converge on New York City’s West Village. The streets will transform into glamorous runways for larger-than-life drag queens and ballroom voguers. Rainbow flags will be our superhero capes, and glitter will abound — everywhere. Like San Francisco’s Castro District, the West Village will hold its head high, proudly declaring itself one of the greatest Gay Wonders of the World and the birthplace of a national gay liberation movement that has fueled more than 40 years of L.G.B.T.Q. organizing, advocacy and activism.
Getting a 24-hour
center is a priority.
For so many people and for so long, the West Village has been a safe haven and a home for L.G.B.T.Q. people to be who we are without the threat or fear of violence. And nobody knows this better than the hundreds of L.G.B.T.Q. young people who flock to the Village and Christopher St. Pier in search of a safe place…a community…a home. The Pier, located on the fringe of the West Village, has historically been the only safe public space for many homeless and low-income L.G.B.T.Q. youth of color to find each other and build community.
Ten years ago, a group of L.G.B.T.Q. youth, primarily youth of color, joined together to form the organization FIERCE — Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment — to respond to the urgent needs of L.G.B.T.Q. youth in New York City. At that time, L.G.B.T.Q. youth were facing increased violence and police harassment and brutality, all of which was being played out on a stage of redevelopment and privatization in the West Village. When L.G.B.T.Q. youth needed to access one of the only safe public spaces in New York City, we found ourselves being literally fenced out and pushed to the side. More often than not, both then and now, we were perceived and treated like victims or criminals by many of the institutions that were mandated to serve (and protect) us.
So, out of the same spirit that sparked the Stonewall Riots and a fierce determination to make changes in our communities, FIERCE youth members began to organize. Our roots of resistance were firmly planted in the principle that L.G.B.T.Q. youth must realize and manifest our own social and political power to change our conditions and shape our futures. We believed then, as we do now, that as young people, we are the experts at finding the best solutions to our problems, and that we are the change agents in our communities, including in the West Village.
Since 2000, FIERCE has grown from a small youth group to one with local and national recognition for our work. We remain one of the nation’s few membership-based, youth-led organizations working to build the leadership and power of L.G.B.T.Q. youth of color. Through our youth-led campaigns, leadership-development programs, and cultural expression through arts and media, we have helped develop hundreds of politically conscious leaders who are invested in improving ourselves and our communities.
FIERCE’s youth-led campaigns fight to preserve the West Village as a safe space for L.G.B.T.Q. youth and to ensure that more city resources are allocated to address the needs of our community. In 2005, we launched our Safe Space Saves Lives Campaign to make certain that the needs of L.G.B.T.Q. youth of color were not forgotten in the wake of development on the Christopher St. Pier. Our overall demands to Community Board 2, the Hudson River Park Trust and West Village residents were simple: Acknowledge that L.G.B.T.Q youth of color are an important part of the West Village community and allow our voices to be heard in the pier development process.
Over the last five years, we have won several Safe Space Saves Lives Campaign victories, many of which benefit all West Village residents. FIERCE youth members have organized to eliminate a $25,000 fee charged to mobile service vans that provide critical health and safety services for youth. We mobilized hundreds of L.G.B.T.Q. youth and allies, including the late Bob Kohler — co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front and longtime West Village resident — to help defeat a proposal to shut down the Christopher St. Pier at 10 p.m. We’ve won port-a-potties on the pier to service pier-goers after the bathrooms close at 8 p.m.
Just last year, FIERCE members secured free L.G.B.T.Q. programming on the pier with a screening of “Paris Is Burning” and the first-ever mini-ball, which drew more than 500 youth, and featured performances by Vogue Evolution.
This year, we are continuing our work with the Hudson River Park Trust to provide eight free events for L.G.B.T.Q. youth, including a Queer Movie Series, Wellness Programs, an Artistic Night and our second annual mini-ball, organized with Friends of Hudson River Park and the Kiki Coalition.
These campaign victories have been a direct result of the work of FIERCE members who have consistently showed up at community board meetings to demand that L.G.B.T.Q. youth have a seat at the table to inform decisions made about our community. We have met with elected officials, reached out to community residents, and built relationships with the Hudson River Park Trust, which appointed FIERCE to their advisory board in December of 2009. And we are currently exploring even more ways to reach out to West Village residents and business owners so that we can work together to ensure that the West Village and the piers remain the historic safe place they have always been for L.G.B.T.Q. people.
Through our Safe Space Saves Lives Campaign, we have seen how important safe public space is in combating many of the issues that L.G.B.T.Q. youth face. In 2007, we launched one of our boldest campaigns to date, our Safe Place to Organize Together (S.P.O.T.) Campaign to establish a 24-hour L.G.B.T.Q. youth center on Pier 40, at West Houston St. Through this campaign, we have advocated for increased community-based decision-making power. In March 2008, FIERCE stood side by side with West Village residents, families and business owners to successfully defeat The Related Company’s proposal for a privately developed mega-entertainment complex on Pier 40 dubbed “Vegas on the Hudson.”
The Mayoral Commission on Homeless and Runaway L.G.B.T.Q. Youth, which FIERCE is part of, recently released a number of recommendations, among them, that more safe space should be created in an area where L.G.B.T.Q. youth congregate. FIERCE agrees, which is why we continue to organize for a 24-hour L.G.B.T.Q. youth center in the West Village.
Vaz, Rosado and Hammond are members of FIERCE