Walking into Blackout Bar last Wednesday, March 23, you might have thought it was any regular Wednesday night. Every Wednesday is gay night at Blackout, but this night was special. It was “Gay Bash: A Benefit for Barie Shortell,” the recent hate crime survivor and now anti-hate crime advocate.
On February 22, around 11:00 p.m., Shortell was walking home to his apartment on Kent Avenue and North Fourth Street, a walk that never felt unsafe to him before, when he was brutally attacked by a group of four teenagers. The details were fuzzy after that and as a result of the incident, Shortell suffered a fractured chin and nose; eye sockets and cheekbones, requiring ten hours of immediate surgery, several days in the hospital, and a month of recovery since. Luckily for Shortell, he’s been healing well and gradually returning to his old self. (He looks great now!)
The Facebook invite listed the event as ending at 10:00 p.m., but the narrow bar was packed tight with supporters and friends of Shortell well into the night.
Friends who organized the event wore nametags with a picture of a smiling and recovering Shortell, so they would be easily identifiable either as supporters or hosts, or perhaps in case one had questions. Aside from those close to Shortell, there were many who did not know Shortell, but were just as concerned and eager to help. Councilman Stephen Levin, District Leader Lincoln Restler and Community Board 1 Public Safety Committee member and Co-President of the Lambda Independent Democrats Tom Burrows were all in attendance as were representatives from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office and, Shortell’s own personal heroine, Jessica Anne Quarles, the woman who found him just after he’d been attacked. Local businesses including BKLYN Dry Goods, Tomcat’s Barber Shop, Modern Anthropology and Eastern District donated their products to use as raffle prizes.
“I thought it would be a great event, and it really was. It was wonderful that it was actually really enjoyable and also productive in the sense of helping me with raising some money and bringing people together surrounding the issue in general,” Shortell said. At thirty-five dollars a head, a good amount of money was raised, almost three thousand dollars, to help Shortell cover medical costs. Though Shortell, who is taking the looming debt “one step at a time,” almost blithely admits that he still hasn’t received a medical bill. “I’m actually trying to get a picture of what that’s going to look like . . . but I haven’t been able to successfully gather that information yet. I don’t want to underestimate the amazing-ness of the event, but yeah, it’s probably a fraction of what the actual medical costs are,” Shortell said. Not only that, but he still has one more surgery left to go. There’s also a lot of follow up (long-time therapy, regular doctor check-ins), that will continue for an indeterminable amount of time.
But Shortell, who admittedly has his ups and downs, feels lucky. “I feel like my life changed dramatically and it’s a lot to grapple with, but I’m barreling through, and so far I think I’m definitely OK. I just feel really lucky, frankly, to not have it be as bad as it could have been,” he said. He wants to emphasize just how grateful and appreciative he feels. “I think having my friends has been another thing that makes me really lucky. I can’t imagine how someone would go through something like this and not have the strong support system that I’ve had in friends; it basically makes me want to cry when I think about how lucky I am to have really amazing and supportive friends and family right now,” he added.
One of Shortell’s close friends, Jordan Seavey, who helped organize Gay Bash along with other friends like John Tee, Jason Baker and Chris Cerasi, to name a few, can hardly even remember how the idea for the event came together; it happened so quickly. “It was just immediately on the table, the idea of raising funds but also of having a party—something both social and ultimately fun, but really about Barie and about raising immediate awareness,” Seavey said. Seavey stresses the importance of the latter because in the week of the attack there was virtually little to no media attention about it. But he does not want to dwell on this fact—he’s here to focus on the positive—and what matters to him most now is that “we,” as in everyone, tell people about it, and loudly. “The rhetoric about fighting hate crime is that there’s the intention on the attacker’s part to scare, not just the victim, but the victim’s community. And so it’s really important to not be silent, and I think that’s where the idea for a party came from. There’s nothing silent about a party,” Seavey said proudly.
Especially an anti-gay hate crime party called Gay Bash. “I don’t remember who coined it; but once we heard it we just knew it was clever enough to the point of almost being offensive, and therefore totally perfect for our senses of humor. But also our anger. It’s like, if you’re going to gay bash us, then we’re going to call it just like it is,” Seavey added.
Burrows, an openly gay man, was appalled that he only first learned of this horrific event offhandedly during a speech at a community board meeting. “Two weeks after a crime is not a good time to learn about the crime. You need to know about it the next morning so you can then find out if anybody saw it, heard anything about it or witnessed anything,” Burrows said. It’s important for the community to be informed so they can be “aware and weary and alert.” He added, “I think we’ve learned from this and hopefully there won’t be a next time, but if there is we’ll be able to respond much quicker.”
Timely response or not, Shortell has been coping well since the attack. “I don’t want to feel like just because this happened to me, I, for some reason, am less safe; but I’m more aware of not putting myself in a situation where something like that could happen again,” he said. As for what’s next, “that’s a good question. It’s what I’m trying to think about myself right now,” he said. While Shortell is trying to figure out where and how he fits in with the large-scale anti-violence movement, he also needs to remember to take time to deal with his own laundry list of personal matters, like moving and trying to collect disability while he’s unable to work.
But the Superman side of Shortell wants to be as proactive as possible to raise awareness about hate crimes, and not just gay hate crimes. He talked in his speech at Gay Bash about how hate crimes are not just about sexual orientation; they can happen to anyone for any reason. He and Seavey, in two separate conversations, talked about how they would like to start at the root of the problem—the education element. “I want to keep everything open, and learn as much as I can about how I can contribute to make sure this doesn’t happen as much. The biggest thing is I really want to see what’s going on in schools. I think people should be learning English; they should be learning Math; and they should be learning, as a dedicated course, how to be good people,” Shortell said, sounding hopeful.
Councilman Stephen Levin echoed this sentiment: “I think the important thing is reaching young people. It’s important, again, that the “other” is demystified. A lot of bias crimes come up because people don’t understand one another. And continuing to organize—that’s the key.”
A few suggestions of where you might start: volunteer at organizations like the Trevor Project, the Anti-Violence Project and Right Rides; contact the offices of Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilman Stephen Levin and the Lambda Independent Democrats to see how you can get involved. And, of course, please donate to the Barie Shortell Benefit Account at: bariebenefit.com.