CW: this article contains mentions of hate crimes, queer and transphobia, and suicidality
In October 2021, art world trio Jake Sillen, Becky Elmquist, and Claire Bendiner opened Rash, a Bushwick nightclub that became a safe haven for the city’s LGBTQ+ community in just five months. But on April 3, hours before a Sunday night show titled “Maluquera: Chaos Ctrl” was scheduled to start, the experimental music space was set on fire. Security footage from the club shows a man pouring gasoline across the floor. He tosses a lit cigarette, but when it does not immediately ignite, he sparks a lighter and sets the bar in flames. The arson injured two employees and left the club decimated. On April 14, prosecutors identified and charged 24-year-old Jason Lhota with arson for the fire.
If convicted, Lhota faces a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years imprisonment, and a maximum of 40 years imprisonment. While the incident is not being investigated as a hate crime, the arson is the latest in a series of attacks on the LGTBQ+ community in the wake of homophobic and transphobic legislation being passed in Texas, Florida, and other states across the country.
“This Office strongly condemns such acts of violence, and will vigorously prosecute this case. The victims, and all LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, should be able to enjoy their nights out in peace and without fear of such a dangerous attack,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace in a statement.
For Seb Choe, a community organizer and inclusive designer who frequented and performed at Rash, the space was the first place where they felt at home. It was a sanctuary for their culture and community.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Choe said. “It felt really personal. Rash was just very organic, the culture was being made by and for the queer and trans community in Brooklyn. Rash had that balance of being carefully curated in terms of who gets the spotlight, but also giving that agency and control to whoever’s playing that night to really define the mood and the energy of the crowd.”
By sheer coincidence, the day after the arson, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a campaign inviting Floridian LGBTQ+ community members to move to the city, which is known for being more liberal. The digital billboards on display in five Florida cities denounce the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade—a targeted attack on the LGBTQ+ community. But, even the most liberal cities are not immune to the impacts of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. In addition to the attack at Rash, in February, a person threw a pepper bombs on the dance floor at a party for the Black queer community at Nowadays, a bar in Queens.
“We need to stop seeing this issue as a blue versus red issue in terms of states,” said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director from the National Black Justice Coalition.
The Human Rights Campaign reported that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans and gender-nonconforming people, with 57 fatalities tracked. So far in 2022, 11 trans and gender-nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means.
“We’ve seen that hate crimes continue to rise for the Black community, the LGBTQ+ community, and especially Black trans women,” York said. “As it’s happening across this country, dozens of Black trans women are murdered with no accountability … These crimes against our community happen with no accountability, no justice. It sends the message that ‘You can pick on the queers and the trans folks and nonbinary folks, they’re disposable. I can do this crime and get away with it, even in New York.’”
According to Bloomberg, the number of bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community is also at an all-time high. Across the country, Republicans have proposed 325 anti-LGBTQ+ bills as of April 8, 130 of which target transgender people specifically. In 2021, 27 of the 268 introduced bills made it into law. Since Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill” passed in March, a dozen other conservative states have expressed a desire to pass identical legislation. Data has shown that restrictive legislation has consequences on the mental and physical health of the queer and trans community, especially youth. A 2021 study shows that LGBTQ+ teens in states with homophobic and transphobic policies were more likely to attempt suicide than those in states with inclusive policies. In March, the CDC released data that one in five LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the in the 12 months before the survey. Advocates fear legislation like “Don’t Say Gay” will only exacerbate these consequences for queer and trans youth.
“We’re at a crisis point,” York said. “We’re past the point of needing to do something about it, and instead of doing the right thing, these lawmakers have done everything they can to do the wrong things to make the problem worse.”
In the face of legislative erasure, York said that safe spaces are critical in affirming community members and setting adults up with the ability to thrive.
“Community spaces and nightclubs become sanctuary,” York said. “Post-Rash, space for sanctuary has been tampered with and has been turned into a space of trauma. These instances remove spaces for our community to be able to thrive, where they could live openly and authentically and dare to dream about being able to be their full selves in every part of their lives. And that’s important.”
Choe suggests donating to Rash’s GoFundMe to support their staff, medical, and restoration fund. They also say they hope people have conversations about community response to harm, violence, and ensuring that violent acts such as these do not happen again.