‘Killer Lesbians’ in PBS Movie Open Up About Trauma, PTSD, Mental Health

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Originally published June 19, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

It was intended to be a fun night on the town for the seven Jersey women of color – an evening in the West Village of New York City.

They enjoyed being around other gay people while visiting the neighborhood of the historic Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of our nation’s gay rights movement. But as the POV documentary “Out in the Night” shows, it ended up being a night filled with harassment, violence and enduring trauma.

The PBS documentary by filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther will air Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS. Check your local listings. The film will stream online for a month thereafter.

In my view, “Out in the Night” illuminates public health hazards that are getting worse every day.

As these women strolled along that summer night in 2007, the last thing they expected was for an older black man to get in their face and talk filthy – especially not in the West Village.

But that’s what happened. When the man first said, “I want that,” tiny Patreese Johnson thought he simply wanted a drink of her friend’s Pepsi. Sitting by a fire hydrant, he looked a little down and out.

Patreese had seen her share of struggle – her brother was caught up in a gang fight when she was 11, shot dead by police at the age of 17, caught in the crossfire.

But when the man pointed at her crotch and said, “I want THAT!” and followed with “D-ke b-tch-s” and “I’ll f— you straight and put my d— in your a—,” they had heard enough.

Renata Hill, another of the women, had been raped by her mom’s husband when she was a child. She wasn’t about to listen to all of that.

Ultimately, the man lunged at the women, struck them, and a fight ensued. In fact, he pulled out Renata’s dreadlocks, leaving her weaves on the concrete and her scalp a bloody mess.

And, ultimately, the women defended themselves. Patreese, who carried a small knife for protection at the plea of her brother Anthony, stabbed him.

Black, Female, Gay: Marginalized to The Edge of The Margins

Black. Female. Gay. Three demographics that in this country have been marginalized for years, all rolled into one. Even in New York City, many people still don’t get it.

“Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker” screamed one tabloid headline. “Hated by Lez Gang” read another. “Killer Lesbians” yet another.

But the headline that really ticked off filmmaker Dorosh-Walther? “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” read an inside page of The New York Times.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest departed gay friends, the headline blew up her skirt. It wreaked of ignorance, and added insult to injury by appearing in a newspaper of authority such as The New York Times. That’s when Dorosh-Walther knew she wanted to tell these women’s story.

But as a white woman, she wanted to make sure she could tell it right. “You want to make sure you tell the story accurately through the lens of the person or people who experienced it,” she told me.

I spoke with Dorosh-Walther, Patreese, Renata, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge (the other two women who went to prison) on a conference call for about 45 minutes. Dorosh-Walther was excited to have the movie reviewed on a health website.

Some of the key takeaways from the film ought to be an understanding of what years of harassment and trauma can do to someone, or to a group of people. It’s also important to remember that being locked up in a penitentiary forever changes a person. Indeed, it leaves many prisoners with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And then, what happens when the convicted gets out?

“When people are released from prison, they give you a bus pass to get on the bus, or the subway,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They have no support, no family, a one-way ticket … you’re going to put them on public transportation? You’re putting everybody else in jeopardy. This is a public health issue.”

Nuns Take in ‘Damaged Goods’ Ex-Felon

“After going through all of this, and you’re done with your time … you’re damaged goods, and you’re being thrown back into a brand-new world,” explained Renata. “You’re thrown into a cage. You’re separated from those you love and care about. You have no support system. You’re paid a few cents per hour. They control you, belittle you, verbally abuse you, some physically abuse you.”

When Renata was released, she was taken to a shelter in New York City run by Catholic nuns.

“I had to stay in New York, and I’m not from New York. I never went to New York unless it was to go to the village,” she explained. “I had no family support.”

Renata said she was grateful for the transitional housing provided by the nuns, because some people don’t get any housing support at all upon their release. On the other hand, being black and being a lesbian – a lesbian who speaks earlier in the film about wearing a dildo when she goes out into the Village – it’s not difficult to understand the discomfort she felt.

“Simple things, like going to the corner store … I couldn’t do that,” Renata said. “In some ways, I still felt stuck in the same place. I had to go to parole. I had to enlist in a drug program, even though I never did drugs. I had to pee in a cup while they watched me.”

When asked how she got past feelings of anger and self-pity that must have been going through her mind, not only in prison but afterward, too, Renata’s answer was simple: “What kept me going was knowing I had to get my son back.”

Renata missed several years of her young son’s life while she was a locked-up single mother. When she was released, she learned she had lost custody of T.J., who had been put into the hands of the state of New Jersey.

“I had to look for a job, and when I looked for a job with a felony … I never even was given a chance to explain my situation,” Renata said. “When you get out of prison, where is the help? Where is the toolbox?”

A Frightening Experience for a Femme

“In prison, you have to develop a certain type of thinking to survive,” Patreese said.

“Everything there works different.”

Tiny, femme and poetic, Patreese served more time than any of the women – almost eight years. She looks about as threatening as a church mouse, and she readily admits that being in prison messed with her head.

“I said, ‘Am I going to take these meds?’ Some of these people deserve to be in a mental health hospital,” Patreese recalled of being medicated in the prison. “But as I found out, they were giving the meds to me anyway, and I didn’t know it. They gave them to me because I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to somebody. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should take the meds just to get through day to day.’”

Almost two years after her release, she still struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. “Our mental health should be a priority when we get out. It’s really hard when you’re trying to transition back to society. When I’m lost, I’m even scared to ask for directions. There are no resources for us.”

Dorosh-Walther agreed. “This is a public-health issue. Mental health is something we’ve never put enough resources into. Mental health, far down the line after release, is a lasting issue.”

When Patreese and the others were convicted, one headline read, “Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women,” while another proclaimed, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”

How to get Past Injustice? Baby Steps

“When you come out, you come out with ‘Institutionalized thinking,’” Patreese said. “It’s something similar to PTSD. You end up getting changed by the system.”

The fact that people in that condition often end up being sent out the door with no support network at all is “absurd,” Dorosh-Walther said. “If there is nothing to transition you to live in the outside world … or only a tiny fraction of services … how are you even supposed to get housing?”

As a journalist, I often get caught up whenever I see injustice.

How do you get past it, I asked the women again and again?

Finally, Dorosh-Walther answered for them.

“You don’t really have time to comprehend the injustice and the pain,” she said. “There are hoops to jump through over and over and over again. You’re court-ordered to a shelter, for example. They are not going to make anything easy. It’s just piled on, piled on and piled on, and at some level you’re in survival mode and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The women said being able to tell their story via the film has helped them heal a great deal.

“It’s baby steps,” Terrain said. “There are moments it feels good, like we can celebrate. Other moments, we’re still struggling.”

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