Keith Mitchell, a 24-year-old who likes to be called Sparkles, strolled down East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, discussing what he would wear on a date that night. As he rounded a corner, a stocky man with baggy pants and arms covered in tattoos locked eyes on him.
The news had been filled with details of the vicious antigay attacks two weeks earlier and just two miles to the west, but Mr. Mitchell, breezy as ever, did not notice the stare until the tattooed man called out.
The torture of three men suspected of being gay by a local gang has shaken residents of the Bronx.
“What’s up, mama?” the man asked with a smile. “How you been?”
In West Farms, the neighborhood where Mr. Mitchell lives, nearly everyone — the bodega cashiers, the basketball players, even the gang members — knows he is gay, and he has rarely felt threatened.
Yet the torture of three men thought to be gay has shaken him, as it has people across the city, and especially in the Bronx, the borough with the city’s highest rates of poverty and some of its most violent crime.
In the toughest neighborhoods, gay residents say, it is possible to live openly much of the time — and then to suddenly pay for it.
“There is a constant threat of violence that we live with,” said Charles Rice-Gonzalez, 46, a writer and gay rights advocate who has been working in the South Bronx for two decades. “I was horrified, disgusted and angered by the attacks. I wouldn’t say I was surprised or shocked.”
In the week since the police announced the first arrests of several gang members in the assaults, Mr. Rice-Gonzalez and Arthur Aviles, co-founders of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, have begun planning a self-defense class at their theater in Hunts Point. David Matthews, 43, another gay rights advocate who works in the South Bronx, said he was looking over his shoulder with a new vigilance.
And Mr. Mitchell, who said he can be himself in his neighborhood because people there watched him grow up, is taking care when straying beyond its borders. He has been beaten up before, he said, and the recent attacks are never far from his mind. “That could have been me,” he said. “You never know when someone is going to turn on you.”
In many respects, gay people in the lowest-income neighborhoods face the same challenges and threats as other gay New Yorkers.
The Department of Education reported 862 incidents of harassment based on sexual orientation in the 2008-9 school year. More than 40 percent of the 1,700 homeless youths in the Safe Horizon Streetwork Project, a citywide victims’ assistance program, identify themselves as gay or transgender.
But in dozens of interviews this week, gay and lesbian residents said it could be especially difficult to be gay in the Bronx, given the macho culture of the street, the local gang codes and the storefront churches that call homosexuality a sin.
“If I walk around wearing tight jeans and looking non-hood, I feel the tension,” said Ruben Porras, 29, who grew up in Morris Heights, where the attacks occurred. “If I’m walking by some Bloods, I’ll walk tougher.
“But if I’m in Chelsea,” he said with a laugh, “I’ll act very differently.”
If the Bronx has no Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood that wears its gay identity proudly, it does have its public gay life. Some bars sponsor gay nights — Tuesdays at Mi Gente Café on Unionport Road are popular — but the scene is scattered, without the security that an enclave like Chelsea or the West Village provides.
“It’s loose and it’s not centralized, but there is a gay community in the Bronx,” said Mr. Rice-Gonzalez, whose theater acts as something of a clearinghouse for gay culture in the borough.
When Mr. Rice-Gonzalez was growing up in the Soundview neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s, there were few gay organizations, making for “a very clear sense of isolation,” he said.
“There wasn’t a queer voice in the Bronx,” Mr. Rice-Gonzalez said. “There was no way for gay men to meet each other unless you ran into someone downtown.”
Today, several groups offer services and counseling to gay people, including the Bronx Community Pride Center, Bronx AIDS Services and the Hispanic AIDS Forum. Harassment and even violence against gays are not uncommon, but the Oct. 3 attacks in Morris Heights have struck a nerve because of their brutality and extent — 11 suspects; 4 victims, including the brother of one of the men who were tortured; and a 20-hour rampage involving cigarette burns, sodomy and beatings with baseball bats.
Mr. Porras, who said he knew some of the men arrested, offered an explanation of the attacks informed by life on those same streets. He said the men, who belonged to the Latin King Goonies, a subset of the Latin Kings, were not overtly hostile to gays. He compared the gang to a father who tolerated gay people — as long as they were not in his family.
“People will embrace it so long as it’s not someone they are claiming as their own,” he said.
The trouble began, the authorities said, after one gang member saw a 30-year-old man, who was suspected of being gay, with a 17-year-old who wanted to join the group. Gang members assumed the men had slept together; they punished them, another teenager and the older man’s brother.
Morris Heights is a tight-knit community where neighbors know one another by nicknames. Old men stand in bodegas discussing the day’s headlines. On a recent afternoon, young men on Burnside Avenue argued about the price a chop shop would pay for a Toyota.
A 29-year-old mother stood outside a bodega, two blocks from the house where the attacks occurred, reading newspaper accounts of the arrests. She said she was horrified by the violence, but she acknowledged that gay people, including a man in her building, made her uncomfortable.
“It’s hard for me to handle,” said the woman, who declined to give her name for fear of gang reprisals. “It’s something that’s not normal in a household.”
Yet her feelings about homosexuality are conflicted, which gay advocates say is not unusual. “I watch a lot of gay porn,” she said. “It’s very intriguing to me. Why are they so interested? What pleasure do they get?”
In neighborhoods where gangs are common, some churches offer a message of tolerance. But several gay residents said a growing number of congregations made them feel attacked from two sides.
“I feel assaulted every weekend because of the hate speech from sidewalk preachers,” Mr. Rice-Gonzalez said. “They say gay people need to repent, they’re going to hell.”
State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister who represents the South Bronx, is a vocal opponent of gay marriage. Many gay leaders noted that the statement he released condemning the recent attacks made no mention of homosexuality.
In an interview, Mr. Díaz, a Democrat, said: “I don’t support violence against anybody. I would ask for the maximum penalty to anyone that abuses another human being.” But he added, “I’m against gay marriage, and I always will be.”
New York has long been a refuge for gay people. But many have been dismayed by an assault this month on a gay man at the landmark Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, followed by the Bronx attacks and remarks this week by the Republican nominee for governor, Carl P. Paladino, who said gay pride parades were “disgusting.”
“If this is the oasis in our country,” Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said, “it doesn’t feel that great right now.”