An Attack Over Vogueing Resonates Painfully With a Renowned Drag Performer

On a Saturday night in high summer, O’Shae Sibley paid the highest possible price for a visibility that, as a 28-year-old gay Black man, he assumed was rightfully his in New York more than two decades into the 21st century. It was 33 years after Madonna’s “Vogue” became an international hit single, and whatever was being done to limit L.G.B.T.Q. rights in so many other parts of the country, he lived in a place where the City Council had not long ago ousted a Queens Republican from the chamber’s committee on mental health after she criticized taxpayer-funded drag-queen story hours in public schools.

As it happened, Kevin Aviance, a musician, D.J. and pillar of the vogue-ballroom scene, learned about Mr. Sibley’s fatal stabbing later than he might have otherwise. On the night of the attack, Mr. Aviance was seeing Beyoncé in concert, and he was more than a fan. The singer had sampled one of his songs from the 1990s on “Renaissance,” the album she released last year and the one that Mr. Sibley was vogueing to as he and his friends filled the tank of their car at a gas station in Brooklyn, where they found that they had offended the sensibility of a 17-year-old and his friends.

The connection had greater meaning than the fact of that coincidence. Seventeen years ago, after a day spent at a photo shoot for gay pride, Mr. Aviance was beaten as he walked home to Chelsea via First Avenue downtown. Like Mr. Sibley’s assailants, the men who attacked him were young. They threw garbage at him and used gay slurs before kicking him in the head until he passed out. After he woke up on the street, he was left holding his fractured jaw in place so he could ask for help. He spent 10 days in the hospital; the four men involved in the attack were all caught and pleaded guilty to the assault.

What stuck with him is that although many people called the police to report the attack, no one standing around tried to stop it. “I was like, ‘You just watched?’” he recalled. “Really?”

Beyond the tragedy of their persistence, hate crimes dismantle New York’s sense of itself, tearing through self-regarding delusions about cosmopolitanism and its open mind, its heart without judgment. Yet even by that measure, the Sibley incident seemed out of time and place — a shock even to a system primed for atrocity.

By vogueing, O’Shae Sibley was using a gender-crossing idiom that has been appropriated by the cultural mainstream for decades.Credit…David Dee Delgado for The New York Times

Mr. Sibley was a professional dancer and choreographer drawn to a gender-crossing idiom that has been so embraced by the media and entertainment establishment that it can almost seem to offer immunity against the kind of bias that ended his life. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” with its spinoffs and dozens of Emmys, has been with us for 15 seasons. By the time the reality series arrived in 2009, it already seemed like a second act in the mainstreaming of ballroom and house culture, which evolved as a demand to feel seen from those who were not — queer, largely poor, young Black and Latino men.

That insular world, which took hold in Harlem and Lower Manhattan in the 1980s, has been consistently appropriated, resonating profoundly both in terms of culture and commerce. A few years ago, it inspired the widely praised FX drama “Pose,” which set the drag ball scene against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis and the hunger for space and significance among the most marginalized, in a city where the sight line was increasingly populated by white men, making daily pilgrimages to Wall Street with their suspenders and money lust.

After Mr. Sibley’s death, Mr. Aviance felt shock and fear, followed by a call to activism.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

After he was attacked, Mr. Aviance left New York for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he lived for eight years. The city has an energetic gay scene. He had a gig there and a friend who believed that if he stayed in New York he would not survive. He was jumpy. He had a headache that wouldn’t go away. He self-medicated. “I was so angry because my career was going really well and then things just abruptly stopped,” he said.

When Mr. Aviance, who is 55, finally heard about what had happened to Mr. Sibley, he felt stunned, helpless and scared, he told me. But he soon felt a call to activism and an avuncular urge to help members of the next generation understand the harm of complacency, to teach them vigilance without crushing their spirit. “We’re in a bubble in New York where you can do whatever you want,” he said. “It shocks you right back into the present when someone is killed.”

“Nothing is sending us back to the closet. It’s a wonderful and amazing time, in a lot of ways, and I want my gay Black brothers and sisters to realize how amazing they are, how beautiful they are,” he said. “I love being Black and gay. It’s the biggest gift of my life. And I want everyone who looks like me to feel the same way.”

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