Kitty Genovese: The lesson in her legacy

Posted on 06 Apr 2016 at 12:10pm

Earlier this week, one of the topics trending on Facebook was the death of Winston Moseley, who died March 28 at the age of 81, in the prison at Dannemora, N.Y. Moseley had spent more that 50 years in prison for raping and murdering a woman named Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964 in Queens, N.Y.

Kitty

Kitty Genovese in 1964 and, inset, Mary Ann Zielonko in 2014

You may have heard the name “Kitty Genovese” before. Her murder and its aftermath are famous, the subject of news articles, scientific treatises, books, plays, songs. But one of the most important parts of her life has been overlooked, and the legacy of omission is in the lesson we can — we must — learn from it.

Genovese, 28 when she died, was a bar manager. When she left work around 3 a.m. that March day, Moseley — who did not know her — drove to a parking lot about 100 feet from her apartment and followed her. She was just steps from her own apartment when he attacked, raping her then stabbing her repeatedly as she screamed for help.

During the attack, the sound of voices nearby or someone turning on a light in a nearby apartment scared Moseley off. But he came back to attack Genovese again.

Kitty Genovese died on the way to the hospital.

As horrific as that is, there is more to the story. See, there were people who saw Moseley attacking Genovese, who heard her cries for help. And no one went to her aid. Shortly after the murder, the New York Times reported that “38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman” but did nothing.

The newspaper has since noted that the original report exaggerated the number of people who heard Genovese calling for help and that many of them didn’t actually witness the attack in its entirety. In its obituary for Mosely, the Times reported:

Winston Mosely

Winston Mosely

“While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling … And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived.”

Still, Genovese’s death prompted behavioral scientists to begin studying what they called “diffusion of responsibility” and “the bystander effect.” In essence, they said, contrary to what you might expect, having a large number of witnesses to such an incident makes it less likely that anyone will actually step up to help because, quite simply, everyone thinks someone else will.

But too often, no one does. No one did in Kitty Genovese’s case.

It’s a horrific story, isn’t it? A young woman dying because no one would step up to help. But there’s more to it still — and the part that no one talks about makes it all an even greater tragedy.

See, Kitty Genovese was a lesbian. She had a partner, Mary Ann Zielonko. But that has all been mostly erased from the history books, from the books and the plays and the songs and the movies that have been written about Genovese’s death. No one wanted her sexual orientation to “distract” from whatever points they were trying to make with her death.

Instead of being treated as the dead woman’s spouse, instead of being given the respect that any straight widow would have been given, Zielonko was at first treated as a suspect — she told police the truth about her relationship with Genovese and they suspected she might have killed her love in a jealous rage — and then ignored by investigators and prosecutors.

They didn’t want to distract from their case.

Zielonko, for her part, didn’t talk about it all for a very long time. After all, back in 1964, homosexuality was illegal, and LGBT people had to hide their true selves from just about everyone — family, co-workers, society at large. Better to bear the sorrow alone than to risk coming out.

Mary Ann Zielonko had to hide the true depth of her grief, had to pretend that the woman who died was just her friend, not the love of her life. She had to let her own identity and the identity of the woman she loved be glossed over and ignored because they lived — and Kitty Genovese died — during a time when their love made them outlaws, hated and, often, discarded.

Today, marriage equality is the law of the land in the United States, and same-sex couples can be legally married, with all the legal rights and responsibilities of their married heterosexual counterparts. Thanks to numerous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court — Lawrence v. Texas which overturned sodomy laws in 2003, Obergerfell v. Hodges which led to marriage equality last summer, and many more — LGBT Americans today enjoy more freedom and more legal protections from discrimination than ever before.

But even as we celebrate our victories, we have to remain always vigilant, always looking out for the knives aimed at our backs. You don’t have to look any further than North Carolina or Mississippi — where laws rolling back protections and giving bigots legal cover for their discrimination have passed within the last 30 days — to see how very fragile our progress is. And more states are lining up to do the same thing.

My point? We can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t think the war is over. Because the haters are out there, just waiting on us to let down our guard. We can’t let them steal equaity from us.

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