Since 1993, I have been documenting the gay and lesbian Pride Parade in Jackson Heights, Queens, the New York neighborhood where I was born and raised. To look at the parade today – an annual fixture on the Queens calendar attended by over 50,000 including the Borough President, the local Congressman, the Speaker of the City Council and most local City and State level politicians – it is hard to remember or imagine that Jackson Heights’ large lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population lived with an unspoken agreement of don’t ask / don’t tell tolerance for over sixty years.
But that is how things were even in 1990 when Julio Rivera was brutally murdered in the P.S. 69 schoolyard by a hunting party of three young men who were looking for a “gay guy to stretch out.” The murder of Julio was unfortunately typical of gay bashings in Jackson Heights (and in most places): the police weren’t making any effort to investigate, no one in the media reported the story, and the general consensus of the gay community was to best let things be, just as they had done with all the other bashings and murders that occurred in the neighborhood during the 70s and the 80s.
This film, Julio of Jackson Heights, is the story of the handful of people who forced the police to investigate the murder of a man that they considered not worth their time and the trial that followed, a trial that became the first successfully tried hate crime murder in the history of New York State. And it is also the story of how their loss and sacrifices gave birth to the founding of the annual Queens Pride Parade, the election of Jackson Heights’ first openly gay political representative, and in the end, transformed the place that I will always call home.
Facebook webpage: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Letters-for-Julio/131655313535016
The story of how Jackson Heights, Queens changed in response to the 1990 murder of Julio Rivera is a complex one, and I believe it is imperative to portray that complexity in this film. On one hand, most LGBT people that lived here in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s lived with the fear of walking home alone at night or being seen entering or leaving a gay bar, and accepted the persecution of the police regularly raiding their bars, but on the other, for these same people these were beautiful times filled with friendships, lovers, and great camaraderie. There was a sense of being part of a community within a community.
And while the struggles to bring Julio’s murderers to justice, and to battle the local community school board and the local police precinct, and then to found and build a Pride Parade, were at times truly harrowing – death threats were not uncommon – these were also glory days. And when those who fought this fight tell their stories, their voices often become mixed with sadness, pride, regret, and nostalgia.
And even the neighborhood itself: the Jackson Heights I knew as a boy in the 70s and 80s was a very different one and yet it always feels familiar to me.
I am deeply indebted to the many, many people who have not only been generous with their time, but have shared their personal histories with me and have been educating me on the history of the neighborhood, the history of LGBT life in the neighborhood and on the broader history of LGBT politics in New York. I have been made to feel welcome to be a student of these histories. The sacrifice, generosity of spirit and dedication of the many people I am privileged to meet in making this film, is what pushes me on to try to make a film that is in some way worthy of all they have struggled for.
Photos from the book God, Gold and Glory, a portrait of Syracuse, NY 1990 – 92. ($30 reward)
Queens Pride Parade photographs ($10, $20, $150, $225 and $300 rewards)
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