Friday, March 18, 2011

Julio of Jackson Heights

Since 1993, filmmaker and photographer Richard Shpuntoff has been documenting the LGBT Pride Parade in his home neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. That work has evolved into a feature-length documentary about the 1990 gay-bashing murder of Julio Rivera and how it brought a whole community out of the closet.

Mr. Shpuntoff is raising funds for the film on Kickstarter--please click here to watch portions of the film, read more, and consider a donation.

I asked the filmmaker some questions, he answered.

Julio Rivera

Most people, when they think of the gay neighborhoods of New York City, don't automatically think of Jackson Heights. How did it come to be?

From my childhood in the '70s I remember knowing of at least three gay bars: The Betsy Ross, which later became The Magic Touch and was a few doors down from the Earle porno theater, The Love Boat, and the Billy the Kid. Though people didn't discuss it outside of LGBT circles, 37th Road was the cruising strip known as Vaseline Alley.

My real interest in the LGBT history of the neighborhood was sparked while talking with Tommy Grimaldi who used to co-own The Magic Touch. Tommy's older clients had told him that one of the reasons the neighborhood had such a large LGBT population was the 7 train which went to Times Square. It seems that a lot of the theater people, many of whom were LGBT, liked the neighborhood because it was a nice bedroom community and an easy commute from work in the theater district.

Erik, a Danish man I interviewed for the film moved to the neighborhood in '61 to be with his lover who worked for the airlines. He said that there were a lot of LGBT people who worked for the airlines and liked the neighborhood because it was a quick commute to LaGuardia.

Queens Pride, by Richard Shpuntoff

So Jackson Heights was long a haven for gay theater people and flight attendants. But you say in the film that the murder of Julio Rivera changed the LGBT community in Jackson Heights. How so?

In many ways the LGBT community there was more of a subculture. It existed in the bars or in the privacy of people's homes. “Queerness" in Jackson Heights existed in a kind of Don't Ask / Don't Tell limbo, and many people lived double lives. Julio's murder became the catalyst for the LGBT population making itself visible and claiming its place in the community as equals.

The first public march--organized because the police were not classifying this murder as a bias crime and had assigned it to a detective who was on vacation--was a vigil for Julio, held on August 18, 1990, and of the 500 or so people who marched, there were likely less than 20 from the neighborhood.

Over the next few years, while people like Alan Sack and the Rivera family were working on Julio's case, other people like Ed Sedarbaum and Danny Dromm were able to use this to build a political mobilization. Three years after Julio's murder, Queens had its own Pride Parade--marching 18 years strong now! Numerous LGBT organizations were formed: QGLU, the Pride Committee, Sage Queens, the Queens LGBT Democratic Club, Pride House, Colega, to name just a few.

Most notably, in 2009, Jackson Heights elected its first openly gay public official to office when Daniel Dromm, Queens Pride Parade founder, became the City Councilmember.

Queens Pride, by Richard Shpuntoff

What is your personal connection to this film?

Though I grew up in the neighborhood and my parents continued to live in Jackson Heights after I moved, I was not there during the period of 1990 - 92 when Julio was murdered and the LGBT community began to organize. I moved back in 1993, the year of the first parade.

At the time, I was a documentary still photographer, and I was walking along 37th Avenue on the way home when I saw a flyer in the window of a coffee shop announcing "Queens First Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade and Multicultural Festival." It was like a lightning bolt for me. I knew I had to be there. I felt like I had just become aware of a civil rights movement being reborn where I grew up. I had to document it.

The decision to make a film that focused on Julio's murder was inevitable and the truth is that, for some time, it was something I was avoiding because I knew it would be an emotionally heavy task. For starters, it meant having to contact his family and friends and lovers and see if they would be willing to reopen an old wound. But in the end, after making various short films about the parade, it was clear that a portrait of the parade was really a portrait of Julio's murder and the changes that it sparked.

View film clips and donate at Kickstarter
Visit the film's
Facebook page

Queens Pride, by Richard Shpuntoff


Marty Wombacher said...

Great interview. I just watched the clip at Kickstarter and I hope this film gets made. I donated and hope everyone else does as well, if they can.

Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about bringing up the past. A bunch of stupid local kids, some DMS gang members if I remember correctly. That one definitely sent a shock-wave through the hood at the time. I mean kids would always fight, kids were getting jumped everyday, knife fights, whatever. But this one really elevated it to a sickness. This type of thing was commonplace at the time unfortunately.

Poetic justice intervened though, as one of the main guys who perpetrated this offense was killed in a bar in Mexico, after being on the run for over 10 years. It was on the news years ago. Stuff of NY legend.

Claribel said...

Sadly here, the past is too close behind us. The Times reported another hate crime in Queens that took place only last Saturday. Just horrible.

I, too, hope the film gets made with plenty of support.