By Dustin Brown
Early on the morning of Aug. 15, Edgar Garzon was struck on the head and left to die along 77th Street in Jackson Heights, the victim of an apparent bias crime who was targeted because he was gay.
Hundreds of members of the Queens gay community and their supporters banded together to retrace his steps in a vigil last Thursday, bearing a sea of candles along the roadway to demonstrate the neighborhood’s solidarity against hate crimes.
“Usually what people think is that the gay community in Queens is closeted,” said organizer Andres Duque, a coordinator at Mano a Mano, a Manhattan-based coalition of Latino, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations. “I wanted to prove if something happened to someone in our community, then we would be there for them.”
Garzon, 35, of 76-10 34th Ave. in Jackson Heights, died Sept. 4 after lingering for nearly three weeks in a coma at Elmhurst Hospital. He had been struck on the head with a blunt object three weeks earlier at 3:50 a.m. on Aug. 15 by someone who stepped out of a red car and left him bleeding on the street, police said.
The assault happened north of the corner of 77th Street and 37th Avenue as Garzon returned home from a late-night meal with friends and an evening out at a popular Roosevelt Avenue gay bar called Friends Tavern.
Garzon was a naturalized citizen from Colombia who had designed theatrical sets and owned a restaurant in the neighborhood.
Police said the assault was being investigated as a bias incident.
The vigil, planned while Garzon was still in a coma as a private display of support, evolved rapidly after his death into a full-scale media event attracting more than 300 marchers and live camera crews from major television stations.
Although some marchers carried signs with statements like “Stop the Violence” and “Help Us Protect Lives,” and others chanted rallying cries calling for justice, Duque said the event was planned as a vigil in honor of Garzon’s memory rather than a political event.
For the most part it was treated as a memorial as participants walked along the route Garzon had taken with a solemn sense of purpose. They quietly discussed the crime and its impact on the community as they approached 35-50 77th St., an elegant co-op in front of which Garzon had been left to die.
A picture of Garzon was set against the wrought-iron fence that circled the building, bathed in the light of marchers’ candles, which were melting inside plastic Dixie cups and tall glass jars.
In Jackson Heights, one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods and home to a well-established gay Latino community, the assault cast a shadow on the prevailing opinion that the area is a safe for all people.
“We have created a space and that’s the reason why so many people come to these bars and so many people settle in Jackson Heights — because it’s a safe space,” Duque said.
The attack also sent cries of outrage through a local gay community that first found its voice following the hate-motivated murder of another gay man, Julio Rivera, in 1990.
Garzon was assaulted only a block away from the site of Rivera’s death, an event which served as “the spark that ignited the current (gay rights) movement in the borough,” said Daniel Dromm, the co-chairman of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee.
While the Rivera murder was an initial call to action in the community, Garzon’s death has served as a wake-up call to gay activists that the strides of the past decade have not erased the dangers of intolerance.
“This murder reminds us exactly of the work that needs to be done,” Dromm said. “We need a curriculum of tolerance in the schools. We need the average citizens to speak out and to be repulsed and to say that these crimes are absolutely horrible.”
If the vigil was any indication, people are listening.
“I just think it’s horrible that in this new century we are still training our children to hate and to be fearful,” said Krishna Stone, a Brooklyn resident and employee at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis who brought her young daughter to march with her.
Such a vigil “teaches a child that people need to stand up for the civil rights of all people,” she said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.