By Bill Parry
A documentary about the murder of Julio Rivera, and the effect it had on Jackson Heights’ LGBT community, makes its world premiere Thursday at PS 69. It is the same school, at 77-02 37th Ave., where the notorious murder took place 25 years ago.
Filmmaker Richard Shpuntoff, who was born and raised in Jackson Heights, will screen “Julio of Jackson Heights” at 8 p.m. and host a discussion session with members of the Rivera family; Alan Sack, Julio’s friend and ex-lover who led the organizing efforts to find Julio’s murderers; and Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who played such a key role in the rise of the neighborhood’s LGBT organizations.
Shpuntoff photographed and filmed the first 20 years of the Queens Pride Parade and in 2007, he decided to make the film.
“The very first Queens Pride Parade seemed truly unbelievable at the time,” Shpuntoff said. “We aren’t talking about 50 or 100 years ago. This was just 25 years ago when gay men were afraid to come out and March in Queens, afraid for their lives.”
Rivera was a gay Latino man living and working in Jackson Heights when he was set upon by a three-man “hunting party” from a skinhead gang, a tragic incident that sparked the coming out of New York’s largest and until then mostly closeted LGBT community, Shpuntoff explained.
“The police were not doing a proper investigation, which was the norm back then,” he said. “The murder of Julio Rivera was, unfortunately, not the first gay bashing murder in the neighborhood by any means. There had actually been a number of murders of gay men in similar circumstances during the ‘80s.”
What was different was the community’s reaction. They formed organizations, such as Ed Sedarbaum’s Queens Gay and Lesbians United and Dromm’s Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, and real political traction began.
“We’ve come a long,” Dromm said. “If not for Julio, I don’t know that the Queens movement would have gotten as far as it has.”
Shpuntoff lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina now but he has been watching recent events in Jackson Heights where three high-profile attacks against the LGBT community have occurred since late November. The vicious beating of a transgender woman Nov. 29 led to several rallies in the community.
“Unfortunately, we still have this kind of violence in Jackson Heights despite the progress we have made, but now the victims are largely trans women of color,” Shpuntoff said. “What is different today is the response, and this is a big change. When Julio was murdered in 1990, there was no public response. Zero. Not from the police, not from the politicians, not from the media. It took months of constant pressure to get the police to run a serious investigation. After Julio, whether you are talking about Edgar Garzon or the more recent cases of attacks on transgender women, the community now rallies in support on every level.”
The suspect wanted in the trangender attack was tracked down by the NYPD in Knoxville, Tenn. He was arrested and returned to Queens, where he was charged with two counts of assault last month.
“One of the things I aimed for the film to show is the work — the level of commitment and sacrifice — that is needed to change things for the better,” Shpuntoff said. “And I don’t think this is any different today, even with social media, because you can post as much as you want on the Internet, but ultimately it is about getting people to come out on the streets and make their demands.”
The world premiere of “Julio of Jackson Heights” is part of the 6th annual Queens World Film Festival which kicks off Tuesday at the Museum of Moving Image and three other venues where 143 films from 23 countries will be screened over six days. This year 29 of the filmmakers are from Queens.
For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.queen
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr