Slain Puerto Rican Teen Mourned

In New York, hundreds mourn death, as vigils held in 20 cities

BY ANDY HUMM | More than 400 New Yorkers turned out at the Christopher Street piers on Sunday evening, November 22, to mourn Jorge Steven López Mercado, 19, who was beheaded and dismembered in Cidra, Puerto Rico, on November 13, allegedly for being gay. Juan Martínez Matos, 26, has been charged with first-degree murder, and many of the speakers called for prosecuting the case as a hate crime, though there was some dissent about that in the crowd.

Similar vigils were held in 20 cities from Los Angeles to Boston.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, formerly the executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP), was emphatic that “this must be prosecuted as a hate crime,” and was cheered by the crowd. But during her speech, gay activist and civil libertarian Bill Dobbs shouted for “justice, not vengeance” and held up a sign calling for the repeal of hate crimes laws, which face opposition among some LGBT groups, particularly in communities of color.

There has been intense pressure on the police and governor of Puerto Rico to classify this as a hate crime — and officials there have stated they believe Martínez acted out of anti-gay animus. Activists have also called on Attorney General Eric Holder to get the FBI involved in the matter under the new federal hate crimes statute; FBI officials in San Juan have offered the local police any assistance they need.

After her speech, Quinn told Gay City News that this was “clearly” a hate crime, given the anti-gay and anti-transgendered statements made by the alleged perpetrator and his representatives and the “overkill” in the slaying. She said that if investigators later determine that the island commonwealth’s 2002 hate crimes statute was not violated, that charge can be dropped.

Dobbs argued that such an attitude represents a rush to judgment. “Let some facts come out first in a fair, thorough investigation,” he said. “Quinn’s approach of throwing the book at someone thousands of miles away shows callous disregard for due process and constitutional rights.”

City Councilman-elect Daniel Dromm, who will represent Jackson Heights, with a large Latino community, spoke out against any defense the suspect might use based on his claim that he met the victim, who he said was dressed in women’s clothing, in an area where prostitutes congregate. “We’re not going to accept that from our legal system,” he said of a prospective “gay panic defense.” He also called for a “curriculum of tolerance” in New York City schools and schools throughout the world. “We need to let people know about our lives as LGBT people,” he said.

Jarrett Barrios, the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who, like Dromm, spoke in Spanish and English, said, “If the governor of Puerto Rico won’t act, the attorney general of the United States now may,” under the new US law. “We must resist this violence with our truth.”

“We’re horrified and outraged by what happened to Jorge,” said veteran gay activist Brendan Fay after the action. “We’re saying he was part of our community and family.” Fay said the slaying “shows something about how far we have to go.”

Jennifer Flynn-Walker, managing director of Health GAP, which fights for global access to HIV treatments, said, “I’m saddened there’s not more of a turnout. I hope it has nothing to do with the fact that Jorge wasn’t blonde and white like Matthew Shepard. But I’m excited that new people are organizing.”

The New York action, which moved from an outdoor rally by the river to a prayer service at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street, was organized using social networking sites such as Facebook by Scott Anthony Evans, 23, a retail manager, who was soon joined by Karlo, a make-up artist, and Stephanie Jones, who does anti-violence work. Jones said, “My work is about finding a way to give voices to those who don’t have them.”

The action attracted mainstream groups such as GLAAD and AVP, but there was also significant representation by the LGBT young people who make the West Village piers their hangout. Among those attending was Angela Louis, 21, who works with the Urban Justice Center trying to help sex workers be safer. Transgendered and a former sex worker, she said that even if the suspect’s story that he killed López after picking him up for sex and then discovering that he was not a woman were true, there was no excuse for the slaying. She noted, however, that she always disclosed her transgendered identity to johns beforehand, and even then was once the victim of violence. Louis said she is still harassed by police on the street. “Cops look at me and say, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’” she said, leaving her doubtful that police would help if she were in need.

Nyck Schweigert, 24, mentors LGBT youth at the Grand Street Settlement’s Project Soul. “I work with some who are transgendered who have some hard experiences with cops because they think they’re prostituting,” he said. He was arrested himself at the Port Authority in 2007 while he used the men’s room after seeing off a friend. “The cop accused me of trespassing, but the judge said it was ridiculous and threw it out,” he recalled.

As the crowd left the pier, many signed a poster wishing López’s family well, which Adriano Smiroldo, a Delta Airlines employee, planned to fly down to them. “I have a good friend who was schoolmates with Jorge,” he said. “He said he was a really sweet guy.”