Julio Rivera (1961-1990), a 29-year-old Puerto Rican bartender raised in the Bronx, was living in Jackson Heights when, on July 2, 1990, three skinheads from a local street gang brutally attacked him in the schoolyard of P.S. 69 because he was gay. He later died at Elmhurst Hospital. In his memory, the Julio Rivera Corner street sign, just outside the school property at the southwest corner of 78th Street and 37th Avenue, was installed in 2000.
Since the 1920s, Jackson Heights has been home to one of the largest LGBT communities in New York City, but at the time of the attack LGBT activism was largely non-existent in then-socially conservative Queens. That changed beginning with Rivera’s murder, which current City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who proposed the street sign, has called part of “Queens’s Stonewall.”
“If it wasn’t for Julio the Queens LGBT movement would not have gotten as far as it has gotten. Julio did not die in vain. He changed people’s lives.”
Tommy Grimaldi, owner of the Magic Touch, a popular Jackson Heights gay bar, and Alan Sack, Rivera’s friend and former lover – and one of the people to find him dying on the sidewalk – contacted the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (now the NYC Anti-Violence Project; AVP) the morning after Rivera died. Working with AVP’s then-executive director Matt Foreman, Sack later attended a Queer Nation meeting at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan and gave an impassioned plea for help in organizing a vigil. Ed Sedarbaum, a gay rights activist and social worker from Jackson Heights, became highly involved after attending this meeting. Planning for the vigil largely took place in the basement of the Magic Touch. On August 18, 1990, six weeks after Rivera’s murder, his friends and family, members of the Latino (largely Puerto Rican) community, AVP, the Julio Rivera Anti-Violence Coalition, and Queer Nation, which brought hundreds of LGBT New Yorkers, participated in a silent candlelight vigil in Jackson Heights.
Considered the first gay public demonstration in Queens since a 1969 event in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the vigil was significant in expanding LGBT activism beyond Manhattan and connecting activists in both boroughs. It also marked the first time since 1969 that the gay community took a stand against homophobic hate crimes in Queens, which had included the deaths of at least six people and numerous gay bashings over several decades, and demanded that law enforcement finally address gay bias attacks (the police, for example, initially labeled Rivera’s murder as drug-related and assigned the case to an out-of-town detective). Additional advocacy efforts, such as two separate demonstrations in October 1990 to pressure Mayor David Dinkins into publicly acknowledging the murder, ultimately made Rivera’s case the first gay hate crime to be tried in New York State.
Reaction to his death also led to the formation of several important organizations, some of which include Queens Gays and Lesbians United (Q-GLU), the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens, and Queens Pride House. Sedarbaum, co-founder of Q-GLU, worked with AVP to develop a training program for the 115th Police Precinct to help improve the relationship between the police and the LGBT community. Rivera’s sister-in-law, Peg Rivera, became a tireless advocate for LGBT issues and was the first ally elected to AVP’s board of directors. In 1993, the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee established the Queens Pride Parade, with a route that includes what is now known as Julio Rivera Corner.