JACKSON HEIGHTS — As much of the country continues to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, neighbors will gather Wednesday to honor the 25th anniversary of a brutal slaying of a man whose death sparked a movement in Queens.
Julio Rivera was beaten to death on July 2, 1990, at the corner of 78th Street and 37th Avenue by three men affiliated with a skinhead gang who went out that night looking to attack a gay man, according to reports at the time.
His murder is considered a turning point for the neighborhood’s gay community, which had remained silent as other hate crimes happened on 37th Avenue and around Jackson Heights.
“Julio’s case was the beginning of the change that we saw in the borough of Queens,” said Councilman Danny Dromm, a longtime Jackson Heights resident who was an activist before being elected to the City Council.
Dromm is hosting the annual vigil on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in front of Julio Rivera Corner, steps from where he was attacked on 37th Avenue.
Rivera's murder brought the struggle home for many people, Dromm said, as he and others worked to bring about equality for the LGBT community.
“Part of what was trying to show people then was LGBT people are their family, their friends and their neighbors — and they live in Queens, too," he said.
Rivera, 29, worked as a bartender and was living with his boyfriend in Jackson Heights when he was killed.
He was walking on 37th Avenue when he was approached by two men, Erik Brown and Esat Bici, who lured him to the P.S. 69 schoolyard, according to reports.
Brown and Bici, along with one of their friends, Daniel Doyle, who joined them later during the attack, were affiliated with a local skinheads gang.
The trio chose the street to find a person to attack because it was was known then as a gay pickup site, according to reports.
The three friends pummeled Rivera with a hammer, and Doyle admitted to stabbing him in the back.
Investigators initially described the attack as a “drug deal gone bad.” It took months for the police to declare the case a hate crime, after local activists teamed up with groups throughout the city to push the NYPD and the city to acknowledge the killers' homophobic motives.
The incident was also a call to action for Rivera's family, who lived in The Bronx and suddenly found themselves in the spotlight as activists, relatives said.
“He was just my uncle, we didn’t talk about him being gay,” said Julio’s niece, Jennifer, who was a child when her uncle was killed. “We accepted him and loved him.”
After his murder, the Rivera family became active in the larger cause for equal rights, as well as the fight to have Rivera’s murder declared a hate crime.
Jennifer was only 11 when her uncle died, and as an only child, she traveled with her parents to marches and joined them at the murder trial.
It was traumatizing, she said, but she was surrounded by family.
“Not just my own family but the gay community and the people of Jackson Heights,” she said.
Rivera's story, and its role in the borough's gay rights movement, was documented by director Richard Shpuntoff in the film "Julio of Jackson Heights," featuring interviews from his family and friends. He also has footage from years of the borough's pride parade, which began after Rivera's death.
The Rivera family also bonded with the family of Edgar Garzon, who was killed 11 years after Julio was attacked on the corner of 37th Avenue and 77th Street in another hate crime.
Garzon was walking home from Friends Tavern, a local gay bar, in August 2001 when he was beaten by John L. McGhee, police said. He died Sept. 4, 2001, after nearly a month in a coma.
The two men are remembered each year during the Queens Pride Parade, as marchers pause on both corners in their honor.
They were also remembered Saturday as Dromm, local couples and activists celebrated the legalization of gay marriage across the country in front of the post office, near the streets renamed for both victims.
Dozens cheered and cut a rainbow-colored wedding cake, but the memory of both deaths was still on their minds.
“We've come so far, yet we still have so far to go,” Dromm said.
“Changing laws is one things, but changing people’s hearts and minds is another.”