To the men who killed him, Julio Rivera was apparently just a gay man upon whom they could inflict their hate. But to the residents of Jackson Heights, Rivera was the catalyst who would propel them to enact positive changes within their community.
Early morning on July 2, 1990, Rivera was leaving Friends Tavern, a local gay bar, when he was violently beaten and stabbed to death in a playground by three men affiliated with the gang called Doc Martin Skinheads. According to testimony cited in The New York Times, Daniel Doyle, 21, Erik Brown, 21, and Esat Bici, 19 were hunting for a “drug dealer or a drug addict or a homo out cruising” to use their hammer and knife on.
Doyle, who delivered the fatal blow, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and became the chief witness against his two accomplices. Bici and Brown were also convicted but the decision was later reversed due to procedural errors. While Brown eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Bici fled after being released on bail. In 2002, he was found shot to death in Mexico.
The New York Times called Rivera an “unlikely martyr” for the effect his death had on uniting gay advocacy groups. He was a 29-year-old bartender and drug user whom friends saw as unhappy. His death came at a time when supporters for Doyle could shout out gay slurs as Rivera’s boyfriend entered the courtroom at Doyle’s trial and when politicians didn’t want to take pictures with the gay community, as Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) recalls. And yet, now the Latino gay community had someone who represented them and whose tragic death could be used to spread awareness about gay rights.
Since the killing, gay advocacy groups such as the Queens Pride House and the Queens Center for Gay Seniors have sprouted up in Queens, adding to its great diversity. And while politicians may have been reluctant to stand with the gay community 20 years ago, today there are two openly gay elected officials in the borough, one of them, Dromm. Queens County also had the second highest number of elected officials voting in favor of the marriage equality bill when it passed in Albany in 2011.
Three years after the murder, Dromm founded the first Queens Pride Parade in Jackson Heights. He recalls seeing police on the rooftops at the first parade as a precaution. That year, attendance was uncertain. It came at a period when the councilman, then a teacher, was advocating the Rainbow Curriculum, which sought to address homosexuality in public schools. The controversial program and the murder “galvanized the community to say, ‘That’s it. We’re not going to take it anymore, we’re going to stand up for ourselves,’” said Dromm. Twenty years later, the parade continues to grow bigger and stronger with about 40,000 in attendance, making it the second- largest pride parade in the city.