We refuse to live in fear

November 25, 2009

Activists report on vigils organized across the U.S. for Jorge Steven López Mercado, a 19-year-old gay man murdered earlier this month in Puerto Rico.

WHEN 19-year-old Jorge Steven López Mercado was found burned, decapitated and dismembered on November 14 by the side of a road near Caguas, Puerto Rico, the loss was felt immediately by everyone who knew him. But his death also touched countless others who understand what it is like to live in fear of harassment and violence because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LBGTQI).

Activists across the U.S. went into action to respond to this terrible crime and show that if we come together, we can fight bigotry and violence. Equality Across America made the call for vigils last weekend.

In New York City, more than 500 people mobilized for a candlelight vigil on November 22, drawing together a multiracial crowd on the Christopher Street Piers, where many LGBT youth of color hang out.

The march was initially organized by Scott Anthony Evans, with the support of local LGBT organizations and local politicians. Scott began organizing at 2 a.m. on the day he found out about the horrific hate crime.

In his opening words, Evans said that he never saw himself as a community organizer, but was compelled out of rage and sadness to do something. He began organizing an event on Facebook and quickly gained support from friends, members of the LGBT community, and many straight people as well.

Speakers at the event highlighted the fact that Jorge's murder was not isolated, and is part of the growing number of attacks on LGBT individuals. Several speakers talked about the slanders against Jorge for possibly being a sex worker--as if this justified his murder!--and said that we need to stand up for sex workers, who are so marginalized and oppressed in our society.

Longtime Queens LGBT activist and newly elected City Council member Danny Dromm spoke about the need for massive education in public schools about LGBT lives and equality to help eradicate hate crimes. Imagine what a step forward it would be in ending homophobia if President Obama dared to support such a position.

Highlighted throughout the vigil was the idea that we need to continue to fight for equality. "We need to go home and build a movement," Evans said. "We need to work and stand together. Do not let us be divided. We must find our inner activist and work to change society."

In Los Angeles, 150 people gathered at the busy intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente Boulevards in West Hollywood to honor Jorge López and 15-year-old Jason Mattison Jr., a Black gay high school student in Baltimore who was raped and beaten to death on November 10.

The vigil and rally was organized locally by Equality Network after activists learned about a similar event in New York City. Other groups that co-sponsored the event included The Wall Las Memorias, Honor PAC, Latino Equality Alliance and the International Socialist Organization.

The mostly young and multiracial crowd read letters of support and sympathy from Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998; Jorge's mother Miriam Mercado; and Jason's teacher.

Speakers emphasized the vigil's solidarity with the Puerto Rican LGBT community. A trio of Aztec indigenous performers who heard about the rally that day ended the event by leading the crowd in prayer and dance.

In Chicago, local elected officials and clergy joined leaders of the Latino and LGBT communities for a 200-person candlelight vigil and march in Humboldt Park, the heart of the city's Puerto Rican community.

Several Latino LGBT organizations organized the event, including Boricua Pride, Orgullo en Accion and the Association of Latino Men for Action, and dozens of others were in attendance.

The program for the event repeated the words of Miriam Ricardo, Jorge López's mother: "When my son told me he was gay, I told him now I love you more." The crowd chanted, "Jorge y Jason, presente!"

In San Francisco, protesters gathered at Castro and Market. Speakers included Juan Barajas, senior director for GLAAD San Francisco Bay Area; City Supervisor David Campos; Scott Weiner of the Human Rights Campaign; Andrea Shorter of Equality California; Roberto Ordenana from the LGBT Center; and Eduardo Morales, executive director of AGUILAS.

In a vigil organized by Join the Impact Massachusetts, more than 60 people came together in Boston to mourn the deaths of all victims of anti-LBGT violence. Some speakers called for continuing the pressure to win full equality under the federal law as the way to stop such violence.

Don Gorton of the Anti-Bullying Project and Join the Impact argued that while he felt the recent passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Act was significant, it's "hardly solace" in the wake of Mercado's murder. He said misogyny, homophobia and transphobia have common roots and that activists must fight for a change in society's attitudes.

Local representatives Sonia Chang-Diaz of Suffolk County and Carl Sciortino of Somerville and Medford spoke as well. Sciortino, who works closely with the Massachusetts Trangender Political Coalition, highlighted the lack of protection for transgender people under Massachusetts law.

Hector Tarrido-Picart of the International Socialist Organization spoke about Mercado's murder in the context of the general assault on working people Puerto Rico via massive layoffs and high unemployment. He also talked about the solidarity among LGBT activists, students and workers in Puerto Rico in fighting for full equality.

In Washington, D.C., more than 50 people gathered at Dupont Circle on November 22. The vigil was called and organized by Full Equality Now! DC (formerly the DC Host Committee for the National Equality March).

The somberness of the gathering couldn't contain the outrage in the voices of speakers, who all defiantly reaffirmed the common theme of the evening: We refuse to live in fear!

Colin MacDonald of Full Equality Now! described a statement by a police office Puerto Rico--who said "people who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen"--as a reflection of his hatred and fear of people who aren't afraid to be who they are. "Mercado was fearless," MacDonald said. "It is his murderers and the police chief who are the cowards. We will not be silent when people are attacked for being who they are."

Matt Bamford, also with Full Equality Now!, pointed to the National Equality March in October as proof that it only takes a few voices to raise the voices and consciousness of thousands. "We must raise our voices and work so that we don't have to have these vigils anymore," he said.

Laura Lising, another organizer of the event, said that these tragic and brutal crimes underscore the need for the LGBT movement to adopt a national strategy for winning full equality. We need to fight against discriminatory laws at the federal level that only encourage these acts of anti-gay violence and legitimize the bigotry of individuals who commit these crimes, she said.

Frankie Cook, Akunna Eneh, Susan Jay, Marlene Martin, Arturo Sernas and Brian Tierney contributed to this article.

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