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Jax Hts film explores crime that led to Queens Pride

Director Richard Shpuntoff discusses his film "Julio of Jackson Heights," about the growth of the Pride Parade and the pro-LGBT movement in Queens. Photo by Rebecca Henely
TimesLedger Newspapers

Jackson Heights native Richard Shpuntoff said while his evolving documentary is named after murder victim Julio Rivera, the film is not so much about the crime as the change it inspired in Jackson Heights.

Rivera, a gay Latino man living and working in Jackson Heights, was beaten to death by three men July 2, 1990, in the playground of PS 69 on 37th Avenue.

While Rivera was not the only gay man killed in the then-closeted community, Shpuntoff said what happened to Rivera galvanized Jackson Heights like never before, inspiring the establishment of the Queens Pride Parade and creating a more welcoming environment for LGBT residents that eventually led to the elections of openly gay City Councilmen Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside).

“It was like the civil rights movement was happening again in the place I grew up,” Shpuntoff said.

The film, “Julio of Jackson Heights,” is not yet finished — only 37 minutes of the projected 90-minute documentary have been spliced together — but Shpuntoff has held four screenings.

The first was at the 20th Queens Pride Parade earlier this month and the last was at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan’s West Village June 13.

“Julio” contains footage from the Pride Parade, which Shpuntoff has photographed and filmed every year since it started, as well as interviews with Rivera’s family, LGBT activists , law enforcement and elected officials, who tell the story of the crime and the movement.

“It’s sort of like the Stonewall Riots of Queens,” said Paul Menard, director of cultural programming for the center.

Menard said the center, which had helped the Jackson Heights community in the wake of the murder, hosted the screening because the film illustrates why the LGBT community needs to be visible, and how that visibility has helped prevent attacks like the one that killed Rivera.

“I think it’s incredibly important to remember the real meaning behind pride and Pride Month,” he said.

Jon Winkleman, a Sunnyside resident who was active with the organization Queer Nation at the time of Rivera’s murder, said getting anyone to pay attention to his murder nearly 22 years ago made activists feel like they were “banging their heads against brick walls.”

He said the community has changed much since then.

“It’s really one of the best places for an LGBT person to live today,” Winkleman said.

Shpuntoff is still raising money to finish his film. Those interested in helping can donate at indiegogo.com and search for “Julio of Jackson Heights” or by visiting Shpuntoff’s website at julioofjacksonheights.com.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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