THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Stephanie A. Jones Headshot

Out of the Rain, Into the Cathedral

Posted: Updated:

It was a wet cold November 22, 2009, with crystalizing winds spittling freezing breezes across the Hudson, numbing the hundreds of people gathered on the Christopher Street Pier for a candlelit vigil to commemorate the life and the death of Jorge Steven López Mercado.

Jorge Steven was viciously murdered on November 12th, and his dismembered, charred, women's clad body parts interred only across an isolated rural road. There was immediate media attention on who this poor Puerto Rican woman was, and who would do something so profane. When forensic examination determined hours later that the discarded remains actually belonged to a young male, the media dropped the story completely, without a single mention of the brutal murder in either of the following day's leading papers, La Primera Hora or El Nuevo Dia.

Young Puerto Rican photo-journalist Christopher Pagan, who lived near the crime scene and had followed the story, was incensed, outraged -- at the murder and the media both -- and wrote his now seminal CNN iReport drawing international attention to both Jorge Steven's heinous murder, and the socio-cultural conditions of Puerto Rico which would literally bury as shamed, stigmatized, and hidden this child's death -- and very life. Christopher's compelling report made its way to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) community of New York which sprung into action to organize a Vigil of outrage and commemoration.

On the evening of November 21st, 2009, our little band of organizers assembled under the direction of Karlo Karlo and Oscar Rául López to create a Vigil for Jorge Steven designed to correspond with a CNN interview of Puerto Rico's Pedro Julio Serrano slated for the following evening. As we juggled the thousand pieces of minutiae of which such events are composed, we heard that vigils all over the country were springing up. Ronnie Kroell and I worked on the logistics of the programmatic pieces, assembling artists, not-for-profit organization leaders, and NYC politicians, with New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn leading the charge. Scott Anthony (Ferrin Scott) helped us batten down escalating viral infighting between LGBTQ factions with competing agendas. Without finding common voice and vision we knew Jorge Steven's Vigil would be subsumed by news clips of LGBTQ intra-community conflict at the Vigil providing stereotypical fodder for the evening news, Our challenge, the five of us, essentially, was to unify an angry LGBTQ community into solidarity in order to honor Jorge Steven... and to do this all in twenty hours.

Every impossible task which must nevertheless be done needs an angel, and ours came in the phone call of Celiany "Chela" Rivera Valásquez who offered her videography team from the LGBT Student Services at NYU to provide private spaces in which vigil attendees could send messages of of anger, pain, sadness and outrage before the vigil proper started. It was imperative to provide a safe venue for the expression of rage before we could hope to come around to the healing for which we strove. Gifted instrumentalists donated their talents to accompany this filming time, and 2 hour lead-time, I arranged the delivery of coffee and donuts for the vigil attendees. I hadn't fixed upon a tea party: this was political strategy: I wanted to create an ambiance of mothering, of protecting, of healing and of unifying that would take a splintered raging crowd that could otherwise view the vigil through a "lens of separation," a paradigm I set out in a July 4th blog, rather than a "lens of integration." I also realized that it is difficult to spew Hate Speech with a mouthful of donuts or engage in physical argument while holding hot coffee in one's hand.

Jorge Steven López Mercado's Vigil was beautiful, at once protesting and peaceful, shouting and silent, outraged and uplifting. Jorge Steven's life and dealth were to become the cornerstone of GeekNerdWonk Charitable Foundation's Campaign of "Hate Crime is Human Crime" -- to continue our fighting for the legacy for Jorge Steven. A benefit for Jorge Steven was held on January 12th, 2010, and an official delegation of New York State and Illinois officials led by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn went to Puerto Rico to draw attention to this Hate Crime, for, without question, it was for cases such as these that the federal protections of the Hate Crime Bill were intended. Though never charged as a Hate Crime, Speaker Quinn's and her colleagues' efforts secured that the confessed murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado was jailed for life.

Fall winds then gave way to the snowy winter slush of soggy red maple leaves, and as 2009 turned to 2010, Hate crimes escalated, in fact, Hate crimes increased following the passage of the Hate Crime Bill, according to The New York City Anti-Violence Hate Crime 2009 report. One could deduce that the escalation in hate crime was attributable in part to the busloads of Fred Phelps' and Glenn Beck's lemmings, who evidently bored with bowling, decided that carrying "God Hates Fags" signs was going to be their raison dé être.

But 2010 was also the year of Vaughn Walker's historic August Prop 8 decision which is now wending its way to the 9th circuit on unimpeachable constitutional, procedural, and factual grounds. And in 2010, Don't Ask Don't Tell, most poignantly captured in Ned Farr and Dreya Weber's Award-winning A Marine Story, placed DADT unavoidably front and center for the US Military.

And though these civil rights battles have yet to be fully won, local not-for-profit organizations, national organizations, and intensive work by both academics and public health, biomedical and legal professionals, have not let us forget that when these battles are won, these victories will be for all of us. Jorge Steven's murder is not relevant to us because Jorge Steven was a member of the LGBTQ community, but rather because Jorge Steven was a child of all of ours.

And it may not be evident yet, but these impending victories will thrill passionate patriots. Those who believe in the fundamental goodness and morality of law, and the ends which the law is designed to serve. Equal treatment under the law for all Americans. Our common rights to liberty. Our rights to the pursuit of our individual happinesses.

In September, I wrote that it is was imperative that Hate crimes, gay marriage and DADT can no longer be the concern of the LGBTQ community alone. The night of the Jorge Steven Vigil, we fed the crowd with cobbled dollars. We raised no money. We had no budget. That night we cried together, and certainly left the LGBTQ community stronger than it had been before we had arrived, but that Vigil was, for an international matter, relatively speaking, a private one, borne, conceived, financed and executed largely by the victimized community itself.

This cannot continue into 2011 if we move toward realizing fundamental LGBTQ equality goals. Not only because fundamental civil rights are not factually, morally, or legally "LGBTQ" issues, but because we cannot allow them to become "LGBTQ" issues. For when acts or issues become "LGBTQ-ified," Allies, who, say, live on the west side of Manhattan, write checks for $50 to the ACLU and think they have done their part for "LGBTQ issues."

The systemic inequities facing the LGBTQ community must stir all of us as Activist Allies. And that is what we saw happen on November 22, 2010: Activist Allies showing up in droves.

In the majestic Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle, the pews were overflowing with those who came to see the "You Are Not Alone Benefit" for The Trevor Project, an organization which works to prevent LGBTQ teen suicide. Several weeks before I'd met with Governor Patterson and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in a rain soaked glow-light and sidewalk chalk vigil to commemorate the lives of six boys (more since) shamed into suicide. As I told the Governor and the Speaker, it is not enough to tell these desperate children "It Gets Better"; these often socially and geographically isolated teens have to know that they are not alone, NOW. I scrawled this, in pouring rain, repeatedly on the sidewalk, You Are Not Alone, You Are Not Alone.

Within days, who would become the co-executive producers of the " You Are Not Alone" Benefit for the Trevor Project "Matthew Morris and Joe Lodato contacted me with the simplest of e-mail: "Dear Steph, It's Matty and Joe. We really want to do an event for the Trevor Project. Will you help us?" Then, within days, famed-director Michael Rader had assembled a Broadway-laden, Metropolitan Opera and Julliard-soaring cast of professionals of all ages, creeds, colors and sexual persuasions to raise money for The Trevor Project. Producers The Church of Saint Paul, GeekNerkWonk Charitable Foundation Broadway Fights/AIDS, and Sing for Hope, as well as our generous donors, raised well over $13,000 for the Trevor Project, in a glorious evening.

So how far did we come in a year, from November 22, 2009, to November 22, 2010? Well, for one thing, we came inside, in of all places, into a glorious Catholic Cathedral. No longer were we standing on the pier in the biting cold. We had also moved uptown, making inroads into Manhattan's center, physically and psychologically. The cast, crew, production team, technicians, cast, donors and GeekNerdWonk interns represented Activist Allies; by and large, they did not belong to the Trevor Project's at-risk population. They contributed their time and talent because a travesty is taking place. We are losing our brightest, most gentle children and the possibility that these children may or may not be gay was immaterial to them and their efforts to help The Trevor Project.

Civil Rights Activists have the momentum here, to Honor these children by pointing out to our country that it must be a unconcerned about a teen's sexuality as were those of us who were working the "You Are Not Alone" Benefit. If these children, by bullying (a microcosm of institutionalized discrimination) feel so constitutionally abnormal, defective, unwanted, and hated - if they cannot marry and have a family. if they cannot proudly serve in the military if they choose, if they'll have to fight to see their dying partner's wishes enforced - why live? Why not end it all now? Why put themselves through the agony of disappointing their parents and their peers, and enter helplessly into a world of systemic daily prejudice for no deserved reason?

This year, let's show them their reasons to live. Let's do so by thanking those making inroads that improve LGBTQ lives and let's do so by organizing to demand what the LGBTQ community has yet to achieve.

Let's have another miracle year.