When my friends and collaborators Carmen Oquendo-Villar and José Correa-Vigier approached me to produce a documentary project entitled The Needle, about the gay owner of a cosmetic clinic serving an LGBTQ clientele in Puerto Rico, I was immediately intrigued. Carmen had done previous work in short film portraits of Latino members of the Boston trans community, and this promised to be another riveting look into a rarely depicted world. We set out to edit a film out of the many hours of footage captured in the domestic clinic of José Quiñones, our protagonist. All kinds of clients passed through his doors, from mothers with children in tow to gay men. But it was the transgender individuals, and the gay men like our protagonist who enjoy cross-dressing, that pulled the camera's eye. I thought we would have on our hands a gripping, risqué peek into the world of the underground Puerto Rican LGBTQ community. Then life intervened.
On November 12, 2009, the body of 19-year-old Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found on the side of a road, decapitated, dismembered and partially burned. The man captured and suspected of the crime, Juan José Martínez Matos, initially pled that, after picking up Jorge Steven (in an area known for trans sexual workers) and realizing that he was a man and not a woman, a past trauma of sexual abuse triggered him to carry out the horrific murder in a state of temporary insanity. Days after, a local investigator on the case suggested that individuals who led lives like that of a gay sexual worker know that this could happen to them. All of a sudden, some of the footage captured in our shoot felt quite real.
Thanks to the great work of Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the ACLU of Puerto Rico, and countless individuals who mobilized and gathered on the streets of Puerto Rico and across the Puerto Rican Diaspora to demand that the crime be treated under the Federal Hate Crimes Law*, this tragedy ultimately triggered a step forward in LGBTQ rights in Puerto Rico. In May of 2010, Martínez Matos pled guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Nonetheless, we could not shake off the reality of what happened and what continued to happen outside the spotlight of the news. Much of the LGBTQ community of Puerto Rico, grappling with an economic crisis on top of rejection by their family, turns to sexual work to survive. They are not yet fully protected by Puerto Rican society. Judging by the immediate homophobic user comments on recent coverage of our film by local newspaper Primera Hora , there is much work to be done.
Our co-directors and editor Carla Cavina, with additional guidance by Executive Producer Dana King, continued to edit. The film began to take shape as something quite different than we had imagined. Instead of a risqué exposé, we found the story drawn to the very human thread at the core of the footage. In the filmmaking process, Quiñones, our protagonist, became not just a 'Mother' figure in the underground LGBTQ community. He became a man who ached for the company of a family that had rejected him and of a mother who had passed away in his youth. He surrounded himself with a tightknit group of clients as a way to form a community. There was strength in that community, but it did not fill the gap left by his family. And so he continued onwards alone in life like so many of us do -- queer or not -- finding contentment in his solitude. This became the story of our film, a story that -- quite different from what I had expected -- was universal and nothing out of the ordinary. The characters and world that encompassed the 'other' became, in The Needle, the relatable and the familiar. There was ultimately nothing risqué about this human story.
As an outsider to the Puerto Rican LGBTQ community, the experience of making The Needle with Carmen Oquendo-Villar and José Correa-Vigier changed my perspective. I invite others to experience the same.
* The protection of the Federal Hate Crimes Law had been extended that same year by President Obama, via the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, to include acts motivated by a person's actual or perceived gender, their sexual orientation, and gender identity.