June 11, 2010
Like Matthew Shepard’s, Jorge Steven’s body is generating its own mythical force. The body of the young American man whose name heads the Hate Crime Act recently signed by President Obama was found almost dead in a field in Laramie, Wyoming. His face so brutally beaten by two young men, that those who found him thought they were staring at a scarecrow. Matthew was murdered for being homosexual. The defense lawyers for the self-confessed killers alleged the accused were victims of “gay panic.” Jorge Steven, a 19-year-old, was murdered by another young man, Juan José Martinez Matos, who allegedly paid Jorge (or not) to engage in sex. That encounter ended with the savage murder of this young man, whose body was stabbed, dismembered, partially burnt, and then dumped in Mount Guavate in Cayey. Juan José, the self-confessed killer, has said Jorge Steven tricked him supposedly posing as a woman the night of the encounter. Matthew was murdered for being who he was. Jorge Steven was murdered allegedly for not being who he claimed to be.
Two beautiful young gay men heinously murdered. Like Matthew’s body in the United States, Jorge Steven’s body is a prominent icon in the struggle for gay rights in Puerto Rico at a moment when the gay marriage issue is gaining decisive momentum in many parts of Europe, some Latin American countries, and a handful of American states. The possibility of Juan José being prosecuted under the hate crimes law would restore some dignity in the Puerto Rican LGBT population. A crucial point is that Jorge Steven’s dead body is essential for the vindication of the homosexual bodies alive in the country today. For this to happen, it’s important that we identify the real victim of this crime. The victim is not the murderer, as those who use the “gay panic” defense claim, but the homosexual who has been murdered.
The process of victimizing Jorge Steven’s body has been unraveling for the last few months in Puerto Rico with a clarity, consequence and determination never before seen. Similar crimes committed against homosexuals during the decades of the seventies and eighties, like the case of Ivan Frontera — murdered by a serial killer commonly known as the “Angel of Single Men” – never generated news that traveled beyond gossip and tabloid press dedicated to crimes of passion. The only effect caused by the death of Ivan Frontera, a fashion and social etiquette journalist, was the termination of “Ivan Fontecha”, a popular television character spoofing the flamboyant mannerisms of Frontera, created by comedian Sunshine Logroño, who removed the character from his repertoire. Ironically, with this gesture Logroño denied Frontera his last chance of survival.
But Jorge Steven’s case has been quite different. News about his death and the prosecution of his killer, still at an early stage, have been widely covered by the local press, and there have been attempts to place the news in a global context. Commemorative vigils have taken place in Puerto Rico and New York, there are numerous testimonial videos by friends and admirers on YouTube, and several film memorials have been created celebrating the life of Jorge Steven with photos, anecdotes. and statements from activists in Puerto Rico and the United States.
No one has been more faithfully dedicated to this cause than Pedro Julio Serrano, who has practically turned Jorge Steven’s murder into the axis of his position as the leading LGBT rights activist in Puerto Rico. Currently working as communications manager of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, a leading national lobbying organization working at the federal level, Pedro Julio ran for legislator under the New Progressive Party a few years ago without success. He since has become a fierce advocate for gay marriage and constitutional equality for sexual minorities. No one explains with more eloquence and zest the due right we gay people have to be treated with absolute equality as legitimate citizens of a Puerto Rican society that must be for everyone once and for all. That’s the name of his base organization: Puerto Rico for Every@ne (Puerto Rico para Tod@s). In Spanish, the word everyone has a masculine and feminine form, and he uses the @ symbol to include both genres in a single grammatical space.
The day of Jorge Steven’s wake at Diaz Funeral Home in Toa Alta, my partner and I attended along with some friends. Like so many others, his death had moved us deeply and we felt compelled to be there as part of the LGBT community of our country. Chapel A, a small and humble space, was packed with family and friends. Some of us had to remain standing by the entrance. Soon after we arrived, Pedro Julio showed up and sat on the floor in front of a makeshift altar with numerous photos of Jorge Steven and his friends. One of Jorge Steven’s brothers introduced the preacher for the event, a woman between the age of 30 and 40, who introduced herself as a former addict transformed by the word of God. In her testimony she told us how her addiction caused her to become homeless and hand her children over to the government. The process of her transformation that began with her religious encounter, allowed her to start a new life re-socialized, a life for which she claimed back her sons. Her two sons, who went to live with her again, were present at the funeral home. She asked them to join her up front and proudly introduced them as her two gay sons. Her testimony ended on a dramatic note: she had to leave her congregation because of her sons’ homosexuality. Her church accepted her, but they couldn’t accept her gay sons. At the end of her testimony many of the people in the room were moved to tears.
After this first act, it was Pedro Julio’s turn. His words were firm and moving. “The sin is not homosexuality. The sin is homophobia. The sin is intolerance, it’s the violence of silence.” Pedro Julio uses religious language, not like a religious figure, but like a politician. When he uses the word “sin” he’s referring to the fault, the problem, the issue. “The silence of the politicians (continues) who have not even expressed their condolences to Jorge Steven’s mom, is a deafening silence. Some days ago I witnessed another silence at a gay club were they observed a minute of silence in memory of Jorge Steven. A minute of silence at a club…Two silences, so different one from the other.” I thought to myself, a minute of silence in a gay club, that’s a true miracle.
Pedro Julio Serrano has the qualities to be a great political figure in his native country. He speaks with conviction. He speaks with a clear sense of purpose, and has a genuine and utterly important message. Jorge Steven’s death, so unfortunate and untimely, could, however, be key for people to get a better and deeper understanding of the interesting and promising Pedro Julio. His young and candid style, never trivial nor entitled, presents him as a different kind of contender in the Puerto Rican political arena, so deteriorated in recent years by dimwitted politicians produced by long-standing and tired partisan politics. I hope that figures like Pedro Julio and especially our voters come to realize that our political future does not lie in political parties. We have to listen to the proposals of minority groups like homosexuals, women, syndicates, and environmentalists. The advocates for Corredor Ecológico del Noreste, Todo Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico, Movimiento Hostosiano, and Puerto Rico para Tod@s. Therein lies the future of Puerto Rican politics. Neither (former governor) Anibal Acevedo, nor (current mayor of San Juan) Santini, (current governor) Fortuño, (current president of the Senate) Rivera Shatz, or (former senator) Ruben Berrios have much to offer Puerto Rico. But figures like Pedro Julio Serrano do. The famous kiss he and his boyfriend shared at the end of his deposition in front of the Legislature is one of the few promising political acts that have taken place in this grand house in recent years.
However, and I say this not with arrogance but with certain melancholy, neither Pedro Julio, nor the gay community, or LGBT activism have the capacity to summon Jorge Steven’s real body. In a way, there’s no greater act of violence against a body than placing it in the sarcophagus of victimization. On the other hand, I recognize it’s true, even if I don’t completely accept it: we had to snatch the young body away from the murderer, we had to remove him from his hands, so he couldn’t continue dismembering him. We had to restitute him into an integral body, a united body, coherent, legible, a body that could restitute itself for law and order, a complete body waiting to be re-civilized. That is the body of a victim of a hate crime. In order for the victim to occupy his space, it's necessary for the perpetrator to occupy his. The assignment of roles in the cast of this drama is implacable. And the stage lights have to shine on the body remembered (rememorized and reunified), the body of the new political subject of the XXI century: the LGBT body.
The drama woven in this process is about gay rights. It’s an important drama. I’m moved by the progress we’ve had in Spain, Holland, Vermont. I’m moved by Evo Morales’ pro-gay policies. But I can’t forget that the two main causes of the gay movement in the United States today, gay marriage and serving openly in the military, we should admit, are very conservative. The right to marriage is in fact the right to divorce. The number of gay couples that divorce soon after getting married is alarming. We have become staunch advocates attempting to save two of the most questionable institutions of Western society: bourgeoisie marriage and the imperial army.
That’s why my melancholy cannot be satisfied with the victimized body of Jorge Steven representing the gay movement. It’s obvious that the impact of his body on his murderer is far more outrageous than the degree of hate as defined by the penal code. What did Juan José really want to kill? What did he want to erase with a knife, with fire, and dismemberment? An act that instead of vanishing the body, multiplied it, recomposed it, and increased it, in a geometrical progression. A body that far from disappearing, spreads over Mount Guavate, grows, and comes apart to incriminate from the darkest places of the forest. What did Juan José attempted to kill but failed?
Of the many testimonials about Jorge Steven circulating on YouTube and in the press, the gay movement has focused on those that present him as a good boy, hard working, obedient, full of happiness and hunger for life. His mother talks about his generous nature. Some friends even draw him as a little angel. It’s as if the victim, in order to be effective, has to become a good girl, a sweet stay-at-home Barbie. But there are other testimonials on YouTube, many from his disco drag friends who have dedicated some let’s-call-it-a-night performances to him. There’s April, Queen Bee Ho, and the drag that sings for him “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler in the most dignified way. At the end of the song she invites the audience in the club to join her in a minute of silence (the same Pedro Julio speaks about). But the best is yet to come. As soon as the minute expires, she gives a clownish conspiratorial look to her audience and lets out a thunderous scream “Here we go, let’s do it the way he liked it, let us be heard all the way up in heaven, puñeta!” In another of my favorite videos, a young friend dedicates a testimonial to him using his cherished pictures to the beat of “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, with its frantic non-stop chorus: Work It Homo Freak Bitch!
It’s in Jorge Steven’s pictures that his true body appears to me, his fierce body. His plump red lips, his hair (flaming red is my favorite), his plucked eyebrows, striking a pose with two fingers framing an eye. It’s obvious that Jorge Steven was no Little Red Riding Hood. He was the Alpha Bitch of a fierce pack of bitches. That’s the body that his murderer tried to vanish. The body of desire. His desire. But he only was able to tear it apart and multiply it. A body that becomes animal. A body that becomes female. A fascinating, powerful, and dangerous body.
The gay struggle has become a project of liberal politics: the quest for equality. Equal rights. Thus, inserting itself in the civil rights movement, the biggest contribution of liberal politics in the West. But our political struggle doesn’t fade in the search for equality. Its most radical form is in fact the defense of the differences. The body that provokes fear because it fascinates and confuses at the same time, is the body of the differences. A body that is neither female, nor male. It’s a trans body. The real phobia is ultimately not homophobia. It’s trans phobia, the phobia of a borderline body, porous, a multiple body in constant transformation, like a fierce pack of queens. That is the legitimate political body that we must defend…even from civil rights politics. A naked, impudent, explosive body. A homo freak bitch.
(English translation by Erik Carrión Orlandi)