Ruddy Vargas-Perez, 22, the ninth and final suspect in a gang related hate crime, is led from the Bronx Borough detective headquarters after he was arrested Monday.
“Do you feel safe walking around in your neighborhood?,” I remember a reporter asking.
“Well, I definitely haven’t been wearing my headphones at night and have tried to be more alert of my surroundings," I replied. "But, yes, I feel safe.”
It’s been only a few days since details emerged of a vicious attack against gay men in the Bronx, which is further north of my neighborhood in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, N.Y.
A police report notes a series of gruesome assaults: Allegedly, men from the Latin King Goonies gang confronted two 17-year-old members about rumors they were having sex with an older gay man. When the two said the rumors were true, the gang beat them inside an abandoned building where the gang often met for parties. They later lured the older gay man to the building, telling him there was a party there. According to the report, one of the younger men was slashed with a box cutter and sodomized with the wooden handle of a bathroom plunger. The older man was tied up and stripped and forced to drink 10 cans of malt liquor. He was burned with lit cigarettes and sodomized with a small bat. He lived with his brother and, police say, some of the gang members assaulted the brother in his apartment, tying him up and gagging him, and stealing his money and a television.
While the alleged crime has been widely covered, it’s the comments and actions of local community members that have caught my attention. Neighbors speaking to The New York Times describe the older gay man as well liked. Affectionately known as “La Reina” (The Queen), the 30-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant was a visible presence, always seen hanging out at local stores and buying food and drinks for others.
Juan Rosa, who lives in the area and spoke to WNYC radio, also described a friendly neighborhood:
"There's a lot of gays — guys that are gay and a lot of lesbians — walking around. They walk around hand in hand. I see them all the time," he said, "I think it's safe. I think it was random because you don't usually see it happen in this neighborhood.”
I remember such a random attack closer to home. Nine years ago in my Jackson Heights neighborhood I lost a friend to gay bashing. He was assaulted a mere four blocks from where I live, and died days later from head injuries received during the attack. As in The Bronx, there was speculation about just how safe it was to live in the area. But the community – My community – answered. Four hundred people took the streets and marched for justice. With that gesture, my community embraced my friend – an openly gay Latino man – as their own simply said “not in our streets.”
I haven’t seen such marches in the Bronx, yet, but the community is responding: political and community leaders have held press conferences decrying the assault; neighbors have spoken to media and said this was not just an attack against four men, it was an attack on the community itself; and the community has been credited (by police) for the leads that broke the case and led to several arrests.
We all deserve to feel safe on our streets and in our homes. By raising their voices and denouncing homophobia in their community, the residents are embracing neighbors and making it safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
To the residents who have spoken out and demanded justice in the wake of this horrific crime, I say, from the bottom of my heart, “thank you.”
Born in Colombia, Andrés Duque has been a long-time advocate for the Latino LGBT community in New York City and throughout the United States. Mr. Duque currently blogs on Latino LGBT issues at Blabbeando.