Kate Kendell

Jorge and Will: Tragedy and Hope

Filed By Kate Kendell | November 18, 2009 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: hate crimes against LGBT people, Jorge Mercado, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, Pledge of Allegiance, Puerto Rico, Will Phillips

This week two stories collided: The story of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado and the story of Will Phillips. On November 14 the decapitated, dismembered, and burned body of Jorge Steven Lopez was found by the side of the road in Cayey, Puerto Rico. Jorge was 19 and openly gay. He was much loved by his wide circle of friends. He was handsome and hopeful. He had his whole life ahead of him.

While Puerto Rico does not have any history of prosecuting hate crimes, it is clear to many that there is no other explanation for the savagery of Jorge's murder. The response of the police agent investigating the crime betrayed an appalling level of homophobia and bigotry. In a televised statement, the investigator noted that "people who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen." This so-called "investigator" should be fired and never allowed to wear a uniform which implies he protects anyone, ever.

It is impossible to imagine the pain of Jorge's family and friends. The shock of his murder has stunned the LGBT community in Puerto Rico. Jorge's murder is the direct result of prejudice, ignorance, and bigotry that still dominate life for so many LGBT people around the globe. For many, daily insults, fear, and brutality are a way of life. Compounding this untenable situation is the fact that the very officials empowered to protect our LGBT brothers and sisters either turn a blind eye, are complicit in the terror, or actually perpetrate the attacks. Hearing these stories is almost more than a heart can bear.

On the day I heard about Jorge's horrific killing, I also read the story of Will Phillips.

Last month, quietly and with little attention, 10-year-old Will Phillips stood up for "liberty and justice for all" by sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance at his Arkansas elementary school. Will's family has a number of gay friends and in recent years, he and his parents, Laura and Jay, have become increasingly active straight allies for their friends. They've marched in pride parades and stood up for the right of same-sex couples to marry and adopt. Will wants to be a lawyer, so words matter to him. In his view the promise of "liberty and justice for all" in the Pledge is falling short. So he decided to do something.

After asking his parents if it was illegal to not stand for the pledge (because of course Will is a good kid), he made the decision not to stand with the rest of his class as they started off the day by reciting the pledge. After a few days of this, the substitute teacher lost it and began yelling at Will. He quietly told her that, "With all due respect," she could "go jump off a bridge." Well, that got him sent to the principal's office, followed by a call to his mother. Once Laura Phillips heard the whole story she asked the principal when they could expect an apology from the teacher and was told that would not happen.

After Laura posted on Twitter about the incident, the whole thing blew up. So now the entire nation knows about Will's sitting for justice and while some folks are supportive, there are many--including his fellow schoolmates--who are heckling and hassling Will, with, of course, anti-gay taunts and barbs. But Will isn't backing down. And his parents support him--they've printed off the blog posts and websites calling him out for his courage and integrity.

I can't help but think that if more kids had parents like Will's--who are raising their three children in an environment that celebrates inclusion, equality, and our shared humanity--and if more kids were like Will--who understands that standing up for the rights of others is part of being a good citizen--then maybe, just maybe, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado would be making plans to hang with his friends for the weekend rather than his parents making plans for his funeral.

Last night I had the privilege of talking to Will and his mom, Laura. I told Will that I knew some were attacking him, calling him names and making his life generally miserable. I emphasized to him that for every insult he had to bear, there was a kid whose life he was saving, who would hear his story and know that someone had his or her back. I told him he was saving lives. He said, "Well, that's all I need to hear, to know I am doing the right thing."

With bravery like this, may there be no more stories like Jorge's.

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Will is definitely an impressive boy. Last week I had to talk to the principle and counselor to get them to step into a situation in which one of my sons was being picked on. They did it without hesitation. So different from the way the school admin in AK seems to be handling it.
I was horrified when I started hearing the details of the young man who was dismembered.

Thanks for bringing more attention to both Jorge and Will's story. I blogged about Will last week when the story floated up to the surface. He's definitely an inspiration.

Jorge and his loved ones deserve justice, thanks for keeping this story alive, so we can continue to demand the police tread lightly here and treat Jorge with more dignity and respect than when they first arrived on the scene and decided to blame this atrocious monstrous crime on Jorge's inability to conform.

Thank you for this article. As Transgender Day of Remembrance approaches it wise for all of to remember those that have been taken. We need to ensure that we do not lose another generation to hatred and greed.

I am grateful for your taking the time to write about Jorge. I know that this is also about Will. But is is frankly difficult to celebrate Will's bravery with the grave sadness that is felt over Jorge.

It is not just Jorge's brutal murder that hurts. There is pain in reading the investigator's comments. There is pain in reading the Puerto Rican Spanish language online reports that include ugly homophobic comments from readers. It is sad to see the footage from Univision television coverage where much time is given to one of arresting officer's who lets us know that there is no excuse for the crime, but states to the camera that the suspect wants us to know that he isn't homosexual and then he proceeds to practically lay out the "gay offense" defense for the animal...

Surely GLADD is already speaking up about that, right? Right? GLADD where are you?

And I continue to assert that if Jorge was Jeff and if Jorge was not brown then there would be an greater outrage from our LGBT leadership. You are one of the very few that has written or spoken Jorge's name. I want you to know I am grateful. My words are not meant to be criticism of you, but of the silent "leadership" and the reality of how these stories affect me.

A point if gratitude is the attention and coverage that our LGBT bloggers have given this story, Bilerico included.

Maybe a few weeks later, this story including both angels might have felt better. But Jorge's death is a fresh tragedy and there are many Latinos I know feeling the pain. It is like writing about a local family who has perished in a fire, but including a story about an heroic firefighter saving another family in another city. If you are friends or neighbors with the dead family, it just would be difficult to appreciate the story.

I find it hard to see the beauty of Will's action as brightly as he deserves. Maybe Will deserves his own posting... and Jorge deserves the same.

Will is adorable, but when it feels like a friend has died, the smile for Will rings shallow and the tears keep coming back. And part of the tears are selfish in the knowledge that within our own rainbow community, there are still so few of us with a voice or place at the table. To many in the LGBT community brown is an invisible color...

The Anti-Defamation League Speaks out... The LA Gay & Lesbian Center has never met a press release they don't like, yet they stay silent about this teen. Lorri Jean had us out picketing Buju Banton but then like usual Lorri and The Center ignore the Latino community! Shameful! Thanks to our friends at ADL for speaking out:

ADL Condemns Brutal Killing Of Gay Teenager In Possible Hate Crime In Puerto Rico

New York, NY, November 18, 2009 … The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today condemned the brutal killing of a gay teenager in Puerto Rico. According to reports, the victim was beaten, mutilated, burned and left on the side of a road.

The mutilated body of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found on November 13. The suspect, Juan A. Martinez Matos, was arrested earlier this week and charged with murder, weapons violations, and concealing evidence of the crime.

ADL issued the following statement:

We are shocked and saddened by the horrific killing of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado.

The circumstances and the severe brutality of the attack are indicative that the victim may have been targeted because of his sexual orientation. We strongly urge local authorities to investigate this as a hate crime, and urge that they access federal resources provided under the newly enacted Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

We are dismayed by reports that an officer investigating Mercado's death initially suggested that the teen deserved the assault because of his openly gay lifestyle. Hate and bigotry have no place in our communities, particularly among those that serve to protect us. We encourage others to speak out against any efforts to 'blame the victim' in this case.

I'm learning about these stories for the first time through your post - thank you, by the way! Yet I agree, it's hard to assimilate the hopefulness of young Will's courageous stand when its set against the backdrop of such lurid violence and institutional hate. My heart aches for Jorge's family and friends.

If Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was wearing a dress, and looked like a woman when he was killed then he was trans as well as gay. Or maybe she was straight? The media, obviously, haven't told us much.

I applaud young Will Phillips and hope his strength of character continue to grow even stronger than it already is. His public stand is very encouraging against the bad news the LTGB community has to suffer through so often.

And Jason Mattison of Baltimore, MD. to the list of those that we need to mourn.http://www.towleroad.com/2009/11/questions-surround-murder-of-openly-gay-teen-in-baltimore.html

"Add" not "and"

Rev. James M. Evans, Jr. | November 19, 2009 2:11 PM

As Hugo Dann posted earlier, I, too, am learning about these events for the first time today. How ironic it is that as this country is preparing for the day set aside for thanking God for the bounty in our lives a week from today, we are reminded that there are those who are so much the less fortunate. Ironic, and at the same time, heart-wrenching to the degree of breaking, that a young, gifted life was snuffed out by the effects of bigotry. And, at the same time, another young life is a lesson for us all. At the same time, thanks must be rendered to his parents for the care, teaching and enlightenment with which they are endowing him. Would that all children might be so gifted. Our work continues. Pastor Jim

Regan DuCasse | November 19, 2009 10:19 PM

I think I fell in love with young Will as soon as he spoke.
He's got more stones than our own President!
B. Obama...recognize!

Another youth cut down by a terrorist wearing a cross.

The ugly truth is that Puerto Rican society, like ours, is infested with bigot cults and with police, judges and politicians who cater to them and they don't worry about what he that.

They worry about how to get the killer off. One cop already exonerated the murder by saying that people 'like that' should expect to be treated 'like that'. That will make trying and punishing his murderer much more difficult.

Another important question is whether or not leaders of the Puerto Rico Democratic Party and political leaders in the US like Obama and McCain denounce the murder and the use of the anti-GLBT 'gay panic' defense.

Given that many in Puerto Rico think that it's a colonial possession of the US we want to be careful about demanding the application of US laws there.

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and resolutions of the UN and world judicial groups cover the question of our rights pretty well, at least on paper.

GLBT folks and our allies in the US can help by demanding that the authorities there not permit the use of the 'gay panic'. We should also demand that the roman catholic cult, whose bigotry promotes violence, be fined the equivalent of $100 million dollars a year for the next 10 years to compensate his family, fund anti-violence and anti-bigotry programs, fund a massive distribution of condoms and fund programs to help GLBT youth who end up being forced out of their homes or into prostitution.

That's what a decent government would do.

well writ, kate. each story becomes more poignant in the juxtaposition.

sometimes the decades,or centuries, long list of tragedies grows numbing. this renders the injustice more palpable.