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Fernando Rios was a twenty-six-year-old Mexican tour guide lured to his death by a group of Tulane students, who beat and robbed him in a shadowy French Quarter alleyway in 1958. Clayton Delery, the author of Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice, unearthed this crime while researching another travesty in his hometown, the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge. The fire, a monstrous act of arson, was, for decades, the largest single act of terror against LGBT folk in the US–that is, until the massacre at Pulse nightclub. News of that attack reached Delery as he was working on the Rios book, and in the introduction he records feelings of dread and sadness that filled so many of us that day. Though the response of public figures was markedly different than what the survivors of the Up Stairs Lounge fire had to contend with, just as the courtroom at the trail for Rios’ attackers erupted in applause at their acquittals, so, too, did certain people on the right cheer the bloodshed in Orlando.
To better piece together the story of Fernando Rios, the author first details the pervasive racism and homophobia of mid-century America, and the cultural milieu of New Orleans in particular, to put Rios’ death in dark perspective. He walks the reader through the streets of the city, lifting from then-contemporary letters to the editor and legal documents the community’s desire to purge itself of degenerate gays and keep people of color in their place–an anathema to its then-as-now reputation as an easy going place to drink and carouse. Local politicians struggled to outdo one another other with proclamations to curtail, punish, and shame gay activity in the bars. Discrimination against Latinos was compounded at the time by the wholesale deportation of Mexicans by the Eisenhower administration’s odious, murderous “Operation Wetback” program (and Delery draws a quick line to the current administration’s equally overt racist populism).
Concise summation and nimble observation keeps Delery from getting caught in the sand trap of all true crime books: the trial. Though much documentation was lost in Katrina, there’s no evidence in how the book is structured to suggest additional information would have bogged him down. This was a trial that ended in celebration, shouts of joy and applause filled the courthouse, as the three men who murdered Rios were found not guilty. Their youth constantly highlighted, these college students were portrayed by the defense and the press (who never referred to Rios by name, but always “the Mexican”) as the real victims of a sexual predator, a man who died, not because of the beating they delivered, but his own physical weakness. Delery delves into the communal heteronormative justifications of such a slaying:
“. . . a great deal of societal homophobia is related to societal misogyny; when a man is taken out of the role of the sexual aggressor and is made instead the object of pursuit, he is placed in the traditionally feminine role, a state of being apparently so horrifying to some men that they would do anything–including kill–in order to escape it. What could possibly be worse for a heterosexual man than to be treated the way that such men treat women?”
The ringleader of the killers, the one who originated the idea of “rolling a queer” and, after the others demurred, introduced the idea later in the night and acted as bait, picking up Rios at a well known gay bar and leading him into the alley and his death, passed away a month before the author attempted contact. One of the other assailants had also recently died, but his son gave an interview which closes the book with a poignancy not often found in the genre. The bar where Rios met his killer, Café’ Lafitte, is still standing. Fittingly, Delery had his book launch there, closing the circle, so to speak, as detailed in a recent interview with one of his fellow students from the 2016 Lambda Literary nonfiction workshop with Sarah Schulman. (Her adroit socio-political analysis is an obvious influence when the author deconstructs the tactical acceptance of this slaying by the community and press.)
The introduction to Out for Queer Blood made me recall the memorial/rally I attended in the days after the slaughter at Pulse. Thousands gathered in the park in front of Stonewall, spilling into the streets, the streets where just a few years prior raucous crowds celebrated marriage equality. Dusk approached. The governor launched into a hackneyed speech extolling the greatness of our northern liberal state; we were restless and angry. When a completely out of his element heterosexual pop star took the mic, anger erupted into chants of “say their names, say their names.” There was confusion behind the makeshift podium. The order of events was hastily reshuffled and the names were read.
Too many names.
Anger gave way to sadness and for some, a conviction that the activism that had won us the right to marry could be re-focused on the NRA and the Republican Party. The activist organization Gays Against Guns was formed.
As I finished reading Out for Queer Blood and set the book down, I habitually reached for my phone. A grossly familiar sense of alarm clawed at my stomach as I read the fresh headline about a school shooting in Florida. In the days that followed, as the deluge of horrific images and pathetic conservative responses surfaced, so too, did new heroes. A self-identified bisexual Latina high school student and survivor spoke truth to power in a way that has changed and charged the conversation about gun control. As these youths fervently demand action, I recognized parallels to ACT-UP. Who else can deliver radical change but those most nakedly at risk?
Queer folk in America are still murdered in the streets. Fernando Rios didn’t get a rally, he didn’t even get justice. Almost forgotten, he is now remembered. Author Clayton Delery can be confident that he has done his community proud by recording one of those moments in history that so many municipalities strive hard to forget, the recollection of which is a painful, healing victory for everyone.
Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice
By Clayton Delery
Paperback, 9781476668840, 234 pp.