Simply Sylvia

The life of Sylvia Rivera, pioneering activist for LGBTQ equality, reminds us to remember those who have been left behind by the Gay Rights Movement

Portrait of Rivera by Adria Mercuri.

Sylvia Rivera was dying, but she kept up the struggle. On February 19th, 2002, as she was on her deathbed due to complications from liver cancer, she pressed on, as she always had, continuing to work for the inclusion of trans and gender nonconforming people in the mainstream gay rights organization, the Empire State Pride Agenda. Rivera died much in the way she lived: calling attention to the ways the concerns of queer and gender-variant people, especially those who were poor, homeless, and of color, were excluded within the mainstream Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement. As a queer, Latinx, transvestite drag queen, Rivera resisted being pushed to the margins as gay rights struggles became increasingly mainstream, cautioning that LGBTQ activism could not affect long-term and systemic change if it focused primarily on the concerns of the most “normal” members of the movement — white middle-class gays and lesbians — at the expense of the most vulnerable.


Sylvia was born Ray Rivera on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York. Her mother was Venezuelan, and her father, who was Puerto Rican, left the family soon after Rivera was born, and never returned. After Rivera’s mother committed suicide at the age of 22, she was raised by her grandmother, Viejita, who expressed disapproval for both her dark skin and her feminine behavior. Sylvia was intensely bullied for her femininity at home and at school, causing her to run away at the age of 10. She went to 42nd Street in New York, an area in the 1960s that was populated by a colorful mix of drag queens, sex workers, and other members of the gay community. The time Rivera spent on 42nd Street laid the foundation for her work as an activist. Engaging in sex work in order to survive, she renamed herself “Sylvia” and was adopted by a family of queens (the term “queen,” during the 1960s, generally referred to feminine gay men) who taught her to live on the streets. During this time she learned how difficult it was to survive as a queer gender-nonconforming person of color in 1960s New York.

One day, as Sylvia was hustling on 42nd, she spotted an older black queen — Marsha P. Johnson — who she was immediately drawn to. Fearless in both her appearance and her approach to life, Sylvia marched right up to Johnson and began talking to her. Marsha ended up inviting Sylvia out for a spaghetti dinner, and took her under her wing, teaching her how to apply her makeup and the rules of the street. The pair would remind friends for the rest of their lives, and would participate in many of the most significant early gay liberation struggles (Duberman 67–69).

Like many other queer people at the time, Rivera and Johnson frequented Mafia-run gay bars, which were one of the only spaces where queer and gender-variant people could congregate and form a sense of community. In 1969, the year of the landmark Stonewall Inn Riots, to be gay in the United States meant that one most likely lived a closeted life unless they found their way to an urban center such as Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s Castro District. Medical professionals regarded “homosexuality” not as a legitimate human variation, but as a mental illness. In New York State, it was recently determined that gay bars were not illegal, though many regarded serving alcohol to queer people and allowing them to dance together in public as criminal offenses. Gay bars were regularly raided, with patrons being subjected to police brutality in the form of physical and sexual violence. Drag queens and persons whom today we would refer to as transgender could be arrested for the crime of “masquerading,” or publicly wearing the clothes of a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth and as represented on their identity documents.

Within this larger cultural context was the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-run gay bar located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. On the muggy night of June 28th a police raid, led by Inspector Seymour Pine of the New York Police Department, resulted in five days of rioting during which patrons of the Stonewall and other local queer and gender-nonconforming people fought back against the police and won. The Stonewall Inn Riots are the event most commonly cited as the catalyst of the Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the concept of “Gay Pride,” despite earlier incidents of militant queer resistance, such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966.

Rivera and Johnson, who were at Stonewall that night to celebrate Johnson’s birthday, were among the first patrons to throw bricks at the police, capitalizing on a prime opportunity for resistance, while others fled the scene. “I’m not missing a minute of this,” Sylvia told her comrades as the riots began, “it’s the revolution!” (Feinberg). Poor street queens were the first to act, to ignite the anger that blossomed into a full-blown riot, because they were fed up and had little to lose. Some people are activists by choice; others are activists because they have no choice. Though some argued that the death of Judy Garland, an icon of the gay community, sparked the riots, in reality, they were born from a moment of anger and spontaneity. Following the riots, and at Johnson’s encouraging, Sylvia kept up the struggle and began to attend meetings of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), forerunners to today’s LGBTQ advocacy organizations.


“I’m not missing a minute of this, it’s the revolution!”

Rivera soon learned that the multiple marginalized identities she occupied — queer, brown, sex worker, drag queen, gender nonconforming, feminine, poor — were troubling to movement leaders who were largely white middle-class gay men, and to a lesser extent, white middle-class lesbians. These leaders sought to pursue an assimilationist agenda that often marginalized the concerns or queer and gender-nonconforming people of color. As opposed to including the issues of trans and gender-nonconforming people, leaders instead focused on the integration of gays and lesbians into existing social institutions and the declassification of “homosexuality” as a mental disorder. As the historian and biographer Martin Duberman observes of Rivera’s presence in the GLF and the GAA: “A Hispanic street queen’s transgressive being produced automatic alarm: Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, from the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes — managing single-handedly and simultaneously to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of Otherness” (235–236).

Sylvia Rivera (left) and Marsha P. Johnson (right) at a City Hall rally for gay rights in New York City. Photo Credit: Diana Davies.

Ehn Nothing, a queer anarchist activist, further summarizes the position of Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson within gay liberation organizations such as the GAA as follows:

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were not respectable queers, nor were they poster-children for the modern image of ‘gay’ or ‘transgender.’ They were poor, gender-variant women of color, street-based sex workers, with confrontational, revolutionary politics and, in contrast to the often abstract and traditionally political activists of Gay Activists Alliance, focused on the immediate concerns of the most oppressed gay populations: ‘street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time.’ Within the predominantly white, non-gender-variant, middle-class, reformist gay liberation movement, Sylvia and Marsha were often marginalized, both for their racial, gender, and class statuses, and for their no-compromise attitudes toward gay revolutionary struggle. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries 6)

Sylvia cared little about labels and definitions, alternately referring to herself as a “drag queen,” a “transvestite,” or a “half sister,” and the fact that she insisted upon defining herself and her existence on her own terms further contributed to her reputation as a radical figure within gay liberation circles. Though contemporary scholars and activists have reclaimed Rivera as a transgender woman, she did not see herself this way. Though Sylvia loved to express her femininity by dressing in drag, she sometimes disliked the terms “drag queen” and “transvestite.” In the lingo of 42nd Street during the 1960s and ’70s, “drag queen” and “transvestite” were used to describe persons who dressed as women, but did not necessarily claim or desire to be women. The practice of drag, during the 1970s, was further differentiated as dressing as a woman specifically for stage performance, exemplified at the time by figures such as actress and Andy Warhol-muse Holly Woodlawn (Duberman 125).

Transgender actress Holly Woodlawn. Photo Credit: Jack Mitchell.

Though often referred to as a “drag queen,” Rivera did not actually perform drag, nor did she claim to be a woman. She identified simply as Sylvia, refusing to contort herself into the boxes or labels others created. And for this reason, among others, she was regarded as dangerous. Her very presence in the movement created change, serving as a reminder of those who existed on the fringes of queer activism. Though we can apply the label transgender — in particular, the way the term was forwarded by activists in the 1990s to refer to anyone who transgressed gender norms as a way of unifying a broad range of gender-nonconforming people — to Rivera, this was not necessarily the way she saw herself, and her gender identity remained fluid throughout her life. Language is often incredibly imprecise when it comes to defining the complexities of human experience such as sexuality and gender, and Rivera is no exception. While it is important to reclaim heroes from the past, it is equally important to place our heroes within the context in which they lived and to honor their self-conceptions.

In an autobiographical essay written in 2002 near the end of her life entitled “Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones,” Sylvia describes her identity this way:

I thought about having a sex change, but I decided not to. I feel comfortable being who I am. That final journey many of the trans women and trans men make is a big journey. It’s a big step and I applaud them, but I don’t think I could ever make that journey. Maybe it comes of my prejudice when so many in the late ’60s and early ’70s ran up to the chop shop up at Yonkers General. They would get a sex change and a month, maybe six months, later they’d kill themselves because they weren’t ready. Maybe that made me change my mind. I really don’t know, but I always like to be an individual… People now want to call me a lesbian because I’m with Julia, and I say, “No. I’m just me. I’m not a lesbian.” I’m tired of being labeled. I don’t even like the label transgender. I’m tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am. I will be 50 years old this coming Monday. I don’t need the operation to find my identity. I have found my niche, and I’m happy and content with it. I take my hormones. I’m living the way Sylvia wants to live. I’m not living in the straight world; I’m not living in the gay world; I’m just living in my own world with Julia and my friends. (STAR 47–48)

Rivera’s struggles with “Otherness” in the GLF and the GAA led her and Johnson to form the activist group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), to address the needs of poor street queens, and to create STAR House, a shelter of sorts for homeless youth, street queens, and hustlers. Both Rivera and Johnson worked tirelessly for the inclusion of gender-nonconforming and queer people of color in the mainstream Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement despite their routine exclusion. Sylvia, for example, was frequently called upon by the GAA to front dangerous protests, only to be pushed aside by more “respectable” movement leaders when the media appeared. She was also involved in the campaign to pass the New York City Gay Rights Bill, repeatedly insisting drag queens and other gender nonconforming people were included within the bill’s language. Rivera was so insistent on the inclusion of drag queen and transvestite concerns that she was famously arrested after scaling the walls of City Hall — while wearing full makeup, a dress, and heels — to crash a closed-door meeting on the bill (LGBT History Month). When the bill eventually passed in 1986, it did not contain language to protect those who did not fit neatly into the mainstream movement. When Sylvia learned of this exclusion, she responded by fiercely stating to an interviewer:

“Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”

Rivera was routinely pushed to the margins not only by movement men, but by lesbian feminists as well. This exclusion was particularly evident in the events that led to Rivera’s delivery of her most well-known speech, referred to as “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” following the fourth annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in Washington Square Park in 1973. Though Rivera was scheduled to speak at the rally, she was blocked from taking the stage by the radical lesbian feminist and GAA member Jean O’Leary, who physically attacked her and accused her of mocking womanhood. Sylvia fought her way onto the stage and delivered an impassioned speech in which she called out the whiteness and class privilege that made the audience, and the Gay Rights and Women’s Liberation movements as a whole, blind to the needs of poor gender nonconforming and queer people of color:

You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs.
I will no longer put up with this shit.
I have been beaten.
I have had my nose broken.
I have been thrown in jail.
I have lost my job.
I have lost my apartment
For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?
What the fuck’s wrong with you all?
Think about that! (STAR 30)

After the rally, Rivera returned to STAR House and attempted suicide. Marsha P. Johnson found her in time to save her life, but her spirit was broken. O’Leary’s public betrayal caused Rivera to disband STAR and abstain from activism for two decades. Formally rejoining the movement in 1993, Sylvia changed the name of STAR to Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, and rededicated herself to her community. O’Leary went on to become the co-chair of the National Gay Task Force. Her attack on Sylvia took place at a time when the GAA was becoming increasingly reformist and conservative, due to the political ambitions of many of its members. For what it’s worth, she eventually acknowledged that it was wrong for her to exclude Rivera, and others like her, from the movement, though the damage she inflicted could never be undone. When others refuse to acknowledge the person someone knows themselves to be, the experience is inherently traumatizing.


She identified simply as Sylvia, refusing to contort herself into the boxes or labels others created.

After HIV/AIDS issues become integrated within the government, scientific and medical institutions, and American culture in general during the 1990s, the mainstream Gay Rights Movement shifted their focus to three primary concerns: marriage equality; military inclusion and critiquing Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; and the passage of hate crime legislation that was inclusive of sexual orientation following the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. This activism centered around including gay people in existing social institutions such as marriage, the military, and the legal and criminal justice system, as opposed to the transformation of institutions historically hostile and exclusionary to the LGBTQ community. Put simply, the objective of these activists was to first and foremost represent gay people as “normal” and worthy of inclusion and recognition in mainstream society. The goals of the most privileged within the movement, however, often exclude the concerns of Rivera’s tribe: queer people of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, poor and homeless queers, and sex workers, who remain unfairly targeted by the very institutions mainstream activists seek inclusion within.

Rivera later in life.

The embrace of Rivera by mainstream gay rights leaders only after her death is telling and speaks to the extent to which the movement is not, and has never been, for all members of the LGBTQ community equally. The New York City LGBT Community Center now has a room dedicated to Rivera, never mind that she was permanently banned from the center for suggesting they allow homeless youth to sleep there during the winter. Rivera’s own marginalization, and the marginalization of those within the gay community whom she advocated for, speak to the need for full federal equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In line with her vision, we need a movement that does not sideline the concerns of queer people of color and members of the LGBTQ community who do not conform to gender norms or typical gender categories. Had Rivera been honored and supported as the visionary leader she was during her lifetime, she may have lived beyond the age of fifty.


Rivera was cremated, and her ashes reside at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York in Midtown Manhattan, where she attended services and worked in the food pantry. In honor of her legacy of working on behalf of homeless queer youth and queer youth in crisis, MCCNY opened Sylvia’s Place, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth, and renamed their food pantry The Sylvia Rivera Memorial Food Pantry. Never one to hide in the shadows, at Sylvia’s request, her ashes make an appearance every Sunday to attend mass with her chosen family and her many “children” (Whose Streets Our Streets).

Let us not forget that Sylvia’s children — low income gender nonconforming and queer people of color — remain the most vulnerable. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the lives of transgender Americans are characterized by pervasive mistreatment and violence, severe economic hardship, and physical and mental health issues due to discrimination and lack of access to necessary resources (“2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report”). Let us not forget the Gay Rights Movement was started by gender nonconforming street queers of color. Always vigilant to the needs of her community, Rivera’s life reminds us to stay woke to, in the words of poet-activist Kai Cheng Thom, “the difference between those who didn’t make it and those we left behind” (32).

History should give great respect to those who refuse to be silent or invisible in the face of a society who tells them they are wrong and should not exist. Sylvia was such a person, and her courage in the face of overwhelming adversity is the material legends are made of.

If Sylvia Rivera were alive today, she would still have many reasons to be furious.

Think about that.


References

2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report.National Center for Transgender Equality. Web.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Plume, 1993. Print.

Feinberg, Leslie. “Leslie Feinberg Interviews Sylvia Rivera.” Workers World. Web.

Nothing, Ehn, ed. Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle. Untorelli Press. Web.

Rivera, Sylvia. “Y’all Better Quiet Down.” YouTube. Web.

“Sylvia Rivera.” LGBT History Month. Web.

Sylvia’s Place at MCCNY, 2002.Whose Streets Our Streets. Web.

Thom, Kai Cheng. A Place Called No Homeland. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. Print.

“Who Was Sylvia Rivera?” Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Web.

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