Trans Figures in History Pt. 2: Sylvia Rivera
It is not often that we get to hear about the contributions of queer people of color to the queer community throughout history. So often our stories are forgotten and placed on the back burner. Our place within the community has always been one of a supporting role. We speak but aren't always heard. The outside world doesn’t realize that the queer community is permeated with racism, bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, just as much as the rest of the human race. We too are averse to anything different and scoff and discount those who don’t fit our norms, especially when it comes to beauty standards. We are a product of the teachings of our society. When looking at the early gay liberation movement of the 1950s and 60s, it was dominated by white, cis-gender, middle class people and that was the point of view that was given all the weight. Intersectionality was barely a thought or even pushed for.
The point of saying this is not to discount the hard work and sacrifice of those who put their lives on the line to give us the progress we enjoy today. The
many trailblazers like Martha Shelley, Chuck Rowland, Jean O'Leary, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and so many others laid a foundation for queer people to be heard on the national stage. They started organizations, lead marches and protests, and pushed for legal reform to help give queer people of this country a better life. However, we would be amiss as a community not to acknowledge the fact that even though queer people of color contributed to the movement, they were not always included in the greater conversation about what true liberation is and the intersectionality that lies within it. That being said, it is important to include people of all races and gender identities in the fight towards liberation and equality. Yes, queer people are a marginalized group that is discriminated against and oppressed on many levels but when you are queer and a person of color there are extra layers that you must navigate. Our experiences, compared to our white counterparts are the same in some ways but different in many.
Sylvia Rivera was a champion for queer people of color in the early gay liberation movement and even more specifically transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people within the community. She was brass, fearless, and disrupted the goings on of the movement at that time in the best possible way. Sylvia Rivera was born on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York to a Puerto Rican mother and Venezuelan father. Her father abandoned the family after her birth and her mother committed suicide when she was three so she was raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother beat her for her effeminate ways. It was also stated that Sylvia had shaved off her eyebrows and started wearing makeup to school in the 4th grade. Tired of the abuse at home and in school, Sylvia ran away from home at the age of 10 to 42nd street where she formed a bond with the queer community there. It was there that she started her life as a sex worker. It was very common then and still is today for transgender people to do sex work as a source of income since they are so often discriminated against in the workplace and have hard times either getting or keeping a job.
During this time period it was very common for LGBTQ people to be
harassed and abused by the police and even more so if you were transgender or gender non-conforming. There were laws in many states that stated that if you were found to be wearing more than 3 or 4 items of clothing of the opposite sex you could be arrested. Sylvia and many of her friends were subjected to constant harassment and imprisonment because of it. She spent 90 days on Rikers Island as well. It was police brutality and harassment that sparked the June 1969 Stonewall Riots where Sylvia got her first taste of activism at the age of 17. She was the second person to throw a Molotov cocktail at Stonewall.
Even though Sylvia was involved in activism with groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), her presence in these groups was not always welcome. She consistently challenged the way these predominantly white middle class and cis-gender organizations were run and wanted them to include transgender people and people of color in the conversation. She was known for being the most outspoken in meetings, relentless with her criticism, and for having a big temper when she felt she wasn’t being heard. To everyone else in GLF and GAA she was a threat mostly because she didn’t come from the same background as most members and was a part of and speaking up for a group within the community that was constantly ignored. I have my own personal theories as to why people of color and transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people struggled within the community. There were multiple factors working against them, the biggest being racism, misogyny, and lack of understanding about human sexuality and gender identity during this time period.
When you look at racism in America, we are all, for the most part, under the same classical conditioning when it comes to how we view members of another race. White people are viewed differently from black people and Latinx people viewed differently from Black and White people and Asian people viewed differently from Black, White, and Latinx people and so on and so forth. These perceptions present biases, prejudices, and discrimination, some recognizable and some more hidden due to the deep weaving of racism into the American fabric. The only thing that may differ between humans is the ability to recognize these prejudices and address them accordingly. It's always interesting to find straight people who are shocked that this is even an issue within the queer community. My mother was shocked and baffled when I talked to her about it.
I believe that many queer people (and I will speak from the viewpoint of a gay man because that’s the viewpoint I know best) think that they are somehow absolved of this way of thinking because we are a marginalized group. I could go into all of the ways that gay men deny their racist tendencies but that would be a whole other essay in itself. In short, these people are wrong. We are capable of the same racist tendencies as straight people and the sooner we realize that the better. I believe that part of Sylvia’s mistreatment in these groups was due to the fact that the white members of these groups looked at her and saw a poor person of color who they felt was uneducated, too loud, and too critical of their flaws and unrecognized biases, and their unchecked racial prejudices took hold. They discounted her and denounced and refused to take her or her message seriously. Mix that with the constant push back they received from her on many issues and there’s no longer a reason to wonder why they wanted her silenced.
I believe that misogyny and ignorance about human gender identity played a huge role because at this point in history (the 1960s and 70s) the American public had very primitive knowledge of what it meant to be male and female. We were stuck in the gender binary. People were starting to understand homosexuality more and more because of not just the advocacy and exposure they were receiving pertained to it but also because of the extensive research that had been done to prove homosexuals well acclimated and functioning members of society. They were a long way from being fully accepted but they were definitely farther ahead than transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people in terms of acceptance. Neither the straight or queer community as a whole could accept her as a woman, therefore they could not accept her as a human being and overlooked her. Lesbian feminists especially did not like or accept her. For a very long time Sylvia regarded herself as a drag queen and many lesbian feminists felt drag queens were a mockery of women in the worst way and I believe that that also did not help her cause with them.
In 1970, Sylvia, alongside one of her closest friends, Marsha P. Johnson,
started an organization called the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The organization was devoted to helping displaced queer youth. Sylvia and Marsha rented out a building at 213 Second Avenue in New York and provided food and shelter for queer homeless youth who were a relatively overlooked at risk group within the community at the time. Over the 2 to 3 year lifespan of the organization, Sylvia and Marsha struggled to support their kids and pay the bills. They would reach out to the wider gay community for financial help but were always ignored. While still involved with STAR Sylvia was also a member of a Puerto Rican activism group called the Young Lords. They welcomed Sylvia with open arms and treated her struggle as their own. Because of her involvement in the group, she was able to bring in lesbian and gay members.
Frustrated with not just her treatment by the gay organizations and community she served but also the treatment of people like her, Sylvia gave a powerful and historical speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally later named "Y'all Better Quiet Down". Greeted with relentless boos and having to fight her way to the stage the entire day, Sylvia called the gay community out for their disregard for transgender people and people of color and pointed out that while they tried to fight alongside their white and cis-gender counterparts, they were met with indifference and hatred.
Completely exhausted after this speech, Sylvia shut down STAR and took a 20-year hiatus from activism moving to upstate New York and taking a job at a grocery store.
In the 90s Rivera would be asked to participate in a number gay pride events but, in a way, she felt that the movement had mostly forgotten about her and would simply pull her off the shelf, dust her off, use her for these various
events, and then put her back on the shelf again. There were some who truly did understand her contribution to the movement but to the wider population her work would go mostly unnoticed. Throughout her life Sylvia would struggle with addiction and homelessness until her death in 2002 from lung cancer. In that same year the Sylvia Rivera Law Project would be started in an effort to provide support and legal aid to those who wished to express their gender identity freely.
I feel as though Sylvia Rivera’s story is a very good indication of how far the queer community has left to go until we are all treated with respect. Like many other marginalized groups, we also have the tendency to oppress those within our community and it is a good thing to remind ourselves of that and to think about our actions, our words, and our thoughts. Many conversations need to be had. Sylvia’s story is also a testament to how much we must value trans lives and even more specifically the lives of trans women of color. It is more important now than every before to listen to people of color when they speak. What we speak is truth. What we speak is real and what we speak is valid!