Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002

Michael Bronski

On the evening of
Tuesday, February 26, 2002, the ashes of Sylvia Rivera were taken from the
standing room only Metropolitan Community Church in Greenwich Village and placed
in a horse- drawn carriage that moved slowly down Christopher street, past the
historic Stonewall Inn where the gay liberation movement was born, and scattered
off the piers on the Hudson River. It was a fitting end for a drag-queen who—in
many ways —had been emblematic of the enormous changes that have occurred in
both the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) move- ment as well as in
mainstream culture over the past 33 years. The funeral is exactly what Sylvia
would have wanted; indeed it is what she asked for before her death.

When Sylvia died
on February 19 at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich of complications from
liver cancer she was only 50 years old, yet she had lived through enough
problems, conflicts, and triumphs to make even a drag-queen’s head spin.

Born Ray Rivera
on July 2, 1951 Sylvia was the sort of person that myths sprung up around. Even
now it is not only difficult to ascertain the complete truth, but pointless as
well. Reading through the myriad memoirs and obituaries of Sylvia that appeared
in the weeks after her death, a maze of “facts” emerge: she was homeless and
hustling straight men for blow-jobs in the back seats of cars at the age of ten,
she threw the first beer bottle at the New York police during the Stonewall
Riots, (or as a more scrupulous source pointed out: it was the second bottle).
She threw the first molotov cocktail at the police during the Stonewall Riots,
she was arrested for climbing the walls of New York City Hall in the early
1970s, wearing high heels, to get into a closed meeting about the
controversy-ridden gay rights bill. Like all great stars Sylvia inspired great
stories and never contradicted ones that may not have been exactly true.

What is generally
agreed on is that Sylvia was at the Stonewall Riots and was influential in the
formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). As a 17-year-old, street- smart,
Puerto Rican drag queen she was often at odds with mainly middle-class, mostly
white gay and lesbian activists, many of whom had ties to other political
struggles such as the peace movement,  anti-Vietnam protests, and the new
women’s movement. Sylvia, along with African-American activist and drag queen
Marsha P. Johnson (the “p” stood for “pay it no mind’), understood the many ways
that they did not fit into the emerging—and ever-changing—gay liberation
movement. While both Sylvia and Marsha (who was murdered nearly a decade ago,
found floating under the pier at the end of Christopher Street) identified as
gay men, they were also drag queens or, perhaps more accurately, transvestites
who lived a good part of their lives in women’s clothing. Even for the more
relaxed masculinity of the hippie styles in the later 1960s, wearing a dress to
hustle straight johns was quite different from wearing headbands and tie-dye.
Many of the lesbians in GLF also had a problem with Sylvia and Marsha because
drag and transvestitism was not seen at the time as being particularly
political. The idea of “gender as performance” had yet to be articulated
clearly. Many feminist women (straight or lesbian) saw drag as further male
mocking of women’s oppression, often comparing it to whites in black face. It
was only later that the gay liberation movement (and the gay rights movement),
as well as feminism, evolved a better understanding of the interplay between
sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender.

After Gay
Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA)
became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia worked hard within their
ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance.
But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the
portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it
just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included. As it
turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only
was the language of the bill changed, GAA—which was becoming increasingly more
conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public
office—even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and
drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly
dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed
aside by the more middle-class, “straight-appearing” leadership. In 1995, Sylvia
was still hurt: “When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, ‘We
don’t need you no more’.” But, she added, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen

Sylvia and Marsha
P. Johnson then started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which
held protests, found crash pads for homeless street hustlers, fed homeless drag
queens, and generally interceded when needed. STAR was never a large or well
organized group. But in the early 1970s it didn’t need to be, it functioned as a
cross between a support group and a political action nexus for the people who
needed it, and that was enough. At those times a little  political visibility
went a long way and out of almost nothing Sylvia and Marsha essentially started
what was to become, more than 20 years later, the transgender movement that we
know today.

The obituaries that
were published after her death were glowing. But it would be a mistake to
completely romanticize Sylvia’s life.  The daily horrors of racism,
queer-hatred, and living hand-to- hand took their toll and often made Sylvia a
difficult person to deal with. She also had a severe alcohol and substance abuse
problem. Sylvia drunk or on drugs could be abusive, nasty, divisive, vicious,
and vindictive. Much of this was born of frustration, self-protection, and an
understandable bitterness for years of abuse. Still, it often placed Sylvia
outside of an already suspicious and ever-tightening circle of gay activism.
After STAR, often homeless and struggling with substance abuse, she became a
memory or a footnote to gay activism.

>From the late
1970s to just over a decade ago, Sylvia lived in Tarrytown, New York and worked
as a food services manager with the Marriott Corporation. She only returned to
Manhattan for gay pride week festivities, but frequently organized and hosted
drag shows at gay clubs in the Tarrytown area. Sylvia returned to Manhattan in
the 1990s and lived on the Hudson piers as she grappled again with bouts of
substance abuse. Still advocating for marginalized queer people she was banned,
sometime in the mid-1990s, from the New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Community
Center after she, on a frigid winter night, aggressively demanded that the
Center take care of poor and homeless queer youth. The ban was lifted in 2000.

Sylvia moved to
Park Slope, Brooklyn and joined the Transy House Collective in 1997. Formed by a
group of transgendered people, Transy House enacted the vision of STAR and
provides financial assistance and counseling support for young transgender
people. Sylvia once again was part of a cohesive political community actively
working for social change. She received numerous offers to speak on the national
and international level, including the Italian Transgender Organization at the
World Pride Celebration in Rome. She also met her life-partner, Julia Murry,
there as well. Sylvia was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church
and was the director of the food service program as well as a leader in MCC’s
 Gender People program.

But while her
dream of a functioning political movement that fought for people of variant
gender may have come true, many of the struggles remained the same. Only
recently have many of the national leading gay and lesbian organizations even
included “trans-gender” in their titles, and few have dealt with the myriad
concerns, from discrimination to health care to violence, that are associated
with people (drag queens, transsexuals, or intersexed people) who do not conform
to accepted gender norms. The Human Rights Campaign has made a conscious
decision not to include “transgender” as a protected category in the  Employment
Non-Discrimination Act that has appeared before Congress several times. Their
reason is that, while the bill may have some chance to pass if it only covers
sexual orientation, it has absolutely no chance if it includes gender issues.

The same problem
exists with the SONDA—Sexual Orientation Non- Discrimation Act—bill that is
before the New York House. Many New York-based civil rights groups feel that the
inclusion of transgender concerns would be disastrous for the passage of the

But what has
changed in the past 30 years is that Sylvia’s vision and her concerns have a far
wider constituency now. Thirteen days before her death, she and other members of
Transy House staged a demonstration outside of Empire Pride Agenda and members
of the Agenda came to consult with her when she was hospitalized. While this
attention was welcomed—Sylvia knew that politics happened slowly—she was never
fooled into thinking that she could rest. What had changed was that the
mainstream had to pay attention, even though dealing with a poor, street-wise,
ex-junkie was the last thing they wanted to do. It was a tribute to Sylvia’s
potency as a symbol and as an activist that after her death the Human Rights
Campaign issued an official statement of respect for her: “We are deeply
saddened by the passing of Sylvia Rivera, a brave pioneer who helped pave the
way for the future of GLBT Americans…we are proud to honor her enduring

Nice words. But a
short time before her death Sylvia had this to say about the Human Rights
Campaign’s refusal to take transgender rights seriously: “One of our main goals
now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because I’m tired of sitting on the
back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore—it’s the back of
the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”

Never giving up,
refusing to be coopted, and fighting to the end, Sylvia understood that change
only happens if you make it happen. She was overjoyed to see her early vision of
a trasngender movement come true and remains an inspiration for all transgender
people and for those who have the integrity and understanding  to listen to her.

Michael Bronski is
an author and activist. His articles have appeared in the
the Boston Globe, Utne Reader,
Los Angeles Times. He has been a regular contributor to
Z since 1988.