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Ezequiel marcos Siddig
Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002
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Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002
No longer on the back of the bumper
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 scorned.”
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 legislation.
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 legacy.”
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. Z
Michael Bronski is an author and activist. His articles have appeared in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times. He has been a regular contributor to Z since 1988.