Remembering Sylvia: 50 Years on from Stonewall

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Sylvia Rivera was a trailblazing trans woman. In a time before celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner pushed trans rights into the mainstream, Sylvia fought to put the “T” in LGBTIQ. Her life and her legacy is marked by transphobia. From both gays and straights, she experienced abuse and discrimination for who she was. Whether it was racism, homophobia or transphobia, her contribution and fight for equality has been whitewashed by many.

Sylvia left home at the age of 10, and spent the remainder of her youth, and most of her life homeless. With no education or skills she had little choice but to work in the sex trade for survival, even from the age of 10. She lived rough on the streets with other trans people who were homeless. They were seen as the pariahs of the LGBT community and were banned from most gay bars in New York.

Trans people unapologetically owned who they were. At the time homosexuality was very much in the closet and to many their openness about who they were was found to be distasteful. One of the few bars that welcomed trans people at the time was the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar in New York City in the late 1960s. Most bars were unable to get a liquor license for the sale of alcohol if they served homosexuals, as gays were a ‘disorderly’ group. Bars suspected of serving gays were routinely raided.

The mafia saw a gap in the market and began to open gay bars, bribing local police precincts not to raid the gay bars they operated, including the Stonewall Inn. However, in election years anti-gay rhetoric would flare, political pressure would build forcing the police to carry out routine raids. Usually the raids didn’t last for long or were done pre-midnight, not to disrupt business. But they became more common. This led to the Stonewall Riots.

Stonewall was an absolute mess. The riot, as riots go, was chaotic. There are many different accounts of how the riot began. But many point to Sylvia being one of the first people to fight back. When trans people and lesbians were being arrested and thrown in police vans, she was shocked to see everyone just standing around and accepting the raid and arrests of her peers as normal shouting “why the fuck are we doing this” and began throwing coins at the police, symbolic of the bribes they had taken from the mafia. When the coins ran out, they moved on to cans, bottles, Molotov cocktails, parking meters and virtually anything else they could lay their hands on until the early hours of the morning.

Stonewall is a turning point in gay history. It ignited an energy among the community that had never been seen before. The idea that they could fight back against the homophobia and constant raids was radical. It created the grassroots movement that would fight for equality.

We owe a great gratitude to people like Sylvia for standing up and fighting back. However she didn’t get the credit she deserved at the time. Many accounts credit drag queens for beginning the riot, which has caused a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, and represents a broader problem with the recognition and appreciation for the role of trans people in the LGBTIQ liberation movement.

“Trans” was not a term used in the 1960s, drag queens were what trans people were frequently referred to. What we understand drag queens to be today is very different, and as a result trans people don’t get the well deserved credit for sparking one of the milestone events in the gay liberation movement.

For a community that prides ourselves on inclusivity Sylvia was whitewashed in the history and re-telling of the Stonewall Inn. A biopic made about the riot replaced her with a fictional white character. As a trans woman and an ethnic minority she was shunned by many gays. She continued to fight for equality and to give trans issues the visibility it needed. In 1973 she attended a rally for equality and when she took to the stage she was booed by the crowd.

I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail!, I lost my job, I lost my apartment for gay liberation… and you all treat me this way

The video footage for the protest was re-discovered and archived by Reina Gossett as part of her documentary piece on Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. You can read more about the film here.

Sylvia cared deeply about trans rights. She saw her peers were homeless, and like her were being forced into survival sex. With her friend, Marsha P. Johnson, she founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970. STAR was a gay, gender non-conforming and transgender street activist organisation that provided people who were homeless with housing.

Sylvia and Marsha used to rent hotel rooms to shelter their homeless trans friends, sometimes sheltering up to 50 people in a hotel room. STAR was used as a means to advocate for the rights of trans people, and would later open STAR House to provide more permanent housing. The organisation was funded from Sylvia and Marsha’s sex trade. They hustled on the streets of New York and worked as sex workers, so that young trans people, some as young as 10 like Sylvia when she first arrived in New York, didn’t have to.

Sylvia passed away in 2002. She was an icon. She experienced a lifetime of hate and abuse for who she was. But she persevered and continued to fight for the inclusion of trans issues in our community. Her story should remind us that ‘gay culture’ is diverse. The contribution of trans people and ethnic minorities shouldn’t be forgotten or erased, it should be celebrated.

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