She may have been the prototypical Angry Queen. Unbowed, unbought, and virtually indigestible by a gay movement she helped birth, Stonewall warrior Sylvia Rivera died on February 19 of end-stage liver disease aggravated by too many years on alcohol and city streets.
Sylvia (né Ray) was one of those outcast femmy boys and butchy girls she worried so much about, who worked the streets and too often ended up floating under the Christopher Street piers, overdosed on drugs or beaten half to death by fag bashers, strung-out tricks, lovers, or cops.
When genderqueers rioted at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, it wasn’t because the last jitney had just left for Fire Island. They took on the cops because their sanctuary had been invaded once too often, and, unwelcome at the city’s tonier gay bars, they had few other places to call their own. Sylvia immediately understood the significance of their rebellion. She called Stonewall “the turning point,” and she threw one of the first bottles at the cops.
A year later, Sylvia joined the new Gay Activists Alliance and began working furiously to pass a gay rights bill in New York City. She was even arrested for climbing the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to crash a closed-door meeting on the bill.
Yet, despite her heroic efforts, within a few years GAA had eliminated drag and transvestite (as they were then called) concerns from its civil rights agenda. Drag rights were also dropped from the proposed city gay rights bill to make it more acceptable. “When things started getting more mainstream,” Sylvia told Michael Musto in a 1995 interview, “it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more.’ ” Her response was to do what she did best: fight back. “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned,” Sylvia warned.
With Marsha P. Johnson (the P stood for Pay It No Mind), she founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, a radical group that did everything from marching to setting up crash pads as an alternative to the streets. Though Sylvia was herself frequently homeless, she spent the end of her life at Transy House, a direct descendant of the original STAR shelter. She lived to see the ’90s protest group Transsexual Menace and, later on, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall.
The earlier expulsion of transvestites by GAA was a harbinger of things to come. In 2002, butches, queens, fairies, high femmes, drag people, tomboys, and sissies have all but vanished from official gay discourse. They are rarely mentioned in the public pronouncements of major gay organizations. Federal gay rights legislation pending in Congress doesn’t mention gender expression or identity, nor does the gay rights bill pending in Albany. In effect, gender has become the new “gay,” the thing you don’t talk about in polite or political company.
Although most gay groups have added “and gender identity” to their mission statements, in practice the application of this phrase is strictly confined to the rights of transsexual and transgender people. Yet a recent GenderPAC survey found that about a third of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who experienced workplace discrimination reported that their problems were due to the perception that they transgressed gender norms. It seems unlikely that sexual orientation laws alone will protect such people, let alone heterosexuals or transgender employees who don’t fit someone’s ideal of “real” men or women.
When it comes to homosexuality, most gay organizations are determined to project an image of normalcy in which all gay men are Will Truman and all lesbians Ellen DeGeneres. Acknowledging anything less would be admitting that some gays and lesbians are people like . . . well, like Sylvia Rivera.
As they were 30 years ago, gender stereotypes are still the elephant in the living room, the political issue no one wants to tackle. So we have lesbians like 34-year old Dawn Dawson, who was fired from an upscale Manhattan hair salon allegedly for looking too butch; Fred Martinez Jr., a gay and transgender Navajo teen who was beaten to death in Cortez, Colorado; and Willie Houston, a 38-year old African American Metro bus driver in Nashville. Willie wasn’t gay or trans or anything else except a frequent driver for the elderly and disabled. But a man became enraged at seeing him with a blind male friend on one arm and holding his girlfriend’s purse on the other, and shot him dead on the night of his engagement.
Then there’s the emerging issue of gender-based school bullying. Five of eight major school shootings involved assailants who reportedly had been taunted with sexual epithets. According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), words like faggot and gay are often used interchangeably to demean boys by bullies who don’t necessarily associate these epithets with sexual orientation. ‘Sissy” boys and “tomboy” girls—whether they are gay, straight, or just genderqueer—are prime targets for abuse during those years when fitting in is the most important thing in an adolescent’s life. Teenagers engage in gender profiling as if they were trained by the New Jersey State Highway Patrol. So it seems unlikely that we will prevent school bullying until we start addressing gender stereotyping.
Finding food, shelter, a safe bed, and even some recognition for genderqueer kids was a lifelong passion for Sylvia. She saw them as society’s most vulnerable outcasts. She picketed and protested, caucused and cajoled, and if the occasion called for it, which it often did, she submitted to arrest.
Sylvia Rivera went out as she lived: struggling to get gender issues on the map. She was hooked up to monitors, IVs, and a morphine pump last Sunday when local gay leaders stopped by the intensive care unit to ask her advice. Mortally ill, she held back the night long enough to give them hell one last time for not being inclusive enough. She died only hours later, at just 50 years old: a unique lady for a unique time.
Funeral services for Sylvia Rivera will be held Tuesday, February 26, 7 p.m. at MCC Church 446 W. 36th St.
A memorial event for Sylvia Rivera is currently being planned. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Riki Wilchins is executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC).