Speaking of Women's Rights: Women Making History: Sylvia Rivera

Friday, March 17, 2017

Women Making History: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera (right) at the Christopher Street Liberation Day,
Gay Pride Parade, NYC in 1973.
By Lucy Sharp

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sylvia Rivera was an activist fighting for racial and gender equality, the rights of transgender people, incarcerated people, and sex workers. While she had a very difficult life, she showed incredible dedication to her communities.

Sylvia Rivera had a difficult childhood. Her birth father abandoned her; her mother’s second husband was a drug dealer who showed little interest in her. When she was three, her mother killed herself with poison, and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill Sylvia along with her.

While she was assigned male at birth, she adopted a feminine gender presentation from a young age. She was subjected to colorism by her Venezuelan grandmother who disliked Sylvia’s dark skin that she inherited from her Puerto Rican father. Sylvia faced repeated verbal, physical and sexual abuse from her family and at school due to a combination of colorism, homophobia, and transphobia. This abuse eventually led her to run away from home and drop out of school. In Sylvia’s words she “basically grew up without love.”

At 10 she began working on the streets as a sex worker, later moving to live on the streets with other queer and transgender sex workers. In addition to abuse from her birth family, she faced racist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination in employment, which kept her having to work as a sex worker. She simply couldn’t find a job that allowed her to express herself. Unfortunately, she was eventually arrested and wound up in jail for 90 days with men, who tried to rape her. As a preteen she attempted suicide and wound up in a mental hospital for two months.

However, during her teen years Sylvia also found meaning in participating in activism including on civil rights, the women’s movement, and protesting war against Vietnam. At 17, Sylvia Rivera claims to have been involved in the Stonewall riots, a rebellion against police and criminalization of queer sexuality which served as a focal point for a significant part of the gay rights movement.

Out of Stonewall formed many gay rights organizations including the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which Sylvia Rivera began attending. She soon found herself in conflict with other activists, however.  As one founding member of GAA described: “the general membership is frightened of Sylvia and thinks she’s a troublemaker. They’re frightened by the street people.” Syliva was also shunned by many lesbians who accused her of “parodying womanhood.” Sylvia once said, “[P]eople I called comrades in the movement, literally beat the shit out of me.”

Following her abuse and silencing by allies, Sylvia attempted suicide and dropped out of the more mainstream gay rights movement. She went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) whose goal was to help kids living on the street by providing food, clothing, and housing at a home known as STAR House. STAR also participated in demonstrations against police abuses. While Sylvia attempted to get other organizations including the GAA to help fund STAR’s efforts, they showed little interest. Instead Sylvia and her friend Marsha P. Johnson funded the project through their sex work. Unfortunately, STAR house was forced to close after an intermediary embezzled months of rent and STAR was evicted.

Sylvia Rivera also worked on a campaign to enact a New York City civil rights law that would protect queer and transgender people. She again faced disappointment when politicians and queer rights activists made a deal to remove the transgender protections from the final law. Sylvia, further disillusioned with the movement dropped out, and spent years being homeless.

Her life temporarily stabilized when she developed stable housing, a catering job and a relationship with her supportive transgender partner, Julia Murray. However, in 1992, when her friend Marsha P. Johnson died, she attempted suicide and returned to drug and alcohol addiction that had plagued her much of her life. She also returned to activism, criticizing the mainstream gay rights movement: “[A]fter all these years the trans community is still at the back of the bus”. In 2002 she died of liver cancer.

There is a tendency to try to oversimplify Sylvia’s story and make it simply about exclusion of the transgender community within the larger queer community. But this approach buries systemic problems of racism, poverty, severe trauma, and mistreatment of incarcerated people and sex workers that plagued her life as well.

Recognizing the tendency to oversimplify, nonetheless, I would offer a brief explanation of why I chose to write about her. There is a tendency in movements for the movement to be accessed and dictated by the most privileged within an oppressed group. Just as LGB people often exclude trans people, white trans-women often exclude or ignore concerns of trans-women of color. Often, the most marginalized or scarred people have their traumas buried and left unseen or unaddressed.

Sylvia’s experiences with drug addiction, suicidality, sex work, and incarceration marginalized her, and would leave her marginalized in many activist spaces today. But in spite of her suffering, she did not let that marginalization be the final word. She struggled with all of her heart to help her community, and those like her. She made it to New York City Hall to advocate for the trans-community, even if according to her, she needed to shoot up heroin in the restroom to get through it. I deeply admire her perseverance in the face of her pain, trauma, and oppression.

On a final note, discussing Sylvia Rivera as part of Woman’s History month might seem a bit odd, to those who know her history. While Sylvia Rivera is commonly labeled as an early transgender woman activist, it’s unclear whether she would feel comfortable with this.

Sylvia Rivera was assigned male at birth, and presented with a feminine gender expression that under many definitions would make her transgender. However, she bristled at being labeled as transgender or a woman. She tried hormone therapy, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. Like many transfeminine people I know, she found the label of “woman” restrictive, as it implied measurement against a cis-woman norm. Or as she put it: “I don’t want to be a woman. Why? That means I can’t f*ck nobody up the ass. Two holes? No, no, no. That ain’t going to get it.” Instead she eschewed labels altogether: “I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I want to be Sylvia Rivera.”

So there is some irony in writing about Sylvia for Women’s History month, when Sylvia rejected the label of “woman” for herself. It is not to undermine or disregard that decision that I chose to do so. It is more that, she spent so much of her life suffering, being scarred by abuse for simply wanting to express herself as who she was, and help others do the same. I feel like that struggle deserves to be honored, even if the label “woman” per se is inaccurate. Maybe at some point in the future Woman’s History month will be relabeled to be more inclusive of more non-binary identities, but I do not wish to wait for that moment to honor Sylvia Rivera’s courage and sacrifice for her community.

Lucy Sharp is Volunteer LGBTQ Legal & Policy Analyst for Legal Voice. Her research focuses on some of the issues that are most pressing for the transgender community, including health care, discrimination, restroom equality, and access to legal documentation accurately reflecting gender identities.

Photo of Sylvia Rivera by Leonard Fink. Featured with permission on OutHistory.com.

Additional sources:
  • Transgender History (2008), Susan Stryker
  • Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera's Struggle (2007), Jessi Gan. From The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013).