Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #098, Summer 2002

Obituary by Bebe Scarpinato and Rusty Moore

Photography by Mariette Pathy Allen

Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall riot veteran and life- long activist for transgendered people, died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at New York?s St. Vincent?s Hospital, of complications from cancer of the liver. She was fifty years old. Born July 2, 1951, her activism developed after leaving home at age 11 and finding herself in the Times Square subculture of the 1960?s. The harassment of gay persons and in particular the flamboyant gender-variant people such as herself, led her to become a staunch, proud, completely unrepentant, and uncompromising advocate for drag queens, transvestites, transsexuals and other gender-variant people throughout her life.

She was present and participated in the Stonewall Riots, which became the determining event in her life. She often remarked about how what had started as just another gay bar raid by the police took on such mythical significance for the development of the Gay Rights Movement. She joined the Gay Activists Alliance in February of 1970 and threw herself into the effort to pass the New York City Gay Rights Bill. She was arrested on 42nd Street in Manhattan for demanding her constitutional right to promote a political petition, the only person arrested in the petition drive. She supported the efforts for the bill wholeheartedly, at one point literally whacking a local politician with a clipboard of petitions at the Village Independent Democrats, which led to that person becoming the first sponsor for the bill. Later, she literally scaled the walls of City Hall in a dress and spiked heels in an attempt to gain access to the closed door votes on the original bill.

Her first major deception at the hands of the gay movement occurred when drag rights were specifically excluded from the bill to make it more palatable to ?straight? people, and reflect the assimilationist attitude of the Gay Rights movement at the time. This betrayal was a lesson she carried with her in all her future activism.

In the early days of the gay civil rights movement, Rivera was repeatedly used to front possibly dangerous demonstrations and then shunted aside by assimilationist ?leaders? when the press appeared.

In the early 1970?s, Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded S.T.A.R., Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization designed to achieve rights for her community and provide social services to this largely ignored and stigmatized group. For a short while she and Marsha ran S.T.A.R. House, which provided shelter for homeless young street queens. Lack of funds and problems with the certificate of occupancy for S.T.A.R. House forced the abandonment of the venture at that time, but Rivera never lost the dream of creating a supportive and safe living space for young transgendered people.

Rivera was greatly disillusioned with the desire of many early gay and lesbian activists to distance the gay movement from transvestites, drag queens, and other gender variant people, in spite of the fact that these people were often the shock troops for the entire gay community. Leaving New York City, she passed the latter part of the 1970?s until the early 1990?s in Tarrytown, New York, pursuing her career as a food services manager with the Marriott Corporation. She remained in contact with the gay political movement, but limited her participation largely to Pride Week activities each year. During this period, she often organized drag shows at clubs in the Tarrytown area.

In the early 1990?s Rivera?s life fell apart due to substance abuse problems, and she found herself back in New York City, homeless on the Christopher Street piers. She often described this period in positive terms, pointing out that a group of homeless gay people living on the piers were able to survive by working together and sharing the food and shelter which they could find.

Rivera was banned from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York City because of her agitation at the center on a freezing winter evening, when she demanded assistance for the homeless gay people living nearby on the piers. The ban on her participation in Center activities was lifted only in 2000.

Rivera was a marcher in the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March in 1970, and participated proudly every year thereafter, in what later became the New York Heritage of Pride Parade. In 1994, she led the so-called ?illegal? march up NYC?s Fifth Avenue commemorating the 25th anniversary of Stonewall.

In 1997, Rivera joined the Transy House Collective in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a group of transgender people committed to the principles of S.T.A.R. House. At Transy House, she helped provide financial assistance and counseling support for young transgendered people in the process of gender transition, and did so until the time of her death. She was able to resume her commitment to political activism on behalf of transgendered and homeless people during her time in this collective. She received requests for speaking engagements from transgender and gay groups all over the world, and was particularly popular with young people, the ?children,? as she called them.

In 1999, Rivera was an invited guest of the Italian Transgender Organization at the World Pride Celebration, where she addressed the World Pride Rally in Rome.

On several occasions in recent years, Rivera intentionally took arrests for political purposes, often as a part of community groups such as Soul Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the NYC Homeless Coalition, and protested on behalf of transgender rights. She became the conscience of the GLBT community, advocating the inclusion for all within the community.

In 2000, Rivera and other trans-activists re-activated S.T.A.R. as the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. Under her leadership, S.T.A.R. was instrumental in achieving a more inclusive approach toward transgendered people by the Human Rights Organization, and in the organization of the New York State Transgender Coalition, which is presently conducting a campaign for the inclusion of transpeople in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA). Rivera and S.T.A.R. conducted the rally at the historic Intro 754 hearings on trans-inclusion in the NYC non-discrimination ordinance, where she received a standing ovation from the councilmembers present and the overflowing gallery. She organized the Amanda Milan Rally in 2001. S.T.A.R. continued to be the focal point for political action related to Amanda?s murder in front of Port Authority while taxi drivers applauded.

Rivera?s literary profile in Martin Duberman?s best-selling book Stonewall, as well as chapters in other books and magazines, made many people aware of her uncompromising and committed focus on civil rights for all people. Rivera received lifetime achievement awards from many organizations, including the Puerto Rican Gay and Lesbian Association of New York, the Neutral Zone Youth Organization of New York, the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, AmBoyz Organization, the MCC-NY Recognition for Lifetime Activism Starting with Stonewall, and many others.

Hours before her death in her hospital room at St. Vincent?s, Rivera met with a delegation from the Empire State Pride Agenda to negotiate for the inclusion of trans rights in the SONDA bill pending in the New York State Legislature. Restricted to bed, attached to tubes and monitors, in severe pain, she was determined not to let the mainstream gays get their rights at the expense of the trans community yet another time. In recent years, Rivera became an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, where she was the director of the food service program for people in the community, and a leader in the MCC-NY Gender People program. The support of the church was important to the political work she was carrying out in her last years.

Sylvia Rivera is survived by her life partner and lover, Julia Murray, and the hundreds of her ?children,? people she helped in both a practical and spiritual way by her determination and example throughout her life. She was an inspiration to several generations of GLBT activists around the world.

Funeral Services were held at the MCC-NY Church, 36th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, in Manhattan at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, February 26, 2002. The service was followed by a memorial in front of the Stonewall Inn, from which her ashes were carried in a horse-drawn carriage to the Christopher Street piers, where youth placed a wreath near the spot where Sylvia?s long-time fellow activist, Marsha P. Johnson, died.