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“Hell Hath No Fury like a Drag Queen Scorned”: Sylvia Rivera’s Activism, Resistance, and Resilience

By Anna Klebine

Transgender activist, advocate for drag queens and other gender non-conforming people, and the voice and support for countless queer youth, Sylvia Rivera was somebody who never quietly or calmly accepted the status quo. Her life spanned the second half of the twentieth century, a time when gay rights became a national topic and the fabric of the LGBTQ community changed drastically. Based in New York City for most of her life, Rivera fought for the inclusion of transgender people, drag queens, homeless queer youth, and others who had become marginalized by increasingly mainstream and exclusive gay rights campaigns. As a queer, Latina, and drag queen, Rivera lived her life on the margins and fought for others who refused to be pushed to the side or silenced in favor of more palatable gay rights legislation. Although much of her fame centers around her alleged (and contested) presence during the Stonewall Riot, Rivera’s work spans far beyond that evening; she was active in the community both before and after the riot, continuing her work right up until her untimely death in 2002. Rivera’s voice of dissent is a reminder of those who are pushed to the side in the gay rights discourse, and her activism is a testament to the importance of addressing problems that affect those who fall through the cracks of the mainstream LGBT rights movement.

Rivera was born as Ray Rivera on July 2nd, 1951 to a Venezuelan mother in the Bronx, New York. Rivera’s father, who was of Puerto Rican descent, quickly disappeared after Ray was born, only appearing once more in Rivera’s life before disappearing forever. It wasn’t long before the many obstacles Rivera would face began; as she later recalled, “My mother was 22 when she decided to off herself. She was having a shaky second marriage… he threatened to kill her and me and my sister. I was three years old”, she recounted[1]. Orphaned from this point on, Rivera’s grandmother took care of her for a period of time, but voiced her disapproval not only of Rivera’s mixed background that made her skin darker than she preferred (Venezuelan and Puerto Rican), but also of her behavior, which was deemed too effeminate for a boy[2]. After Rivera’s half-sister, Sonia, was taken away by her birth father, her grandmother resented her even more, and she often received beatings from her[3]. Rivera’s experience in school as a child contributed to continued mockery and altercations with other students; her wearing of make-up, which started in fourth grade, contributed to her ultimate abandonment of formal education when she was mocked in the sixth grade and called “faggot” by a fellow classmate[4]. After years of switching between living at her grandmothers’ house, living at a Catholic boarding school, and living with various family friends for long periods of time, Ray Rivera left home at the age of 11, never to return. Her destination? Forty-second Street, an area that was home to a community of drag queens, sex workers, and those who were hustling inside and outside of the gay community of New York in the early 1960s.

Although Rivera had been engaging in sex work before she left home by hustling with her uncle to earn extra money, her experience living on her own at a young age with drag queens is what set the stage for her continued activism for transgender rights. Informally “adopted” by a group of young drag queens and adopting the name “Sylvia” for herself, Rivera learned how to survive on the streets with their guidance, often changing sleeping location every night depending on where her friends could secure shelter[5]. Sylvia, like many young homeless queer youth and older LGBT people in New York City, often frequented Mafia-run bars, which were often the only places where they could maintain a sense of safety and community. Although not a typical drag queen bar, the Stonewall Inn was a place where many young men went to hustle, and people from across the city would use it as a hangout space and a place to escape after working all night.

The evening of the Stonewall Riot is hallmarked as the starting point of what is considered the modern gay rights movement, despite earlier outbreaks of resistance such as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 in San Francisco and protests against police treatment of LGBTQ people across the country. Sylvia Rivera’s presence at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 has been widely debated, although she is often credited with “throwing the first brick” at the police that night[6]. Regardless of the degree of her participation in the frenzy that took place at the Stonewall Inn that night, Sylvia laid low for a few months afterward for unknown reasons. When her friend, Marsha P. Johnson, told her about meetings of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)[7], she jumped at the chance to become involved in the activity emerging in the aftermath of Stonewall[8]. Despite Sylvia’s enthusiasm to be involved in these newly formed activists groups, such as the GLF and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) that would split from the GLF, from the beginning her identities as a street worker, drag queen, poor, and a Latina were troubling to the largely white, middle-class activist groups: According to Martin Duberman, a historian who has written extensively on the Stonewall riot and the people involved in it, “Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, from the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes – managing single-handedly and simultaneously to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of Otherness”[9]. This “Otherness” would continue to plague Sylvia as she navigated the territory of the GLF, GAA, and of the emerging gay rights movement as a whole. Despite the increasing conservative nature of the GAA, and their attempts to exclude trans people from their work, Sylvia continued to work within the group in hopes of achieving inclusion for all gender variant people.

Within the GLF, and later with the more mainstream GAA, Rivera was involved in the campaign to pass New York City’s first gay rights bill, and fought tirelessly so that drag queens were included in the language of the bill. At one point, the GAA had decided to attend a meeting of the Greenwich Independent Democrats in order to bring them a petition they had circulated for the gay rights bill. After a councilwoman leading the meeting continuously refused to even look at the petition, Sylvia marched up to the front of the meeting and hit the councilwoman over the head with it[10]. She constantly fought for the inclusion of trans people and drag culture in the gay rights bill, and often conflicted with the mainstream gay advocacy organizations. When the bill was finally passed in 1986, it did not include any language addressing the need for the protection of drag queens, trans people, and other gender-variant people who did not fit neatly into the mainstream gay community that appealed to lawmakers. When she discovered this, Sylvia’s response was: “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned"[11].

Despite the constant exclusion from the gay rights movement that she faced, Sylvia continued to be active during the 70’s with her organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group she formed with Marsha P. Johnson that focused on giving shelter to queer, homeless youth. Sylvia provided this service as a means to reach out to others like herself who were not able to access many of the gay-oriented resources in New York City due to their gender identity or presentation. Although active with S.T.A.R. for most of the 1970s, the organization “died” in 1973 according to Sylvia, and she became so disheartened by the state of the gay rights movement that she attempted suicide in 1974[12]. She eventually left New York City and moved to Tarrytown, New York and worked in food service management; her activism there revolved around local drag shows and Pride Week activities[13]. Sylvia moved back to New York City sometime during the early 1990s and lived on a pier in the West Village. In 1995, she attempted suicide by walking into the Hudson River; the same river where her close friend and co-founder of S.T.A.R., Marsha P. Johnson, was found dead in 1992. Sylvia revived S.T.A.R. on January 6, 2001 in an effort to make the murder of transwoman Amanda Milan well-known to the public[14]. Still retaining the determination she had from decades past, Sylvia declared “Before I die, I will see our community given the respect we deserve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave without having the respect this community deserves. I want to go to wherever I go with that in my soul and peacefully say I’ve finally overcome"[15]. On February 19, 2002, Sylvia passed away at the age of 50 due to complications from liver cancer. Even on her deathbed, she was working for trans inclusion in yet another mainstream gay rights organization, the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Sylvia Rivera worked tirelessly for a more inclusive and intersectional approach to LGBTQ activism. From the Stonewall Riot, to fighting for inclusive gay rights legislation, to living on the piers in solidarity with queer homeless youth, Rivera refused to take a seat and let others forget about those who had been “othered” by the mainstream gay rights movement. Her life serves as a testament to the power of resistance, and as a stark reminder that the fight to appear acceptable and palatable to mainstream America adopted by the mainstream gay rights movement is not everyone’s struggle.

Links

The following is a link to a video of Sylvia Rivera:

http://vimeo.com/45479858#

References

  1. Sylvia Rivera, “Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” in Voices Beyond the Sexual Binary (Los Angeles: Alyson Books), 67.
  2. Sylvia Rivera, “Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” 68.
  3. Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 22.
  4. Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 24.
  5. Sylvia Rivera, “Queens in Exile, the Forgotton Ones,” 70.
  6. Benjamin Shephard, “Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children: A Battle for Public Space,” in That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (New York: Soft Skull Press), 98.
  7. The GLF had been holding meetings prior to the Stonewall Riot, although they became a more active organization in the following months of 1969.
  8. Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 235.
  9. Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 236.
  10. Benjamin Shephard, “Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children: A Battle for Public Space,” 99.
  11. Rob Laczko, “Remembering Sylvia – The Mother of the Riot” in Out in Jersey, June-July 2010, 4.
  12. Sylvia Rivea, Queens in Exile – the Forgotten Ones, 82.
  13. Rob Laczko, “Rememberign Sylvia – The Mother of the Riot”, 4.
  14. Sylvia Rivera, Queens in Exile – The Forgotten Ones, 83.
  15. Sylvia Rivera, Queens in Exile – The Forgotten Ones, 84.