Sylvia Rivera and community identityTrans Progressive Thursday, April 24th, 2014
Commentary: Trans Progressive
A friend recently pointed me to a video of trans advocate Sylvia Rivera’s Y’all Better Quiet Down speech at New York City’s 1973 Liberation Day Rally. In the speech she stated, “I believe in the gay power. I believe in us getting our rights or else I would not be out their fighting for our rights.” She saw gender variant people as herself belonging to the gay community.
Rivera referred to her “gay brothers and gay sisters” in jail who were “beaten up and raped,” and they hadn’t “spent much of their money in jail to get themselves pumped and to try to get their sex change[s]. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes and become women of the women’s liberation.”
In a pamphlet entitled Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries written about the STAR project of the early 1970s, Rivera talked about being a “half sister.”
“Transvestites are homosexual men and women who dress in clothes of the opposite sex,” Rivera wrote. “Male transvestites dress and live as women. Half sisters like myself are women with the minds of women trapped in male bodies. Female transvestites dress and live as men. My half brothers are men with male minds trapped in female bodies. Transvestites are the most oppressed people in the homosexual community. My half sisters and brothers are being raped and murdered by pigs, straights and even sometimes by other uptight homosexuals who consider us the scum of the gay community. They do this because they are not liberated.”
She also called herself a drag queen. In an interview entitled I’m Glad I Was In The Stonewall Riot, she stated, “I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The early ‘60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did.”
In later years she identified as part of the transgender community, and stated the transgender community was there at the Stonewall Riots.
“The night of the Stonewall, it happened to be the week that Judy Garland had committed suicide,” stated Rivera in a 2001 speech entitled Bitch On Wheels. “Some people say that the riots started because of Judy Garland’s death. That’s a myth. We were all involved in different struggles, including myself and many other transgender people. But in these struggles, in the civil rights movement, in the war movement, in the women’s movement, we were still outcasts. The only reason they tolerated the transgender community in some of these movements was because we were gung-ho, we were front liners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody. We had nothing to lose. You all had rights. We had nothing to lose. I’ll be the first one to step on any organization, any politician’s toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community.”
To me, it’s interesting to see how a trans community icon used terminology to identify transgender (trans) people that most in the trans community would currently find misgendering or offensive.
Sylvia Rivera wasn’t a “respectable queer”; she’d likely even be considered an outcast in much of the trans community now. She was a poor trans woman of color who believed in, and practiced, radical trans inclusive gay liberation. In that Liberation Day speech she spoke of being “raped and beaten many times, by men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter” for gay liberation. She also said “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the f*ck’s wrong with you all?”
Terms change and evolve, and so do people. I can only wonder what identity terms Rivera would use for herself now were she still alive, and what terms – if any – she would shun as anti-trans, dehumanizing terms.
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