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Sylvia Rivera and community identity

Commentary: Trans Progressive

Sylvia Rivera

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.

Short URL: http://lgbtweekly.com/?p=47033

Posted by on Apr 24, 2014. Filed under Trans Progressive. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

10 Comments for “Sylvia Rivera and community identity”

  1. A Woman, Period

    That is because Rivera was basically a drag queen. Rivera was part of a culture where it is more acceptable for a gay male to impersonate a woman, than to be an openly homosexual man. I saw a lot of this when I worked in AIDS prevention in San Francisco. There is a subculture in the Latino community that tolerates such. They are clearly not transsexuals, as they have no desire to change sex. They are clearly not heterosexual crossdressers as they are, well, not remotely heterosexual. They often work as prostitutes and/or drag queens. Apparently, it is considered acceptable among many straight Latino males to have sex with them, and the male is able to deny being gay. And of course, they also have gay male lovers in some cases. And please, don’t try to tell me that “straight” men who frequent transgender prostitutes are not engaging in homosexual behavior. I’ve talked to the sex workers, and I know the sorts of things the “straight” men request, and the sorts of thing the prostitutes provide. Nothing “straight” about it.

    This is just another example of why most transsexuals want nothing to do with being labeled “transgender.” There is a big difference between wishing to simply live one’s life as a normal woman, and choosing to engage in behavior that is deliberately at odds with societal norms.

  2. Sylvia Rivera was a woman, a transgender woman in today’s terms, no ifs ands or buts. I met her a couple of times in the late nineties and joined her in the summer of 2001 in a meeting/confrontation between the trans community of New York and the head of ESPA the new York gays rights organization who refused to support transgender inclusion in ther employment non discrimination legislation for which they were strongly advocating. (kind of like HRC and a gay only ENDA). Many of the “drag queens” of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s would today identify as trans … TODAY.

  3. Thankfully no legitimate TS woman I know supports the TG and their silly anti discrimination laws. Everything I remember about Rivera from the 80s indicates she was a drag queen. Funny how history gets rewritten.


    • A Woman, Period

      Yes, that is pretty much what it comes down to. Calling Rivera a “woman” is quite absurd. This person has a penis, and no desire to be rid of it. Sorry, but that pretty much negates the claim of being a woman.

      • I just wish their identity didn’t marginalize us in the process.
        We are not transgender never have been and never will be.


        • You sound exactly like the “real” women who deny even transsexual and transgender women…..they say women are born, not made.

          • A Woman, Period

            Actually, that is true, women are not made. If you are not born with a female brain, you will never, ever, no matter how much you mince about and act oh, so femme, actually be a woman. Arnold Lowman lied to you.

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