Women’s History Month: Sylvia Rivera

For the last day of Women’s History Month, I give you Sylvia Rivera, proud, out, trans woman who participated in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, and only a year later watched as gender and trans rights were disappeared from the new Gay Rights’ movement’s agenda.

On June 27, 1969, Rivera was in the crowd that gathered outside the Stonewall Inn after word spread that it had been raided by police. The sight of arrested patrons being led from the bar by authorities riled the crowd, but it was Rivera who threw one of the first Molotov cocktails that actually initiated the riots and sent Stonewall into the history books.

In 1970 Rivera joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and worked on its campaign to pass the New York City Gay Rights Bill. She attracted media attention when she attempted to force her way into closed-door sessions concerning the bill held at City Hall. In spite of Rivera’s (and other drag queens’) participation in the GAA, the organization decided to exclude transgender rights from the Gay Rights Bill so that it would be more acceptable to straight politicians.

Rivera was shocked and betrayed by this decision. She also became disillusioned with the gay rights movement in general and dismayed by the backlash against drag queens that had developed by the mid-1970s.

Perhaps already sensing that transgendered people could not rely on the gay rights movement to advocate for their civil rights, in 1970 Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson had formed a group called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). The members of this organization aimed to fight for the civil rights of transgendered people, as well as provide them with social services support.

At this time, Rivera and Johnson began operating S.T.A.R. House in the East Village, which provided housing for poor transgendered youth. S.T.A.R. House lasted for two years, but was then closed because of financial and zoning problems. Although in existence only a short time, S.T.A.R. House is historically significant because it was the first institution of its kind in New York City, and inspired the creation of future shelters for homeless street queens.

Shelters seems like an exaggeration, since the only other I know of is Transy House (which was around the corner from where we lived in Park Slope). I’m pleased to see the Day of Silence and GLSEN are honoring her as well this year.