Sylvia Rivera died on February 19 2002. She’s an icon now, an emblem of the long LGBTIQ+ fight against oppression. Although much celebrated, she’s still sadly little heard.
Sylvia Rivera whored on the streets of New York from the age of 10.
Just to survive.
Her father deserted his family while she was still a baby. At three, her mother killed herself by swallowing rat poison and tried to take her child with her. But Sylvia survived. She then passed into the custody of her maternal grandmother who tried to beat the effeminacy out of her grandchild.
Sylvia Rivera left home before her 11th birthday. On her first night on the street, a man offered for $10 for sex.
Adopted by the Latin and black drag queens who worked Times Square, Sylvia finally had a family who loved her. She was Latin herself, her father Puerto Rican and her mother Venezuelan.
Sylvia met and became best friends with black street queen Martha P. Johnson. During the sixties, the pair endured street assaults, rapes, police harassment, and jailings. Their later celebrity arose out of their participation in the early gay rights movement following the Stonewall Riots.
Along with Marsha, Sylvia co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). They rented a place they called STAR House, and offered shelter to homeless gay and trans youth. Marsha and Sylvia funded the house by working on the street.
In 1973, the committee organising the New York Gay Pride Parade banned drag queens from participation stating they gave gays and lesbians a ‘bad name’. They apparently forgot that drag queen Lee Brewster, who also helped support STAR, contributed much of the funding for the first Pride marches.
Sylvia and Marsha defiantly marched down the street ahead of the official parade.
Activist groups started to make Sylvia and other less mainstream people unwelcome even before the 1973 parade — as she later recalled.
“You had to be what they called themselves, the ‘normal homosexuals’. They wore suits and ties. One of the first demonstrations that they had, lesbians who never wore dress before were wearing dresses and high heels to show the world they were normal. Normal? Fine.”
Historian and activist Martin Duberman wrote that gay organisations exluded Sylvia because of her race, class and gender expression.
“If someone was not shunning her darker skin or sniggering at her passionate fractured English, they were deploring her rude anarchism as inimical to order or denouncing her sashaying ways as offensive to womanhood.”
Sylvia cut to the chase in a later talk. She addressed the elephant in the room. That members of the community who could ‘pass’ as ‘normal’ were ashamed of the sex workers in their midst.
“Everybody thinks we want to be out on them street corners. No we do not. We don’t want to be out there sucking dick and getting f_cked up the ass. But that’s the only alternative we have to survive because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable.
“I do not want to go and work looking like a man when I know I am not a man.
“I have been this way since before I left home and I have been on my own since the age of 10.”
Scheduled as the featured speaker at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally, Sylvia waited all day without being invited onstage. Finally, she fought her way onto the stage and after an organiser asked the crowd to vote on whether to allow ‘these people’ to speak, she took the mic.
“I had to fight my way up on that stage, and literally, people that I called my comrades in the movement, literally beat the shit out of me. That’s where it all began, to really silence us. They beat me and I kicked their asses. I did get to speak. I got my point across.”
Click on the link below to watch Slyvia Rivera’s speech.