Transgender History: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera, the great mother our transgender movement, besides fighting cops and heterosexual bigotry, fought with courage, anger and determination against rampant transphobia within the gay and lesbian communities in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

In this video I found on YouTube, she addresses a very hostile white gay and lesbian crowd in New York City.

“Y’all better quiet down,” she begins as the crowd shouts at her and boos her and seemingly wants her gone, preferably forever, I imagine.

You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit.
I have been beaten. I have been raped
I have had my nose broken.
I have lost my job.
I have lost my apartment for gay liberation.
And you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you?

Her cri de coeur speaks to battle lines that still exist within the larger LGB communities and remains as powerful and necessary today as it was 45 years ago. Apparently the white, middle-class gays and lesbian she excoriates at Washington Square didn’t get it then.

Many still don’t get it today. They prefer to remember only half of Ms. Rivera’s legacy. The one where she fought back against the heterosexual police at the Stonewall Bar.

Her other legacy, the one captured in this video, remains one white LGB and now T people forget, overlook or never knew it in the first place to forget it.

I had the great honor of seeing Sylvia Rivera at the 1994 Stonewall Parade, the one where participants defied police and city orders and  walked down 5th Avenue, like all the other parades in NYC did, except the city decided the 25th Anniversary of Stonewall parade should take a second-class route.

The mainstream gays capitulated and walked on the stupid, alternate route the city wanted them to take.

Not Sylvia Rivera. She had been saying No to power her entire life. She wasn’t about to change her behavior to make a bunch of middle-class queers help city officials feel comfortable.

Wearing a gorgeous, gold sequined, form-fitting evening gown, Sylvia Rivera strolled by us in high-heels. We shouted and clapped and screamed I Love You, Sylvia as tears streamed down her face. We knew who she was and what she had done for us.

Her impact on transgender history looms so large I can’t imagine a me without her. 

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