From GAIN News....
( Bebe Scarpinato and Rusty Moore)
Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall Riot Veteran, and life-long
activist for transgender people, died during the dawn hours of
February 19, 2002 at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital, of
complications from cancer of the liver. She was fifty years old.
Born July 2, 1951, her activism developed after leaving home
at age 11 and finding herself in the Times Square subculture of the
1960's. The harassment of gay persons, in particular the flamboyant
gender variant people such as herself, led her to become a staunch,
proud, completely unrepentant, and uncompromising advocate for drag
queens, transvestites, transsexuals and other gender variant people
throughout her life.
She was present and participated in the Stonewall Riots,
which became the determining event in her life. She often remarked
about how what had started as just another gay bar raid by the
police, took on such mythical significance for the development of the
Gay Rights Movement. She joined the Gay Activists Alliance in
February of 1970, and threw herself into the effort to pass the New
York City Gay Rights Bill.
She was arrested on 42nd Street in
Manhattan for demanding her constitutional right to promote a
political petition, the only person arrested in the petition drive.
She supported the efforts for the bill wholeheartedly, at one point
literally whacking a local politician with a clipboard of petitions
at the Village Independent Democrats, which led to that person
becoming the first sponsor for the bill.
Later she literally scaled
the walls of City Hall in a dress and spiked heels in an attempt to
gain access to the closed door votes on the original bill. Her
first major deception at the hands of the gay movement occurred when
drag rights were specifically excluded from the bill to make it more
palatable to "straight" people, and reflect the assimilist attitude
of the Gay Rights movement at the time.
This betrayal was a lesson
she carried with her in all her future activism.
In the early days of the gay civil rights movement Rivera was
repeatedly used to front possibly dangerous demonstrations, and
then shunted aside by assimilationist "leaders" when the press
In the early 1970's Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded
S.T.A.R., Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an
organization designed to achieve rights for her community, and
provide social services to this largely ignored and stigmatized
group. For a short while she and Marsha P. Johnson ran S.T.A.R.
House which provided shelter for homeless young street queens. Lack
of funds and problems with the certificate of occupancy for S.T.A.R.
House, forced the abandonment of the venture at that time, but
Rivera never lost the dream of creating a supportive and safe living
space for young transgender people.
Rivera was greatly disillusioned with the desire of many early gay
and lesbian activists to distance the gay movement from
transvestites, drag queens, and other gender variant people, in
spite of the fact that these people were often the "shock troops" for
the entire gay community. Leaving New York City, she passed the
latter part of the 1970's until the early 1990's in Tarrytown, New
York, pursuing her career as a food services manager with the
She remained in contact with the gay political
movement, but limited her participation largely to Pride Week
activities each year. During this period she often organized drag
shows at clubs in the Tarrytown area.
In the early 1990's Rivera's life fell apart due to substance abuse
problems, and she found herself back in New York City, homeless on
the Christopher Street piers.
She often described this period in
very positive terms, pointing out that a group of homeless gay people
living on the piers were able to survive by working together and
sharing the food and shelter which they could find for themselves.
Rivera was banned from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New
York City because of her agitation at the center on a freezing winter
evening when she demanded assistance for the homeless gay people
living nearby on the piers.
The ban on her participation in Center
activities was lifted only in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera was a marcher in the original Christopher Street
Liberation Day March in 1970, and participated proudly every year
therafter in what later became the New York Heritage of Pride
Parade. In 1994 she led the so called "illegal" march up NYC's
Fifth Avenue commemorating the 25th anniversary of Stonewall .
In 1997 Rivera joined the Transy House Collective in Park Slope,
Brooklyn, a group of transgender people committed to the principles
of S.T.A.R. House. At Transy House she helped provide financial
assistance and counseling support for young transgender people in the
process of gender transition until the time of her death.
able to resume her total commitment to political activism on behalf
of transgender and homeless people during her time in this
collective. She received requests for speaking engagements from
transgender and gay groups all over the world, and was particularly
popular with young people, the "children" as she called them. In
1999 Sylvia Rivera was an invited guest of the Italian Transgender
Organization at the World Pride Celebration, where she addressed the
World Pride Rally in Rome.
Rivera intentionally took arrests for political purposes on several
occasions in recent years, often as a part of community groups such
as Soul Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the NYC
Homeless Coalition, in addition to protests on behalf of transgender
rights. She became the conscience of the GLBT community, advocating
the inclusion for all within the community.
In 2000 Rivera and other trans-activists re-activated S.T.A.R. as the
Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. Under her leadership
S.T.A.R. was instrumental in achieving a more inclusive approach
toward transgender people by the Human Rights Organization, and in
the organization of the New York State Transgender Coalition, which
is presently conducting a campaign for the inclusion of trans people
in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
S.T.A.R. conducted the rally at the historic Intro 754 hearings on
trans-inclusion in the NYC non-discrimination ordinance, where she
received a standing ovation from the Councilmembers present as well
as the overflowing gallery.
She organized the Amanda Milan Rally in
2001, and S.T.A.R. continued to be the focal point for political
action related to Amanda's murder in front of Port Authority while
taxi drivers applauded.
Sylvia Rivera's literary profile in Martin Duberman's best selling
book Stonewall, as well as chapters in other books and magazines made
many people aware of her uncompromising and totally committed focus
on civil rights for all people.
Rivera received lifetime achievement awards from many organizations,
including the Puerto Rican Gay and Lesbian Association of New York,
the Neutral Zone Youth Organization of New York, the National
Transgender Advocacy Coalition, AmBoyz Organization, and the MCC-NY
Recognition for Lifetime Activism Starting with Stonewall, and many
Literally hours before her death in her hospital room at St.
Vincent's, Rivera met with a delegation from the Empire State Pride
Agenda to negotiate for the inclusion of trans rights in the
current SONDA bill pending in the New York State Legislature.
Restricted to bed, attached to tubes and monitors, in severe
pain, she was determined not to let the mainstream gays get their
rights at the expense of the trans community one more time.
In recent years, Sylvia Rivera became an active member of the
Metropolitan Community Church of New York, at which she was the
director of the food service program for people in the community, and
a leader in the MCC-NY Gender People program.
The support of the
church was very important to the political work she was carrying out
in her last years.
Sylvia Rivera is survived by her life partner and lover, Julia
Murray, and the hundreds of her "children," people she helped in
both a practical and spiritual way by her determination and example
throughout her life.
Sylvia Rivera was an inspiration to several generations of GLBT
activists around the world.
Funeral Services will be held at the MCC-NY Church, 36th Street
between 9th and 10th Avenues, in Manhattan at 7:00PM on Tuesday,
February 26, 2002.
The service will be followed by a memorial in
front of the Stonewall Inn, from which her ashes will be carried in a
horse drawn carriage to the Christopher Street piers, where the youth
will place a wreath, near the spot where Sylvia's long-time fellow
activist Marsha P. Johnson died.
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