Saturday, March 6, 2010

Womyn's Herstory Month: Sylvia Rivera

As March is Womyn's Herstory Month I plan to feature one Latina each week that you must know about. Last week it was Latinegra/Afra-Cubana Magia MC. Today it is activist Sylvia Rivera.

Sylvia was an activist, radical woman of Color, and a survivor in all ways you can imagine. A Puerto Rican-Venezualen transgender woman and self-identified drag queen living in NYC who at the age of 3 was raised in kinship-care, she was vocal, persistent, and demanded that the rights of all people be granted and respected. She advocated for transgender people to fight and take the "historical legacy" that is theirs within history all over the world, and not just within LGBT movements. She, like many Latinas, was not a single-issue activist. She fought for working-class and working-poor communities of Color, queer communities, anti-war policies, housing and homelessness changes/access, civil rights, and human rights. Sylvia is not only a part of transgender history, she is a part of Latino history, womyn's history, feminisms, LGB history, and US history. She is often erased, forgotten and excluded because of isms in various spaces, but we ALL must challenge this as she did.

She has been a part of multiple movements, not just ones focused on sexual orientation that, as they attempted to create change at the policy level excluded gender identity and ultimately her, the transgender, and drag communities, but she was also a part of other radical spaces. If you do not know about how LGB organizations have historically and currently push out transgender activists and community members, you may read up on it in various spaces and here is one starting point. She speaks about joining the Young Lords Party:

Later on, when the Young Lords [revolutionary Puerto Rican youth group] came about in New York City, I was already in GLF [Gay Liberation Front]. There was a mass demonstration that started in East Harlem in the fall of 1970. The protest was against police repression and we decided to join the demonstration with our STAR banner.

That was one of first times the STAR banner was shown in public, where STAR was present as a group.

I ended up meeting some of the Young Lords that day. I became one of them. Any time they needed any help, I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect.

It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself-being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen-and my organization [STAR] being part of the Young Lords.

I met [Black Panther Party leader] Huey Newton at the Peoples' Revolutionary Convention in Philadelphia in 1971. Huey decided we were part of the revolution-that we were revolutionary people.

Part of her activism lead to becoming a co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical organization that provided various services to the community from organizing demonstrations, offering housing, to food. Here is more on STAR from an interview Sylvia did with activist Leslie Feinberg
STAR came about after a sit-in at Wein stein Hall at New York University in 1970. Later we had a chapter in New York, one in Chicago, one in California and England.

STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time. Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia's control at the bars.

We got a building at 213 East 2nd Street. Marsha and I just decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids. We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent.

We didn't want the kids out in the streets hustling. They would go out and rip off food. There was always food in the house and everyone had fun. It lasted for two or three years.

I encourage you all to read Jessi Gan's article about the life and legacy of Sylvia Rivera as well as Tim Retzloff's piece in the Centro Journal published in 2007.

She died February 19, 2002 and has left us all with an amazing legacy for creating change in communities of Color, communities that are under-resourced, and with tools to begin and continue decolonization efforts.

Watch SYLVIA RIVERA TRANS LIFE STORY in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Learn about the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (I use their film and curriculum Toilet Training in my class every semester!)

Check out the NY Public Library Digital Gallery of images with Sylvia.

Lee en espanol El legado de Sylvia Rivera: Los hispanos y la lucha por los derechos civiles de la comunidad LGBT

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