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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sylvia Rivera ~ She was more than Stonewall (2010)

by jerimarie liesegang
When the name Sylvia Rivera is mentioned, without a doubt ones first thought, comment or reflection is that “Sylvia is widely credited with throwing the first shoe (or depending upon the remembrance first or second bottle, Molotov cocktail, Sylvia, Marsha, STAR banner at 1973 PRIDE marchetc) at Stonewall.” From that point on, the remembrance and analysis of Sylvia is strongly influenced by this pivotal moment in queer history. Very little of what is remembered, spoken or written about Sylvia deviates much from that of her involvement in Stonewall and the succeeding predominately white, middle class led LGBT movement. And sadly even within the Trans community to which Sylvia dedicated her life to, she is primarily whitewashed along with her radical politics being marginalized or even totally omitted!
However, Sylvia like most great figures in history was a true social justice revolutionary, if not insurrectionist, figure whose life, beliefs, actions and words embraced an intersectional essence. Jessi Gan’s 2007 Centro Journal piece titled “Still at the back of the bus”: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle is one of the few pieces that critique’s the remembrance of Sylvia Rivera by many writers in light of their clear omission of Sylvia’s intersectionality. Sylvia remained predominately an unknown figure ~ even though her activism, writings and influence within the New York City “gay and lesbian” movement of the late sixties and early seventies, albeit short lived, was highly influential. It was not until the publication of Martin Dubermans Stonewall that her role in the Stonewall riots became widely known. And not long after this, Sylvia re-emerged onto the NYC scene with her innate anger and passion fighting loudly for queer street youth and Trans folks of color, until her untimely death in February 2002. Even after her death however, the name Sylvia Rivera and Stonewall were so intertwined that much of her revolutionary social justice work was never recognized. Fortunately due to the extensive research and subsequent publication of The Gay Liberation Movement in New York, Stephan L. Cohen puts into context a picture of Sylvia that goes far beyond Stonewall, and allows us a glimpse into her life and her actions via an excellent treatise on S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries).
With the rise of Transgender politics during the 1990’s, Sylvia became the matriarch of this resurgent movement. However her stature in this movement was primarily due to her documented role in the Stonewall riots, and this was used by many transgender activists to demand a seat within the gay and lesbian movement and the inclusion of transgender within the existing gay and lesbian organizations and civil rights struggles.
Yet coming back to the analysis by Jessi Gan I reproduce the section below which goes to the heart that Sylvia was much more than Stonewall. In fact the underpinnings of the Stonewall rebellion actually reflected more of the class and race issues faced by queer street youth rather than the traditionally embraced view that has enabled middle class white gays and lesbians to view themselves as resistant and radical.
“… just as “gay” had excluded “transgender” in the Stonewall imaginary, the claim that “transgender people were at Stonewall too” enacted its own omissions of difference and hierarchy within the term “transgender.” Rivera was poor and Latina, while some transgender activists making political claims on the basis of her history were white and middle-class. She was being praised for becoming visible as transgender while her racial and class visibility were being simultaneously concealed. Some recovery projects lubricated by Rivera’s memory-in their simultaneous forgetting of the white supremacist and capitalist logics that had constructed her raced and classed otherness-served to unify transgender politics along a gendered axis. The elisions enabled transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, in hir book Trans Liberation, to invoke a broad coalition of people united solely by a political desire to take gender “beyond pink or blue.” This pluralistic approach celebrated Rivera’s struggle as one “face” in a sea of “trans movement” faces. The anthology GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, similarly, called for a “gender movement” that would ensure “full equality for all Americans regardless of gender.” The inclusion of Rivera’s life story in the largely white GenderQueer lent a multicultural “diversity” and historical authenticity to the young, racially unmarked coalitional identity, “genderqueer,” that had emerged out of middle-class college settings. But the elision of intersectionality in the name of coalitional myth-making served to reinscribe other myths. The myth of equal transgender oppression left capitalism and white supremacy unchallenged, often foreclosing coalitional alignments unmoored from gender analysis, while enabling transgender people to avoid considering their complicity in the maintenance of simultaneous and interlocking systems of oppression. Rivera is, moreover, profoundly important in a Latina, transgender, and queer historiography where histories of transgender people of color are few and far between.
Sylvia: Insurrectionist, Mother, Visionary, Revolutionary
To paraphrase Jessi Gan, an analysis of Sylvia’s life should alert us to the simple fact that trans visibility is not a simple binary of male/female; though rather an intersection of the multiple kinds of visibilities, differentially situated in relation to power, intersect and overlap in people’s lives. The consequences of visibility are determined in part by one’s place in society, and by the systems of power that define gendered and racialized meanings onto the bodies discrimination.
Sylvia Rivera was born a Puerto Rican/Venezuelan effeminate boy whose birth father had disappeared and her mother’s second husband was a drug dealer who showed no interest in children. Sylvia’s mother committed suicide when Sylvia was only 3 years old and so she ended up living with her Venezuelan grandmother who despised her femininity and dark skin. Sylvia grew up poor and without love and so at age 10 left home to seek a new life hustling on 42nd Street. Sylvia’s life was very hard, though through her early life experiences and struggles, she learned to find a new definition of community and family.
For Sylvia it was not just her being trans that shaped her life, but it was the interpersonal intersectionality of race, class, gender and homelessness that were key in forming her social and political views. Sylvia learned very early in life the importance of family, but not a traditional white middle-class family, though rather a family concept formed through the experiences of that queer street youth who had to hustle and deal with the abuses of the state and system ~ a family of her peers and children whom she would give her life and her only dollar to protect. She was politicized at an early age to learn that capitalism and a straight white-mans system of justice rendered survival all the more difficult. For Sylvia and the other street youth she called family, it was less about gender issues than it was about class issues. She understood the importance of not being a controller within the system of gates but as she noted “I would rather be someone who can stand here and argue with the hierarchy, than be the hierarchy.”
Sylvia was in many aspects an anarchist if not even an insurrectionist. At an NYU talk Sylvia stated to those attending “We don’t believe in cooperating with The Man. We’re dedicated to blowing up the next building and killing the next cop.” Sylvia wrote in 1971 (Come Out Vol 2, #8, pg 10) “As far back as I can remember, my half sisters and brothers liberated themselves from this fucked up system that has been oppressing our gay sisters and brothers - by walking on the man’s land, defying the man’s law, and meeting the man face to face in his court of law. … They have been brainwashed by this fucked up system that has condemned us and by doctors that call us a disease and a bunch of freaks. … That transvestites and gay street people are always on the front lines and are ready to lay down their lives for the movement.”
Sylvia did not speak of equality solely for trans people or queer people for her life experiences on the street formed a very sharp recognition of the intersectionality of oppressions and oppressive systems. As a Hispanic, Sylvia identified with the revolutionary groups of that time, the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. Though GLF was highly conflicted regarding their association with these revolutionary groups, Sylvia recognized the connections and marched with both groups as well as attending the 1971 People’s Revolutionary Convention and actually was given a five minute “hearing” at this convention with Panther leader Huey Newton. Sylvia constantly pushed the political boundaries of the gay liberation movement and worked closely with the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, incarcerated youth, homeless youth, and the rights of sex workers and on and on.
A quote attributed to Marsha P. Johnson also states very clearly the anarchist nature of Sylvia and her comrades of that period and who formed S.T.A.R. also known as Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries.
“STAR is a Revolutionary Group. We believe in picking up the gun and starting a revolution if necessary. Our main goal is to see “gay” people liberated and free…”
Sylvia also worked closely with the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance (the latter her feeling was not radical enough). Sylvia’s life experiences hustling on the streets at age ten, stirred within her during these revolutionary days of gay liberation the idea of creating a refuge for underage street queens. Even though Sylvia was only nineteen at this time, she realized the hardships endured by the younger street youths hustling on the streets, finding shelter, food and safety and in the end many were dead after several years of being on the street due to drugs or violence against their queerness. Sylvia had a strong desire to setup a place where these young street youth could find comradeship, safety, family, community and importantly learn skills to move on to a better kind of life. And so S.T.A.R. was officially formed following Sylvia’s engagement with the NYU Weinstein Hall occupation in 1970. STAR’s first home was in the back of a trailer truck, or at least until one day Sylvia and friends saw the trailer being driven away with many of the street queens in the trailer. All but one got out in time, the other ended up going towards the west coast. Through some connections with the mafia, they were able to “rent” an empty building which became the new STAR House. Though both STAR House and STAR were relatively short lived, as many of the revolutionary organizations of that time were, they made an indelible mark on the landscape of Transgender Revolutionaries! STAR house provided that home for young street queens that Sylvia never had and importantly they created a sense of family within a society, and even a majority of the gay community, that considered them outcasts or freaks. And STAR’s activism was a reflection of Sylvia’s passion and anarchistic view of equality and revolution. STAR pushed the political boundaries by visibly, and forcibly if needed, advocating on behalf of transvestites, the poor and homeless, the street hustlers, prisoners and those abused by the police. Sylvia was multi-dimensional in her spirit and her activism and her work ranged from the mundane of working on legislative changes through the GAA to her undying commitment to her children! Though in all her activism, Sylvia was the consummate revolutionary!
I could go on since there is so much more to say about the radical and multi-dimensional essence of Sylvia, though must stop here for now simply to keep this piece readable. And hopefully if this piece is received with interest (and likely even if it isn’t) I will continue my quest to document, research and study the full and true essence of Sylvia. And in doing so, hopefully light the flame of some of our younger trans folks in realizing that assimilative politics and cooptation with the system and state is not the direction Transgender Activism must take for true liberation of our intersectional lives and bodies ~ unless compromise and governance over our bodies by a hierarchical and xenophobic system and state is your concept of liberation. Clearly the former and not the latter was the essence of Sylvia’s view of social justice.
I would however like to close with the following piece from Cathy Cohen as detailed in Jessi Gan’s great piece in Centro Journal on Sylvia.
Political scientist Cathy Cohen has suggested that queer politics has failed to live up to its early promise of radically transforming society. Rather than upend systems of oppression, Cohen says, the queer agenda has sought assimilation and integration into the dominant institutions that perpetuate those systems. In clinging to a single oppression model that divides the world into “straight” and “queer,” and insists that straights oppress while queers are oppressed, queer politics has neglected to examine how “power informs and constitutes privileged and marginalized subjects on both sides of this dichotomy.” For instance, it has looked the other way while the state continues to regulate the reproductive capacities of people of color through incarceration. Cohen suggests this is because the theoretical framework of queer politics is tethered to rigid, reductive identity categories that don’t allow for the possibility of exclusions and marginalization’s within the categories. Also dismissed is the possibility that the categories themselves might be tools of domination in need of destabilization and reconceptualization.

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