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05 September 2017

Sylvia Rae Rivera (1951-2002) activist - beginnings

Part I: beginnings
Part II:  GAA & Weinstein Hall
Part III: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries
Part IV:  Other activities to 1973
Part V:  Later years

Early life

Ray José Christian Rivera Mendoza, was three years old when his mother, aged 22, facing death threats from her husband, drank rat poison mixed with milk and gave the same mixture to her children. They would not drink it, but she, after two days of agony, died.

Ray’s Puerto Rican father had already disappeared. He came back only once, and never paid child support. Ray’s Venezuelan-born grandmother, called Viejita (‘old lady’, even though she was only in her forties) took Ray and his younger half-sister to live in Jersey City, where she raised them on less than $50 a week. In 1958 Viejita fell ill for a matter of months, and afterwards sent Ray to live with friends.

He returned at weekends and holidays. By now Viejita was living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ray had had sex with an older cousin at age seven, and at age 10 was having regular sex with a married man down the street. He also wore Viejita’s clothes and makeup when Viejita was out. Ray wore makeup at school from the fourth grade, apparently with no-one noticing except for one teacher who seduced him.

Ray was a noted athlete in track and gymnastics. In the sixth-grade there was an incident when a larger classmate called him a ‘faggot’, and Ray won the resulting fight.

However at age eleven, in 1962, Ray discovered 42nd Street where he had heard that the maricónes were to be found. However a neighbour spotted him, which led to a row with Viejita, a suicide attempt and two months in Bellevue Hospital.

A few months later Ray left and moved in with Gary, a lover that he would stay with for seven years. They both hustled and did drugs, and became well-known around Times Square. Ray was urged to take a new name. ‘Sylvia’ was proposed: “There is no Sylvia around”. So with a formal christening, a white gown and a preacher from a Pentecostal Hispanic church, she became Sylvia Lee Rivera.

By now she had met Marsha P Johnson, who – although only seven years older – acted as a drag mother and showed Sylvia how to survive on the streets. Marsha got her a job at the Childs restaurant chain, first as a messenger. Sylvia was then promoted to billing clerk, and then, working in suit and tie with full makeup, in accounts payable.

Sylvia still did hustling, and after her first arrest she was in the Brooklyn House of Detention for three days. Sylvia was welcomed by Gary’s family, but Viejita was resistant.
“You can’t love another man!”, and later “Why can’t you have a Spanish boy?” – to which Sylvia came back: “Oh, sure, sure – so I can go kill myself like my mother did?”

By the time that she was 15, Sylvia was hustling as a woman. Several times guns were pulled on her, but she never had more than $20 in her purse – the rest was in the hem of her skirt. Sometimes her gender was challenged, but with a wig hair on a tight gaff, she was able to bluff it through. However one night with a trick, her penis did pop out. He beat her hard, she pulled the gun from her purse, and had to use it. After he recovered, the trick toured the Times Square area with two cops in tow until he had her arrested.

Ray called Viejita who did the grandmother act and got Ray released. On a lawyer’s advice, Ray cut his hair, quit the makeup, enrolled in school and appeared in court a model clean-cut teenage boy. “I ask you, your honor; does this look like a street hustler or a transvestite?” The judge agreed, and Sylvia walked.

In Spring 1966, the new New York City mayor, John Lindsay, announced a crackdown on pornography and prostitution. Sylvia, at her usual spot on 9th Avenue and 44th Street was one of many caught in the sweep. Sylvia was put in the gay section in Rikers Island prison. It was here that she started doing heroin. She also met a good-looking black queen who went by the name Bambi L’Amour. They threw shade at each other, and then became firm friends.

Back on the streets, Sylvia teamed up with Kim, a cis woman, and they hustled together, often robbing their tricks. Sylvia was sometimes spending $200 a day on heroin, and hustling in a white fox coat. She also paid for hormone treatments. At first she and her friends had gone to a doctor on the Lower East Side until she got a discharge from her right breast, and found that she had been taking monkey hormones. She switched to Dr Stern on 5th Avenue, who was willing to take bodily contact instead of payment. However she decided to stop the injections.
“I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to be me. … I like pretending. I like to have the role. I like to dress up and pretend, and let the world think about what I am. Is he, or isn’t he?”
One night Sylvia was told that Viejita was ill. Although it was 2am, and she was stoned and in full drag, she hailed a cab and went right over. Viejita opened the door and exclaimed:
“Oh my god, you look just like your mother!” Sylvia replied: “Well, who am I supposed to look like?”
Cohen p146
On her sixteenth birthday, Ray was invited to attend the local draft board. She appeared in high heels, miniskirt, long red nails, the works. Despite her proclamation, “I’m one of the boys”, she was sent with a bunch of women to an induction center in Newark. A psychiatrist asked if there were a problem with her sexuality.
“I know I like men. I know I like to wear dresses. But I don’t know what any problem is.”
She also produced papers from the stay in Bellevue that stated that she was homosexual. The psychiatrist stamped HOMOSEXUAL on the induction notice, and told her that she could go home.  On a roll, Sylvia announced that she hadn’t any money, and needed a lift home. And she got it.

where was Sylvia the night of 27/28 June 1969?

Sylvia was still 17 on this date, five days short of her birthday July 2. 18 was the legal drinking age in New York State at this time. Despite being underage she had a preferred bar: the Washington Square at Broadway and 3rd Street. It opened at 3 am and catered primarily to transvestites.

27/8 June 1969, of course was the first night of the Stonewall riots. (the following accounts are sorted by date).

Holly Woodlawn, A Low Life in High Heels, 1992: 124-5:

"June 26, 1969, was a hot, muggy Thursday night. The humidity in the air was unbearable because every queen in the city was in tears. Judy Garland was dead. ... When I returned to the Stonewall the next night, there was so much commotion --sirens blaring, people screaming --I thought that a bomb had gone off. The cops were everywhere, and a chill shot up my spine as I drew closer, fearing the worst. I wedged myself into the mob for a closer look and heard a raspy scream, 'Asshole!' A street queen named Crazy Sylvia had just broken a gin bottle over a cop's head!"

Rey “Sylvia Lee” Rivera. “The Drag Queen” in Eric Marcus. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990 : an Oral History. HarperPerennial, 1992: 191-2.

“We had just come back from Washington, DC, my first lover and I. At that time we were passing bad paper around and making lots of money. And I said, ‘Let’s go to the Stonewall,’ So I was drinking at the bar, and the police came in to get their payoff as usual. They were the same who always used to come into the Washington Square Bar.
“I don’t know if it was was the customers or if it was the police, but that night everything just clicked. Every was like, ‘Why the fuck are we doing all this for? Why should we be chastised? Why do we have to pay the Mafia all this kind of money to drink in a lousy fuckin’ bar? And still be harassed by the police?’ It didn’t make any sense. The prople at them bars, especially at the Stonewall, were involved in other movememts. And everybody was like: “We got to do our thing. We’re gonna go for it!”
“When they ushered us out, they very nicely put us out the door. …
“That night I got knocked around a bit by a couple of plainsclothes cops. I didn’t really get hurt. I was very careful that night, thank God. But I saw other people being hurt by the police. There was one drag queen, I don’t know what she said, but they just beat her her into a bloody pulp. There were a couple of dykes they took out and threw in a car.”

Martin Duberman. Stonewall. Plume, 1994: 190-3.

Sylvia and Gary had returned from passing bad checks in Washington, DC. Sylvia also had a job as an accounting clerk in a Jersey City warehouse. There was to be a party at Marsha’s, but Sylvia decided to stay home, until Tammy Novak phoned, and absolutely insisted, would not take ‘no’ for an answer, that they meet later in the Stonewall. When the cops raided, Sylvia panicked thinking that she had forgotten her ID, but Gary had brought it. A cop asked if she were a boy or a girl, and she almost swung at him, but Gary grabbed her in time. The cop told her to get out of the place. She then watched from the park across the street.

Duberman adds in the endnotes p300n40: “At least two people credit Sylvia herself with provoking the riot: Jeremiah Newton (New York Native, June 15, 1990) has her throwing an empty gin bottle that smashed in front of the Stonewall door; and Ivan Valentin (interview July 5, 1991) insists that Sylvia actually jumped a cop and thereby ‘started the Gay Liberation movement’. But I’ve found no corroboration for either account, and Sylvia herself, with a keener regard for the historical record, denies the accuracy of both versions. She does remember ‘throwing bricks and rocks and things’ after the mêlée began, but takes no credit for initiating the confrontation.”

Sylvia Rivera. “Queens in Exile, the Forgotton Ones” in Joan Nestle, Clare Howell & Riki Wilchins. GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary. Alyson books, 2002: 77-8.

This account of Stonewall is notable in being in the plural. Sylvia does not say that she actually was there.

“The night Stonewall happened everybody was out partying. People were mourning, even me. We were mourning Judy Garland’s death. Some authors have said that the riot came out of Judy Garland’s death, but that’s not true. Judy had nothing to do with the riot. … We fought back. … So this night was different. This was the start of out talking back, speaking up for ourselves. … they proofed us. We went out the door. But no one dispersed.”

Bebe Scarpinato & Rusty Moore. “Sylvia Rivera Obituary”. Transgender Tapestry, 98, Summer 2002:34.

“She was present and participated in the Stonewall Riots, which became the determining event of her life.”

That is all that they say about Stonewall.

David Carter, author of Stonewall : the riots that sparked the gay revolution, 2004, did not mention Sylvia Rivera even once in his book. He was interviewed by Gay Today, and asked about this lacuna.

“I am afraid that I could only conclude that Sylvia's account of her being there on the first night was a fabrication. Randy Wicker told me that Marsha P. Johnson, his roommate, told him that Sylvia was not at the Stonewall Inn at the outbreak of the riots as she had fallen asleep in Bryant Park after taking heroin. (Marsha had gone up to Bryant Park, found her asleep, and woke her up to tell her about the riots.) Playwright and early gay activist Doric Wilson also independently told me that Marsha Johnson had told him that Sylvia was not at the Stonewall Riots. Sylvia also showed a real inconsistency in her accounts of the Stonewall Riots. In one account she claimed that the night the riots broke out was the first time that she had ever been at the Stonewall Inn; in another account she said that she had been there many times. In one account she said that she was there in drag; in another account she says that she was not in drag. She told Martin Duberman that she went to the Stonewall Inn the night the riots began to celebrate Marsha Johnson's birthday, but Marsha was born in August, not June. I also did not find one credible witness who saw her there on the first night.”

Stephan L. Cohen. The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: 'an Army of Lovers Cannot Fail', 2008: 90.

“Overcoming adversity is but one aspect of their story. Street transvestites were in the forefront of the gay liberation movement—joining those responsible for the Stonewall Rebellion: transvestites and lesbians who resisted inside the bar, street kids protesting outside, including Jackie Hormona reported to have “kicked a cop,” the effeminate gay male “flame queens,” and the “lesbian who fought the police” along with other gays, lesbians, agitators, students, and passers-by. Street transvestite Marsha P. Johnson was seen climbing a lamppost and dropping “a bag containing a heavy object” on a police car windshield, shattering it. Although Sylvia Rivera later explained that she had come down the avenue, turned the corner and joined the protest (this would presumably have been on one of the subsequent nights, as neither Bob Kohler nor Marsha saw Sylvia that first night).”

Cohen adds a footnote: p244n6. “Martin Duberman’s lively, Stonewall account of Sylvia’s participation in the Stonewall rebellion conflicts with Bob Kohler’s understanding: Sylvia privately acknowledged to Kohler that she was not present the first night of rioting (Bob Kohler, interview by author, NYC, July 21, 2003).”


It does not matter whether Sylvia was at Stonewall or not; whether she watched passively or joined in.  What she did later, in STAR and in being the public face of transgender in 1970s New York, is what is important.   This we will see in the next part.

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