Part I: beginnings
Part II: GAA & Weinstein Hall
Part III: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries
Part IV: Other activities to 1973
Part V: Later years
GLF & GAAIn the months following Stonewall, Sylvia was living and working in New Jersey, and out of touch with what was going on. She met Marsha P Johnson on the street and was told about the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front, and the subsequent formation of the Gay Activists Alliance. She then noticed a new periodical, Gay Power, on the newsstands.
With another queen, Josie, she attended a GAA meeting. They were given attitude at the door, but did get in. They sat at the back, to be inconspicuous. Complaining, in Spanish, that they were in the wrong place, led to a meeting with Bebe Scarpi, who being Italian partially understood them. Bebe assured them that sisters were welcome.
However journalist Arthur Bell, born in Brooklyn, raised in Montréal, one of the founders of GAA, observed that
“the general membership is frightened of Sylvia and thinks that she is a troublemaker. They’re frightened by street people”.Her skin color, her dress, her social class, her style of politics by confrontation put her at odds with the largely white middle-class membership.
However Bebe Scarpi ensured that Sylvia’s dues were paid each year, and she did find friends, including some of the lesbians who accepted and respected her. One such was Karla Jay, who would challenge Sylvia and Marsha in that they were embracing the very aspects of womenhood that feminists were attempting to abandon. But other lesbians denounced Sylvia for parodying women. Jean O’Leary in particular took this stance.
In GLF Bob Kohler often spoke up for the queens, despite opposition. At different times he brought along various queens, including Bambi L’Amour and Zazu Nova, but only Sylvia had the staying power. Kohler was on the committee that organized GLF dances. He put Sylvia on door duty, where, even though often stoned, she fiercely collected and guarded the money.
GAA had started a petition to get the reluctant Carol Greitzer of New York City Council representing Greenwich Village to introduce a bill for gay rights. Sylvia liked the idea and starting soliciting signatures right on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues where she did her usual sex hustling. On 15 April 1970 there was an anti-war demonstration down the street, and cops, actually the Tactical Patrol Force, told her to move. This escalated and she was arrested and, after paying a $50 bail, was late for her 11pm shift in New Jersey. However she did get one of the arresting officers to sign the petition, “a Jewish cop. He was young. He was very good looking.”
She recounted her adventures at GAA. This was heard by Arthur Bell, who wrote a story for Gay Power, and made Sylvia a celebrity. When her case came to court the public gallery was filled with activists from GAA and GLF. Gay attorney Hal Weiner volunteered his services, and GAA picked up the legal fees. It was also her first meeting with Bob Kohler.
The next public appearance of Sylvia was at the 1970 Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, the first anniversary of Stonewall. Sylvia and Bebe led the parade repeatedly chanting a spelling of GAY POWER along the 60 blocks of the march, up 6th Avenue and into Central Park.
After several appearances, Sylvia’s court case was thrown out 28 August when the arresting officer failed to show.
"I was happy at GAA for a while. But it wasn't my calling. I found out later on that they only believed in acquiring civil rights for the gay community as a whole. Which is fine. They did a lot of good just concentrating on the gay issue. But they left the queens behind.
" I enjoyed Gay Liberation Front better because we concentrated on many issues for many different struggles. We're all in the same boat as long as we're being oppressed one way or another, whether we are gay, straight, trans, black, yellow, green, purple or whatever. If we don't fight for each other, we'll be put down. And after all these years, the trans community is still at the back of the bus." (Rivera in GenderQueer, 2002: 80)
In August-September 1970, the Gay Activist Alliance and then the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee had booked the basement of Weinstein Hall, a New York University residence building for fundraising dances. On the eve of the third dance, to be held 21 August, the administration attempted to cancel the rest. Although the two remaining dances were held, the situation escalated and the Hall was occupied.
As Sylvia immersed herself in gay liberation, she failed to attend to her everyday life, and she lost her job, her home, her dog, her sewing machine and her relationship with Gary. She was sitting in the park on Christopher Street, across from the Stonewall tavern, with her suitcase and shopping cart, when Bob Kohler came by and told her of the sit-in at Weinstein Hall. He pushed her shopping cart for her. She was pleased to see friends among the other volunteers: Marsha Johnson and Bubbles Rose Lee. They discovered a matron’s bathroom, and Sylvia and others from the street were able to clean up.
Disparate gay types bonded: street people, middle-class, those used to passing for straight, students, Latinos, black, white. The lesbians and the transvestites got on. Sylvia said: “I never knew lesbians like you. The only lesbians I knew were street dykes. But you’re all really nice”. One replied: “I feel the same way about you, Sylvia. I’ve never known any drag queens before”. “Transvestites”, said Sylvia. “Transvestites”. (quoted Bell p115; Cohen p 113).
It was here that the idea of a home for street people evolved. At first it was called Street Transvestites for Gay Power. On the Thursday night, the NYU students had been invited to meet the protesters. Sylvia ran uptown to the GAA meeting and implored more GAA persons to attend. Most GAA members did not seem to care, but a few came, one of whom was Bebe Scarpi.
A further dance was planned for Friday 25 September. However the administration called the New York City Tactical Police Squad, which gave the occupiers 10 seconds to vacate the Hall.