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10 September 2017

Sylvia Rivera Part III: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries

The post-Stonewall activist organizations:

Queens Liberation Front (QLF)
StreetTransvestite Action Revolutionaries. (also Part III of Sylvia Rivera)
Gay Liberation Front (GLF) - New York
Gay Activists Alliance (GAA)
Gay Liberation Front (GLF) - London

Sylvia Rivera

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

After the demonstration following the eviction from Weinstein Hall, Bubbles, Sylvia, Marsha, Bebe Scarpi, Bambi L’Amour, Andorra and others continued with what became Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) which attempted to provide shelter, food and legal support for street queens.

Their first home was a trailer truck seemingly abandoned in a Greenwich Village outdoor parking area. This was a step up from sleeping in doorways, and a couple of dozen young street transvestites moved in. One morning Sylvia and Marsha were returning with groceries, and found the trailer starting to move. Most of the queens were woken by the noise and movement and quickly jumped out, although one, stoned, was half-way to California when she woke up.

Bubbles knew a Mafia person, well-known in the Village, Michael Umbers, manager of the gay bar, Christopher’s End, operator of various callboy and porno operations and also a friend of future Dog Day Afternoon bank robber, John Wojtowicz. Bubbles spoke to him and for a small deposit the S.T.A.R. commune was able to move into 213 East 2nd Street in November 1970. There was no electricity or plumbing, not even the boiler worked, nor did the toilets. However with help they got the building working and it became StarHouse. This is probably the first communal shelter that explicitly served street transvestites. Sylvia:
“We had a S.T.A.R. House—a place for all of us to sleep. It was only four rooms, and the landlord had turned the electricity off. So we lived there by candle light, a floating bunch of 15 to 25 queens, cramped in those rooms with all our wardrobe. But it worked. We’d cook up these big spaghetti dinners and sometimes we’d have sausage for breakfast, if we were feeling rich” (quoted in Cohen p131-2)
Several of them hustled.
“The contribution of the ones who didn’t make it out into the streets, who wanted something different, was to liberate food from in front of the A&P. . . . So the house was well-supplied, the building’s rent was paid, and everybody in the neighborhood loved StarHouse. They were impressed because they could leave their kids and we’d baby-sit with them. If they were hungry, we fed them. We fed half of the neighborhood because we had an abundance of food the kids liberated. It was a revolutionary thing.” (Cohen p 132-3)
Expenses were supplemented by dances and a bake sale.

S.T.A.R. put out a manifesto:
The oppression against Transvestites of either sex arises from sexist values and this oppression is manifested by heterosexuals and homosexuals of both sexes in the form of exploitation, ridicule, harrassment, beatings, rapes, murders.
Because of this oppression the majority of transvestites are forced into the street and we have formed a strong alliance with our gay sisters and brothers of the street. Who we are a part of and represent we are; a part of the REVOLUTIONARIES armies fighting against the system. 
1. We want the right to self-determination over the use of our bodies; the right to be gay, anytime, anyplace; the right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand; the right to free dress and adornment.
2. The end to all job discrimination against transvestites of both sexes and gay street people because of attire.
3. The immediate end of all police harrassment and arrest of transvestites and gay street people, and the release of transvestites and gay street people from all prisons and all other political prisoners.
4. The end to all exploitive practices of doctors and psychiatrists who work in the field of transvestism.
5. Transvestites who live as members of the opposite gender should be able to obtain identification of the opposite gender.
6. Transvestites and gay street people and all oppressed people should have free education, health care, clothing, food, transportation, and housing.
7. Transvestites and gay street people should be granted full and equal rights on all levels of society, and full voice in the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people.
8. An end to exploitation and discrimination against transvestites within the homosexual world.
9. We want a revolutionary peoples’ government, where transvestites, street people, women, homosexuals, puerto ricans, indians, and all oppressed people are free, and not fucked over by this government who treat us like the scum of the earth and kills us off like flies, one by one, and throws us into jail to rot. This government who spends millions of dollars to go to the moon, and lets the poor Americans starve to death. 
S. T. A. R.
Sylvia continued her concern with the incarcerated. In 1970 over 4,000 boys were held in Riker’s Island, mainly because they could not afford bail. S.T.A.R. publicized what happened when transvestites were arrested, often several times: long waits in remand, beatings by guards, rape, attempted suicide. Street transvestites on the outside joined the Gay Community Prison Committee, organized protests, interviewed prisoners and attempted to provide legal aid. Sylvia and Arthur Bell discovered dancer Chris Thompson who had gone to Bellevue Hospital because of asthma, and was held because of gender deviance. They wrote up her situation in the radical publication Gay Flames.

Other Gay Flames headlines were: “U.S. Justice = Gay is Guilty,” “Street Transvestite Murdered,” “Support Lesbian, Transvestite, & Gay Inmates,” “Killers Go Free While Gays Rot in Jail".

There were prison visits and demonstrations outside prisons – especially the Women’s House of Detention on Greenwich Avenue where the prisoners could talk to passersby, and which was targeted on a weekly basis until it was closed in June 1971. (Testimony by Angela Davis and Andrea Dworkin contributed to its closing).

The national lesbian organization, Daughters of Bilitis, welcomed the S.T.A.R. members, but other lesbian feminists rejected ‘anachronistic’ butch and femme roles. GAA attempted to debunk stereotypes of ‘femme queens’ and ‘butch dykes’ and this undercut transvestite needs and concerns.

Sylvia could be a formidable presence, and could intimidate. Cohen tells of a petite Japanese GLF woman who thought “she was going to die.” She saw Sylvia as a “very angry, very strong Puerto Rican man.” Despite Bob Kohler’s counsel, Sylvia denied holding male privilege and its aggressive misuse.

There were tragedies. One transvestite, June, died after drinking her mixture of methadone and alcohol. In March, Marsha was overwhelmed when her husband, Cantrell, was shot dead by an off-duty cop while out to get money so that they could buy drugs. Sylvia, who had started heroin when in Riker’s Island prison, eventually locked herself in Marsha’s place and went cold turkey during several excruciating days. 

On 14 March 1972 S.T.A.R., QLF, GAA and other groups went to the New York State Capital, Albany to demonstrate for repeal of laws against sodomy, solicitation and impersonation as well as to ask for housing and employment protections. Sylvia and Kate Millet were among the speakers.

Many of the S.T.A.R. members were religious:

“We’d all get together to pray to our saints before we’d go out hustling. A majority of the queens were Latin and we believe in an emotional, spiritualistic religion. We have our own saints: Saint Barbara, the patron saint of homosexuality, St. Michael, the Archangel; La Calidad de Cobre, the Madonna of gold; and Saint Martha, the saint of transformation. St. Martha had once transformed herself into a snake, so to her we’d pray: ‘Please don’t let them see through the mask. Let us pass as women and save us from harm.’ And to the other three we’d kneel before our altar of candles and pray: ‘St. Barbara, St. Michael, La Calidad de Cobre: We know we are doing wrong, but we got to live and we got to survive, so please help us, bring us money tonight, protect us, and keep evil away.’ We kept the sword of St. Barbara at the front door and the sword of St. Michael at the back door to ward off evil. We were watched over.” (Cohen p134)

Feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson wrote an indictment of the Catholic Church which was endorsed by the Daughters of Bilitis. The church was denounced as a “ruthless foe of abortion, sexual law reform, divorce, birth control and human dignity”. This position was supported by S.T.A.R. and Gay Youth, along with GAA, GLF, Mattachine Society, NYU Gay Students’ Liberation, and Radicalesbians.

A Conference of Gay Liberation was held at Rutgers University in New Jersey in March 1971 with forums on sadism, masochism, and leather; bisexuality; and transvestism. Speakers from S.T.A.R., Queens Liberation Front and GAA addressed the inaugural event on transvestism.

In July 1971 Mike Umbers came around about the three months rent that he had not received. Bubbles mumbled something about the cost of repairs. Umbers said that if he didn’t get his money, Bubbles was as good as dead. Sylvia screamed that if he killed her, she would go to the police. Bubbles skipped town soon after, possibly for Florida.

Umbers decided against violence and simply had S.T.A.R. put out on the street for non-payment of rent. Sylvia and the others reversed the improvements and threw the refrigerator out of the back window.

Arthur Bell wrote an article for the Village Voice in July 1971 about StarHouse.
S.T.A.R. “is mainly into whoring and radical politics. Their philosophy is to destroy the system that’s fucking us over. They’re a sub-culture unaccepted within the subculture of transvestism and looked down at in horror by many of the women and men in the homosexual liberation movement. Sylvia and Marsha and Bambi and Andorra with their third world looks and their larger-than-life presences and their cut-the-crap tongues do not ‘fit’ at a GAA meeting. ‘We don’t relate to each other,’ says Sylvia. Marsha says, ‘Why should I go to their dances? No one asks me to dance. I freak them out.’ S.T.A.R. didn’t do too well with the Gay Liberation Front toward the end, either. The S.T.A.R.s relate very well to themselves, and to a certain segment of the ‘live and let live’ street people. But by and large, they’re the great unwanteds.”
Perhaps he said too much about how the inhabitants hustle. Its publication was followed by a flurry of arrests on 42nd St.
Sylvia and Marsha

Sylvia found temporary refuge with friends on 109th Street. Marsha returned to her 211 Eldridge Street apartment that once again became S.T.A.R.’s de facto address.

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