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12 September 2017

Sylvia Rivera Part IV: Other activities to 1973

Part I: beginnings
Part II:  GAA & Weinstein Hall
Part III: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries
Part IV:  Other activities to 1973
Part V:  Later years
Young Lords and the Black Panthers
Sylvia was also involved with Puerto Rican and black youth activism, with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.

While GLF had openly supported The Panthers, had helped them with bail money etc, there was a constant problem with the Panthers’ homophobia. They had been confronted on this issue by GLF at a rally at New Haven on 1 May 1970. Shortly afterwards Panther Huey Newton published an admonishment that militant blacks should acknowledge their insecurities about homosexuality.

The GLF was invited to send a delegation to a Panther convention in Philadelphia, and Sylvia was chosen as part of the delegation. Huey even remembered her from a demonstration in New York.
New York City Council's General Welfare committee
In late 1971, GAA succeeded, after lobbying and protesting, in getting the New York City Council's General Welfare committee to discuss the problems faced by gays and transvestites. GAA equivocated and for a while agreed to the removal of transvestite protections. However it ultimately endorsed them.

Lee Brewster, Bebe, and Sylvia argued transvestites “were being used as scapegoats by the gay movement” seeking to explain its failure to get the asked-for protections.

Sylvia, usually an extemporaneous speaker, had had her face bruised after a confrontation with police at a recent demonstration, wore a conservative dress and her hair in a bun, and read in muted fashion, a statement based on STAR’s platform.

The bill was was not passed even in 1973, when it went forward with the caveat that nothing in the definition of sexual orientation “shall be construed to bear upon the standards of attire or dress code".

There was an impromptu blockade of Brooklyn Bridge, and Sylvia and others were arrested. A few days later, during a protest at City Hall, Sylvia in polyester bell-bottoms, fortified by speedballs and a few drinks, kicked off her heels, and scaled the outside of the building.
Part VI: 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day (CSLD), the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the tensions within the gay movement that would lead to separatisms were becoming apparent.

The CSLD committee, mainly GAA members, attempted a harmonious march and rally by focusing on entertainment and speakers not involved in the city’s infighting.

Of the traditional drag show nightclubs, only Club 82 was left and it was ceding the stage to the emerging glam, glitter and punk scene. However there were still some showgirls left and Bebe Scarpi went and got them to march – in costume. Prominent were International Chrysis and Jean Chandler. Old-style performer Ty Bennett was conveyed in a convertible.
Lee in tiara; Sylvia in jumpsuit


Sylvia, wearing a jumpsuit that had belonged to the now deceased June from StarHouse, and not a listed speaker, pushed her way on to the stage, and gave an impassioned speech for Gay Power:
“They’ve been beaten up and raped. And they have had to spend much of their money in jail to get their self home and to try to get their sex change. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women of the Women’s Liberation and they write S.T.A.R., not the women’s group. They do not write women. They do not write men. They write S.T.A.R. because we’re trying to do something for them.”
Jean O’Leary of Lesbian Feminist Liberation insisted on an opportunity to reply. She asserted biological sex, and that Sylvia was “a genital male”. She read a statement on behalf of 100 women that read, in part,
"We support the right of every person to dress in the way that she or he wishes. But we are opposed to the exploitation of women by men for entertainment or profit."
She was booed and MC, Vito Russo, the film historian, asked the crowd to let her continue. Lee Brewster, jumped onstage and responded,
"You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
The situation was calmed only when performer Bette Midler took to the stage and sang.


All this angry public confrontation left Sylvia in such a state that she attempted suicide.

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