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14 September 2017

Sylvia Rivera Part V: Later Years

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

Sylvia retreated to Tarrytown on the northern edge of New York City where she worked as a food services manager with the Marriott Corporation. With her husband Frank she bought a house, but they lost it after taking up crack.

She was discovered by David Isay for his radio program, Remembering Stonewall which was broadcast on the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1989. She was then interviewed by Martin Duberman and featured in his book, Stonewall, as a major participant.

Allyson Allanta, Sylvia, Ivana Valentin at Stonewall 26.
She joined the executive of the Stonewall Veterans Association.


She took it badly when Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers in 1992. In 1995 she herself attempted suicide by walking into the river.

From 1997 Sylvia lived at Transy House, the home of Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Godwin (who had been in the earlier S.T.A.R.). She was an alcoholic at this time, but after discussions with Rusty and Chelsea, she went cold turkey. She renewed her political activism, giving speeches concerning the need for unity among trans persons, and their position at the forefront of the GLBT movement.
Sylvia took up with a trans woman Julia Murray, and they became a couple.

She was active in New York’s Metropolitan Community Church, where she became the director at the food pantry.



Lee Brewster died in 2000, and Sylvia wrote an obituary, but none of the gay papers would print it.

Later that year she went to Italy for the Millenium March (the first WorldPride), and was acclaimed as the Mother of all gay people.

In 2001 she revived STAR (this time with T=transgender) and they fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. They also agitated for justice for Amanda Milan, a trans woman who had been killed on the street 20 June 2000. Sylvia still had to fight with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) who were neglecting trans issues. She was still negotiating with ESPA on her deathbed.

She died in 2002, with Julia at her side, of complications from cancer of the liver at age 50.

In her honor: MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place; In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson Streets was renamed Rivera Way; the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated
"to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence".
*Not known to be related to Birdy Rivera, or René Rivera (Mario Montez).
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Sylvia is included in the 2002 anthology GenderQueer, and this is very appropriate, and in retrospect was timely as she died the same year. She had been on external hormones as a teenager, but discontinued. Unlike Virginia Prince, who also discontinued hormones and abandoned her intention to gain surgery, Sylvia remained positive about those who continued the journey:  In her article she says:
“I thought about having a sex change, but I decided not to. I feel comfortable being who I am. That final journey many of the transwomen and transmen make is a big journey. It’s a big step and and I applaud them, but I don’t think I could ever make that journey. Maybe it comes of my prejudice when so many in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s ran up to the chop shop at Yonkers General. They would get a sex change and a month, maybe six months, later they’d kill themselves because they weren’t ready. Maybe that made me change my mind.”

In 1970-2, Sylvia corrected those who who referred to her as a 'drag queen', and preferred the word ‘transvestite’. However in her essay for GenderQueer, she used ‘drag queen’.  This of course creates some confusion with respect to the 1973 pride march in that the Club 82 performers were drag queens in a very different sense.

Sylvia was lucky in those who wrote about her: Arthur Bell, David Isay, Martin Duberman; and it is the media construction resulting from these three writers that is most of her legend.  So let us return to the question raised in Part I:  was she actually at the first night of the Stonewall riots?  Arthur Bell was in Europe with his lover Arthur Evans that summer, and says nothing about Stonewall in his book, Dancing the Gay Lib Blues, 1971, although he publicized her trial for soliciting signatures on a petition for gay rights, and later her involvement in StarHouse.   It is presumably the fame resulting from this that led David Isay and Martin Duberman to include her in their accounts of Stonewall.   On the other hand the carefully researched book by David Carter and Stephan Cohen conclude that she was not there.   If so, why did she say that she was?    Perhaps she did not want to disappoint them?  In her final writing, the essay in GenderQueer, she carefully says that 'we' (that is street queens) were at Stonewall, but does not say that 'I' was.  If she were not, it was rather bold of her to be on the executive of the  Stonewall Veterans Association.

It does not matter if Sylvia were not at Stonewall.  Her actions as recounted in this series justify her place in history in either case.

I mainly followed Stephan L. Cohen. The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: 'an Army of Lovers Cannot Fail'.   This is certainly the best book on Sylvia and on New York gay lib in the early 1970s.   I got it from the library, but it is a shame that, being published by Routledge, it is so expensive.   The hardback is US$130/C$167/£110.00; the paperback:  US$43/C$57/£35.
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  • Arthur Bell & Sylvia Rivera. “Chris: Gay Prisoner in Bellevue.” Gay Flames, Nov. 14, 1970: 1, 2, 7. Online.
  • Arthur Bell. “STAR Trek: Transvestites in the street.” Village Voice, July 15, 1971, 1, 46.
  • “March on Albany”. Drag, 1,3, 1971 : 30, 32-3. Online.
  • Arthur Bell. Dancing the Gay Lib Blues: A Year in the Homosexual Liberation Movement. Simon & Schuster, 1971: 60-5, 88, 113-5, 118-120, 122-3, 145-6, 157-8, 176, 191.
  • Sylvia Rivera. “In a World of Darkness.” Come Out 2, No. 7b, Spring/Summer 1971, 17.
  • Sylvia Lee Rivera. “Transvestites: Your Half Sisters and Half Brothers of the Revolution.” Come Out 2, No. 8, Winter 1972, 10.
  • “Drags and TVs Join the March”. Drag, 3,11, 1973: 4-11,44. Online.
  • 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: 187-196.
  • Martin B Duberman. Stonewall. Plume, 1994: 20-24, 65-71, 117,122-8, 182-3,,190-3,195-6,198,201,202-3,235-9, 246, 251-5, 259, 262-5, 282, 287, 280, 282, 285n10, 300n40, 308n46, 313n83-4, 314-5n94.
  • David Isay, with photographs by Harvey Wang. Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes. New York : W.W. Norton, 1995. Contains a chapter on Sylvia.
  • Leslie Feinberg. Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Boston: Beacon Press. 1998: 96-7, 106-9.
  • David Isay, with a photograph by Harvey Wang. “Sylvia Rivera”. New York Times Magazine. June 27, 1999. Online.
  • Michael Bronski. “Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002: No longer on the back of the bumper”. ZMag. April. 2002. https://zcomm.org/zmagazine/sylvia-rivera-1951-2002-by-michael-bronski
  • Sylvia Rivera. “Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones”. In Joan Nestle, Clare Howell & Riki Wilchins (eds). GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary. Alyson Books 297 pp 2002.
  • Dora Francese (dir). Sylvia, rimembri ancora? Scr: Adi Gianuario, with Sylvia Rivera. Italy 21 mins 2001.
  • Bebe Scarpinato & Rusty Moore. “Sylvia Rivera”. Transgender Tapestry, 98, Summer 2002: 34-8. Online.
  • “Sylvia Rae Rivera”. Stonewall Veterans. www.stonewallvets.org/SylviaRivera.htm
  • Paul D Cain. “David Carter: Historian of The Stonewall Riots”. Gay Today, 07/01/04. http://gaytoday.com/interview/070104in.asp.
  • Victoria I. Muñoz. "Fabulous Resistance: Carmen Miranda, Sylvia Rivera, and Queer Latinidad" National Women's Studies Association Conference. 2005.
  • Stephan L. Cohen. The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: 'an Army of Lovers Cannot Fail'. Routledge, 2008: 2, 8-9, 35-6, 37, 38, 39, 40, 56-8, 89 -92, 93-4, 96, 97-8, 101-7, 108, 109-118, 119, 121-137, 140, 141, 143, 144, 145-6, 148, 152, 153154-9, 161-2, 196, 197, 244n6, 245n19, 255n270

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