OBITUARY FOR SYLVIA RAE RIVERA
Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall Riot Veteran, and life-long activist for
transgender people, died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at New
York's St. Vincent's Hospital, of complications from cancer of the liver.
She was fifty years old. Born July 2, 1951, her activism developed after
leaving home at age 11 and finding herself in the Times Square subculture of
the 1960's. The harassment of gay persons, in particular the flamboyant
gender variant people such as herself, led her to become a staunch, proud,
completely unrepentant, and uncompromising advocate for drag queens,
transvestites, transsexuals and other gender variant people throughout her
She was present and participated in the Stonewall Riots, which became the
determining event in her life. She often remarked about how what had started
as just another gay bar raid by the police, took on such mythical
significance for the development of the Gay Rights Movement. She joined the
Gay Activists Alliance in
February of 1970, and threw herself into the effort to pass the New York
City Gay Rights Bill. She was arrested on 42nd Street in Manhattan for
demanding her constitutional right to promote a political petition, the only
person arrested in the petition drive. She supported the efforts for the
bill wholeheartedly, at one point
literally whacking a local politician with a clipboard of petitions at the
Village Independent Democrats, which led to that person becoming the first
sponsor for the bill. Later she literally scaled the walls of City Hall in a
dress and spiked heels in an attempt to gain access to the closed door votes
on the original bill. Her first major deception at the hands of the gay
movement occurred when drag rights were specifically excluded from the bill
to make it more palatable to "straight" people, and reflect the assimilist
attitude of the Gay Rights movement at the time. This betrayal was a lesson
she carried with her in all her future activism.
In the early days of the gay civil rights movement Rivera was repeatedly
used to front possibly dangerous demonstrations, and then shunted aside by
assimilationist "leaders" when the press appeared. In the early 1970's
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded S.T.A.R., Street Transvestite
Action Revolutionaries, an organization designed to achieve rights for her
provide social services to this largely ignored and stigmatized group. For a
short while she and Marsha P. Johnson ran S.T.A.R. House which provided
shelter for homeless young street queens. Lack of funds and problems with
the certificate of occupancy for S.T.A.R. House, forced the abandonment of
the venture at that time, but Rivera never lost the dream of creating a
supportive and safe living space for young transgender people.
Rivera was greatly disillusioned with the desire of many early gay and
lesbian activists to distance the gay movement from transvestites, drag
queens, and other gender variant people, in spite of the fact that these
people were often the "shock troops" for the entire gay community. Leaving
New York City, she passed the latter part of the 1970's until the early
1990's in Tarrytown, New York, pursuing her career as a food services
manager with the Marriott Corporation. She remained in contact with the gay
political movement, but limited her participation largely to Pride Week
activities each year. During this period she often organized drag shows at
clubs in the Tarrytown area.
In the early 1990's Rivera's life fell apart due to substance abuse
problems, and she found herself back in New York City, homeless on the
Christopher Street piers. She often described this period in very positive
terms, pointing out that a group of homeless gay people living on the piers
were able to survive by working together and sharing the food and shelter
which they could find for themselves. Rivera was banned from the Gay and
Lesbian Community Center in New York City because of her agitation at the
center on a freezing winter evening when she demanded assistance for the
homeless gay people living nearby on the piers. The ban on her participation
in Center activities was lifted only in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera was a marcher in the original Christopher Street Liberation
Day March in 1970, and participated proudly every year therafter in what
later became the New York Heritage of Pride Parade. In 1994 she led the so
called "illegal" march up NYC's Fifth Avenue commemorating the 25th
anniversary of Stonewall .
In 1997 Rivera joined the Transy House Collective in Park Slope,
Brooklyn, a group of transgender people committed to the principles of
S.T.A.R. House. At Transy House she helped provide financial assistance and
counseling support for young transgender people in the process of gender
transition until the time of her death. She was able to resume her total
commitment to political activism on behalf
of transgender and homeless people during her time in this collective. She
received requests for speaking engagements from transgender and gay groups
all over the world, and was particularly popular with young people, the
"children" as she called them. In 1999 Sylvia Rivera was an invited guest of
the Italian Transgender Organization at the World Pride Celebration, where
she addressed the World Pride Rally in Rome.
Rivera intentionally took arrests for political purposes on several
occasions in recent years, often as a part of community groups such as Soul
Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the NYC Homeless
Coalition, in addition to protests on behalf of transgender rights. She
became the conscience of the GLBT community, advocating the inclusion for
all within the community.
In 2000 Rivera and other trans-activists re-activated S.T.A.R. as
theStreet Transgender Action Revolutionaries. Under her leadership S.T.A.R.
was instrumental in achieving a more inclusive approach toward transgender
people by the Human Rights Organization, and in the organization of the New
York State Transgender Coalition, which is presently conducting a campaign
for the inclusion of trans people in the Sexual Orientation
Non-Discrimination Act. Rivera and S.T.A.R. conducted the rally at the
historic Intro 754 hearings on trans-inclusion in the NYC non-discrimination
ordinance, where she received a standing ovation from the Councilmembers
present as well as the overflowing gallery. She organized the Amanda Milan
Rally in 2001, and S.T.A.R. continued to be the focal point for political
action related to Amanda's murder in front of Port Authority while taxi
Sylvia Rivera's literary profile in Martin Duberman's best selling book
Stonewall, as well as chapters in other books and magazines made many people
aware of her uncompromising and totally committed focus on civil rights for
all people. Rivera received lifetime achievement awards from many
organizations, including the Puerto Rican Gay and Lesbian Association of New
York, the Neutral Zone Youth Organization of New York, the National
Transgender Advocacy Coalition, AmBoyz Organization, and the MCC-NY
Recognition for Lifetime Activism Starting with Stonewall, and many others.
Literally hours before her death in her hospital room at St. Vincent's,
Rivera met with a delegation from the Empire State Pride Agenda to negotiate
for the inclusion of trans rights in the current SONDA bill pending in the
New York State Legislature. Restricted to bed, attached to tubes and
monitors, in severe pain, she was determined not to let the mainstream gays
get their rights at the expense of the trans community one more time. In
recent years, Sylvia Rivera became an active member of the Metropolitan
Community Church of New York, at which she was the director of the food
service program for people in the community, and a leader in the MCC-NY
Gender People program. The support of the church was very important to the
political work she was carrying out in her last years.
Sylvia Rivera is survived by her life partner and lover, Julia Murray,
and the hundreds of her "children," people she helped in both a practical
and spiritual way by her determination and example throughout her life.
Sylvia Rivera was an inspiration to several generations of GLBT activists
around the world.
Funeral Services will be held at the MCC-NY Church, 36th Street between
9th and 10th Avenues, in Manhattan at 7:00PM on Tuesday, February 26, 2002.
The service will be followed by a memorial in front of the Stonewall Inn,
from which her ashes will be carried in a horse drawn carriage to the
Christopher Street piers, where the youth will place a wreath, near the spot
where Sylvia's long-time fellow
activist Marsha P. Johnson died.
There will be a viewing at the Redden Funeral Home, 14th Street between
8th and 9th Avenues, in Manhattan, on the evening of Friday, February 22,
from 6:00 to 9:00 PM. Information on arrangements are available from Transy
1080, or the MCC-NY.