QUEER HISTORY: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera is often most known for being just one of many that were present at the Stonewall Inn Riots in June of 1969 but her life and work encompasses so much more than that night. Rivera, now an icon for many LGBTQ+ folks, was born in the Bronx in 1951 as Ray Rivera and had a turbulent childhood. At just eleven years old, Rivera was on her own, homeless, and hustling on the streets trying to survive. Despite all the hardships she faced for her gender and presentation (as the 1960s/70s were very unforgiving towards gender nonconformity in any sense), Rivera was often very open about being transgender/a drag queen and was a long-time activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

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Making Gay History [podcast review]

Podcasts, as a medium, offer a very intimate and personal way of experiencing a production. This medium is one that you can listen to at any time and often times, you can hear people in their own voice and words. There are podcasts that are bringing back the audio drama genre; there are others that are bringing news and politically commentary to people’s commutes. And there are others that are bringing all sorts of LGBTQ/queer experiences to those who wish to listen. One such podcast is Making Gay History.

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When We Rise – Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones is a well-known labor and gay rights activist and his recent memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, follows his activism and life as a gay man during the 1970s and 80s in San Francisco and on. He worked with Harvey Milk and State Assemblyman Art Agnos, created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, cofounded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and now works with the hotel, restaurant, and garment workers’ labor union, UNITE HERE. When We Rise is a powerfully authentic memoir about his life, travels, work, and experience with HIV/AIDS and offers an amazing insight to a rarely talked about piece of US history.

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Stonewall (2015)

During its initial release and promotion, I wrote about Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall and about how the film was essentially not representative of what happened during the 1969 Stonewall Riots. I wasn’t the only one to critique the film before even seeing it – the hashtag #NotMyStonewall brought up a variety of criticisms for the film and of the decision to center a cis, white gay man rather than the real life people who were present.

And for over a year, I forgot about the film. It didn’t seem to really do that well, getting only 10% from Rotten Tomatoes, and despite being friends with a large amount of LGBTQ+ folks, I honestly don’t really know anyone who actually went to see it. But a few weeks ago, I was staying at a place that didn’t have internet and because the one video rental place in town was having a special deal of renting five videos for the price of three, I decided to finally see what Stonewall (2015) was all about.

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By complete chance, I saw the documentary Major! recently and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the past few months. A small part of my experience was also learning that a local nonprofit movie theater does a queer movie series and being surrounded in large part by other LGBT and queer folks. But being able to learn about and celebrate Miss Major was really the best part.

The documentary is in large part about Miss Major Griffin Gracy and her story as a black trans woman, veteran of the Stonewall Riots, a survivor of Attica State Prison, former sex worker, and community leader/activist. Her work at the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), for example, has supported trans women who are currently in jail and prison or who are formerly incarcerated. There are interviews from Miss Major herself and the community around her about her life and work and there’s so much love and support in this film.

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Teaching LGBT History.

Recently, I read about how some school districts around the US  were going to be teaching about LGBT history to students. This is, of course, a cause for celebration because it allows for LGBT students to learn about their community’s history in school. For one of the first times (at least in my experience), young people might be learning about the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria Riots and about people like Audre Lorde, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P Johnson.

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It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I learned about the self described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde because it doesn’t seem like the mainstream queer community talks enough about our history, especially in regards to queer and trans people. But Lorde’s poetry and writing is vast and incredible and she spent a lot of her work focused on civil rights issues, feminism, black womanhood, and intersectionality. For many, she’s considered a hero and a scholar even decades after her death because of her work as an activist and her writings.

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History of Pride Month: Stonewall Riots

Understanding the history and context of the LGBTQ+ pride month that currently exists is really important, especially since the history tends to drastically erase major parts and key players. The current pride month happens in June every year, with major cities often having large parades and festivals during one of the weekends. But it was originally started as a way to commemorate the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York City that took place in June of 1969.

The riot took place in front of the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village of New York City after a police raid had begun arresting patrons of the bar. Raids like this occurred frequently and during the time, were perfectly legal because as the Stonewall Inn website states:

In 1969 Police raids on gay bars occurred regularly.  It was illegal to serve Gay people alcohol or for Gays to dance with one another.  During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, the customers were lined up and their identification checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them[1].

(This, of course, is just another example of the corrupt and unjust parts of the legal system that still exists within the US today.)

But the riots and protests continued into the night, being dispersed several hours later. But the protests continued the next day, with thousands of people gathering on Christopher Street in front of the inn and protests also continued the day after that.


A year later in 1970, the Christopher Street Liberation Day march was held to remember the events that had happened and people walked on Sixth Ave in New York City from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Other marches in different cities started to pop up as well. Although, this first march in 1970 wasn’t the celebratory parade that Pride currently is. One article about the evolution of pride by Yohana Desta states that:

Because of its celebratory nature, people often refer to the CSLD March as a parade, though it was always intended, and specifically called, a march. Its roots came from a somber place. Fred Sargeant, a man who attended the actual event, wrote a first-person account of the march for the Village Voice in 2010, writing that there were “no floats, no music, no boys in briefs.” Instead, they held signs and banners, and chanted “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.”

There are two important figures from the history of the Stonewall Inn Riots that are often erased from the retelling. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were both present at the riots (and some accounts name the then 17 year old Rivera as one of the first instigators to throw something at the police that day in June 1969). Both Sylvia and Marsha worked together to form the unfortunately short lived shelter called STAR House (STAR standing for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries).

Sylvia Rivera played a big part in the riots but also spent a lot of time advocating for those who continued to be marginalized when gay rights groups went more mainstream. David W Dunlap wrote about Sylvia after she died in February of 2002 and wrote about her struggle with the mainstream gay organizations:

Ms. Rivera often tangled with gay political leaders who favored a more conventional public front. When the Gay Activists Alliance eliminated transvestites from its civil rights agenda in the early 70’s, she turned on the group, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney wrote in ”Out for Good” (Simon & Schuster, 1999). ”Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned,” she warned. [2]

Sylvia worked tirelessly for people of color and low income queer and trans individuals and there is currently the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City that does a lot of legal and educational work in memory of this wonderful woman. For more information on Sylvia, there is the ten posts for Sylvia Rivera’s Ten Year Memorial from several years ago and an article from the Village Voice calling Sylvia a woman for her time.

Marsha P Johnson spent time working with Sylvia on issues like the police raids, homelessness, and mentoring many youth. Some saw her as a mother figure and she often advocated for marginalized communities. Reina Gossett wrote an amazing tribute to Marsha on the Crunk Feminist Collective and quoted Marsha herself, saying:

In contrast to the equality movement assimilation strategies, Marsha P Johnson laid out a clear freedom dream during her interview “RAPPING WITH A STREET TRANSVESTITE REVOLUTIONARY” with Bob Kohler.  She told Bob.

“STAR [Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries] is a very revolutionary group.  We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.  Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and free…We’d like to see our gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.  There are a lot of gay transvestites who have been in jail for no reason at all, and the reason why they don’t get out is they can’t get a lawyer or bail.” [3]

[Video of the documentary Pay It No Mind, where Marsha and others are interviewed specifically about the life and work of Marsha P Johnson.]

Unfortunately, Marsha died in 1992, shortly after Gay Pride. The police controversially rule her death a suicide but many have advocated that Marsha was the victim of a hate crime and that her death was in fact a murder. Her case was reopened in 2012 but I unfortunately haven’t found anything about what has happened with the case since then.

[1] The History Stonewall Inn

[2] Sylvia Rivera, 50, Figure in Birth of the Gay Liberation Movement

[3] Happy Birthday Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson!