In 1969, much of our LGBT progress began with a riot. I think we sometimes forget that act of rebellion, especially in a banker city like Charlotte, N.C. Today we remember the Stonewall Riots with Pride festivals, parades and orderly marches. But I choose to remember a drag queen and trans woman named Sylvia Rivera.
“Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.” That phrase sums up Sylvia. While there has been much debate as to her involvement at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, Sylvia is often credited with “throwing the first brick” at the police that night.
Sylvia was relentless in her activism, never quietly settling for the status quo or calmly compromising on her principles. After the Stonewall Riots, Sylvia became involved in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which then split into the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). As a queer, Latina and drag queen, Sylvia and her intersectional politics were not often welcome in the GLF or GAA movement, which was largely white, middle-class activist groups.
Ahead of her time, Sylvia was direct and confrontational in her activism. She condemned loudly the racist, classist and sexist actions within the community, as well as unjust incarceration and treatment of trans women of color who could not find safety or jobs. She refused to be pushed to the side when groups like GAA advocated for moderate gay rights laws — excluding transgender people. Sound familiar. Despite this, Sylvia persevered and continued to work within the group to represent gender non-conforming people.
Sylvia had become accustomed to adversity at an early age. Her father left her mother shortly after she was born and then her mother threatened to kill her when she was three-years-old and then committed suicide. Sylvia took to the streets at a young age and found family with drag queens who gave her the name ”Sylvia.” She survived on the streets doing what she could as a sex worker to make money. The seeds of her activism took roots at an early age on the streets of New York City among queer homeless youth and gender non-conforming people.
“Before I die, I will see our community given the respect we deserve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave without having the respect this community deserves. I want to go to wherever I go with that in my soul and peacefully say I’ve finally overcome,” stated Sylvia a year prior to her death in 2002. Up until the moment she passed, Sylvia continued working for trans inclusion with the New York’s Empire State Pride Agenda.
I would love to have met Sylvia Rivera. A fierce trans woman of color who fought every day of her life to be heard and relentlessly advocated for what she believed. She is a pioneer for trans people, for drag queens and other gender non-conforming people and a champion for queer and homeless youth.
As drag queens, it is our duty to continue advocating for gender non-conforming people, queer youth and transgender justice, especially at intersections of race and class. We owe so much to those before us like Sylvia Rivera, and we must learn from our history — or herstory.We must treasure, understand and never forget the sacrifice of those like Sylvia who got us to where we are today and still remind us of the long road ahead for equality for all.
The blood, the tears, the loss of innocent lives is real. The heels we stand in are those of Sylvia Rivera. Revolution Now. : :
SHOUT OUTS: Take a stand for transgender people on the Day of Action for Trans Justice! Join Campus Pride and hosts Sacred Souls Community Church and Freedom Center for Social Justice for a Community Potluck Meet & Greet & Eat! at 2127 Eastway Dr. on Thursday, July 16 at 7 p.m. Featured speaker is Diego Sanchez, transgender national civil rights leader. Featured entertainers are J Mase III and Koko Jones, national trans artists and entertainers. Learn more online at CampusPride.org.
— Buff Faye calls the Queen City her home and performs to raise money so she can help raise her flock of unicorns (and raise money for charities). Find her at your favorite bars and hot spots. Plus don’t forget her weekly Saturday night show with Patti O’Furniture and regular Friday night party bus. Learn more at AllBuff.com. Follow on Twitter @BuffFaye.