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Weekend Read: ‘The Rosa Parks of the transgender movement’

It’s an open question whether Sylvia Rivera left home or was thrown out. Either way, she said she was relieved to be rid of the “viejita” – or little old lady – who was embarrassed by the child she considered an effeminate grandson.

Rivera, whose mother died and father abandoned her, was finally on her own. She was only 11 years old.

By the time she was 17, she would be well on her way to becoming, as one writer would later call her, “the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement.”

It’s a title that was all but lost with the passage of time. But as we look back on her life during what would have been the week of her 67th birthday, Rivera’s contributions to the movement are finally beginning to garner the recognition she was so long denied. 

Lobbying for a gay rights bill in New York City; becoming an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA); and agitating for greater acceptance of gender nonconforming people in her Latinx community, Rivera found herself at the helm of the burgeoning LGBT rights movement of the 1960s.

It wasn't just lonely battle: it was a dangerous one.

“Try to imagine being an eleven year old kid and being kicked out onto the streets of New York,” GenderPAC founder Riki Wilchins told Raul A. Reyes for NBC. “It must have been brutal. Growing up like this made Sylvia both hard as nails and extremely vulnerable.”

By her own admission, she endured jail, beatings and sexual assault “many times.” But Rivera refused to give up. When riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, The New York Times reported that she shouted, “I’m not missing a moment of this — it’s the revolution!”

Alongside her that night was another legendary transgender woman of color, Marsha P. Johnson, who, according to some accounts, may have been the one to start the historic riots.

“Marsha threw a shot glass into a mirror, saying ‘I got my civil rights!’”  Stonewall historian David Carter wrote in an examination of the account. It was described by some activists as “the shot glass that was heard around the world.”

Together, Johnson and Rivera took New York City by storm, founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), and opening the first LGBT homeless shelter in North America, which provided not only housing but social services for transgender youth. Some credit STAR with developing the intersectional politics that have driven the early 21st century.

But even as Johnson and Rivera were committed to transgender rights in the early 1970s, the gay rights movement was not.

“Back in 1970, 1971, there was some appreciation for drag queens, but not for what we know as transgender people today,” historian Rich Wandel told Reyes. “The gay community was not willing to embrace [Rivera], and neither was the women’s liberation movement.”

By 1973, GAA had eliminated what it called “drag and transvestite concerns” from its agenda — and neither Johnson nor Rivera were having any of it.

“When things started getting more mainstream,” Rivera said in a 1995 interview, “it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more.’”

In a now-famous speech from the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, Rivera “pushed and fought her way through people she once considered her allies, shoving them out of her way to make it onstage.” As Heather Gilligan writes for Timeline:

She started on an articulate rampage, forcing the audience to at least hear about the beatings and rapes her children [at STAR] had endured in jails and at the hands of police, and castigating the mainstream gay rights movement for abandoning them. In the end, though, she broke down in sobs as she led the rally in a cheer: “Give me a G!” she demanded, and spelled out “gay power,” a chant the crowd joined reluctantly at first, and then with enthusiasm. Rivera made it almost to the last letter before she started crying.

By the time Rivera died in 2002, she had earned the “Rosa Parks” moniker, an honorific that could just as easily have been applied to Johnson, whose contributions to the transgender community, too, persisted long after the Stonewall riots that she may have sparked.

But when Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River 26 years ago this week, police ruled her death a suicide (later reclassified as a case of drowning and reopened in 2012). Her place in the movement, like Rivera, was all but forgotten.

Both women, however, clearly deserve pride of place in the canon of LGBT history. As Wilchins told Reyes:

The movement may not want to recall that it was started by gender non-conforming people of color. But we should not forget our roots, or turn away from them. Even today, there are people like Sylvia — young, Hispanic, effeminate — being pushed out of their families and rejected. Sylvia was not a one-off, she was and is one of many. If she was a one-off at all, it was in her courage to fight back.

May we all have the courage to do the same.

The Editors.

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Readings are a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Readings every Saturday morning.