TogoTakeshi — better known as Ken Togo — was born on June 10, 1932 in Kakogawa City in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. He came from a highly political, very high profile family. After graduating from Kwansei Gakuin University in 1955, he worked a series of jobs ranging from chicken farm manager to bank clerk. In 1963, he caused a huge scandal for his family, when he left his respectable bank job and wife and children, openly proclaimed his homosexuality and began managing a gay bar in Himjei City. Under his management, he actually pushed the bar’s finances out of the red and it began to turn a profit — nevertheless, it closed two years after he took it over due to problems with employees and the administration. In 1968, Togo opened up a new gay bar in Tokyo which he called “Togoken” — although this bar was also destined for financial ruin.
Soon, Togo became heavily involved in politics with a political platform based around the radical queer politics — this was revolutionary in a global way. In the early ’70s in New York City and San Francisco, most queer activists were trying to get the LGBTQ+ community accepted into the “respectable” mainstream, Togo was rejecting the heteronormative mainstream culture entirely. He advocated against discrimination towards sexual minorities — not just homosexual and bisexual people, but also the BDSM community and sex workers. He advocated for gender equality — for women, and for transgender people. (Although, controversially, he did not believe that transgender people working in entertainment should get gender reassignment surgery in a train of thought that basically amounts to “artists need tension in their lives to create good art.”) He also advocated for other minorities often ostracized by Japanese society — including disabled people, children born out of wedlock. He also fully believed that capitalism was inherently bad for the disenfranchised and loudly proclaimed himself a socialist. He fashioned himself as “the okama Togo Ken” (which translates roughly to “the faggot Ken Togo”), formed a political party called “the Miscellaneous People’s Association” in 1971 and began to run for office. Between 1971 and 1995, Togo ran for office nearly a dozen times — though he was never elected. During the ’80s, Togo also included AIDS activism as a major part of platform.
Togo’s radical politics garnered him international attention — though not always of the positive kind. (Although his only English-language interview was with The Advocate in 1983.) He lost every election he ran for — not only because of rampant homophobia and because of his radical positions — but because he, essentially, made a mockery of the Emperor. He likened the coming out experience of queer people to the end of World War II — when the Emperor declared (at the behest of Allied forces) that he was not divine, but was now human. The Japanese people accepted this pronouncement, and Togo was certain it should be easier to accept when someone comes out as gay or transgender than when someone comes out as no-longer-a-god. He also named his cat “Chin” to mock a word for “we” reserved for use by the Emperor and liken it to slang for the penis. This did not make him a favorite person of many people in Japan.
Togo also released a couple of albums, the first in 1972, with a focus on queer-themed music. He also worked occasionally as an actor, director, and occasional pornographer — always with a political bent, bringing awareness and attention to his radical views. He also began publishing a magazine called The Ken — highly political, but also flagrantly defying Japan’s censorship laws (which Togo was opposed to) through the publication of pornographic images.
For several years, he was on friendly terms with the Japan Socialist Party — until 1978. In that year, Itsuro Kosaka published a statement in the Shukan Post that decried homosexuality as a disease and Togo publicly cut all ties with the party. Around this time, much of the rest of the queer community began to feel animosity with Togo because of his publicly effeminate appearance (he frequently wore makeup and dressed quite outlandishly) and his efforts to reclaim the term “okama“. Nevertheless, when he rebranded The Ken into The Gay in 1978, it became exceedingly popular. He began holding public photoshoots of his models.
In 1987, returning to Japan from San Francisco, Togo became embroiled in scandal because, upon searching his bags, customs found numerous videos and publications that were not permitted under Japan’s censorship laws. The items were confiscated, but Togo was additionally fined under charges that he intended to distribute the items. Togo fought the charges, going to court and claiming they were for his private use. Initially, he lost the court fight — but on appeals, the court found in his favor. Unfortunately, customs appealed further and the legal battle made it all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court — which found in favor of customs, and forced Togo to pay the fine and all of the (considerable) court costs.
By 2002, Togo’s effeminate image and radical positions had set him apart from most of the queer community in Japan. At a meeting regarding the discriminatory language regarding AIDS in the media, a number of Japanese LGBTQ+ activists including Hasegawa Hiroshi and Ōtsuka Takashi spoke about how they did not feel represented by Togo’s presentation of the gay identity. Togo remained a prominent figure to many in Japan’s transgender community, however, including Miyazaki Rumiko.
Although he was less politically active in his later years, he continued to espouse his views from his small bar (BAR Togo Ken — I have no idea when he established it) every night until 2011. He passed away on April 1, 2012. His children held a small, private funeral for him — but his friends and customers held a large celebration of his life at Togo’s bar the following July 1.
Today’s the day, everyone! Fifty years since the first night of the Stonewall uprising! Deciding what to write today was difficult, but I finally decided…. this is a pretty momentous occasion, especially for a queer history web site. So I’m going to talk about what sets Stonewall apart, and what lessons we learned 50 years ago that we can still be carrying with us today.
People always like to say that Stonewall was the start of the gay rights movement but if you’ve been following us for a while, you know that’s not strictly true. There had been organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis fighting for gay rights for decades. We’d already had riots like Compton’s Cafeteria, the Black Cat Riot, and Cooper’s Do-nuts, we’d already had protests like the Annual Reminders and the Dewey’s Sit-In. The gay rights movement was pretty well in effect by 1969.
So what made Stonewall so important? Why is that the moment that changed everything? Because that’s the first time we stood up against the people oppressing us together. The LGBTQIA+ community, even now, is rife with division and it was then too. The divisions were different, but they were there. The community was broken up into the “butch” gays — the “respectable” straight-passing men who could blend into mainstream society; the queens — basically any more effeminate gay men could fit into this group which was also divided up by drag queens, transvestites (who, now, we’d mostly call transgender women), street queens, and “scare queens.” There were similar divisions between lesbians — butch and femme, passing or not. And in all of those groups, of course, there was a division between the white people and the people of color.
But on June 28, 1969 none of those divisions in the queer community mattered. The divisions were still there, but it didn’t matter. We had each other’s back. Stonewall was mostly full of butch gays — and mostly white gays at that, and the police were letting most people who weren’t in the “wrong clothes for their sex” go free — but they didn’t leave, they stayed outside and watched and drew in a crowd. The street queens weren’t in the bar at all, they would have been fine — but they were the ones who started fighting back. Because — for maybe the first time ever — it wasn’t only about self-preservation. And for five nights of rioting, we all had each other’s backs. That’s what changed — that’s why we’re able to look at Stonewall as the beginning of something.
To me, that’s why Stonewall was so powerful and important. It showed that, as long as we are looking out for each other and working together, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
We’re not yet at the bright future every single one of the heroes of Stonewall we’ve talked about this month — and all of the ones we haven’t talked about yet — had envisioned for us. But I can promise, that is how we’ll get there. Working together, as a community.
I know this was like hokey and sappy or whatever, but it’s over now. Go celebrate!
Most of the people who were at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 are primarily known for their involvement with the riot — even though most of them went on to be heavily involved in activism in the following decades. Craig Rodwell is another story. Craig was so heavily involved in activism both before and after the riots that his presence there is basically a footnote.
Rodwell was born October 31, 1940 in Chicago. His parents separated before his first birthday, and for the beginning of his life he was sent away to for “day care” — this day care, however, made him start doing laundry and working in the kitchen as soon as he was old enough. When he was six, his mother realized that maybe this wasn’t the best arrangement if she wanted to keep custody of him and so she sent him to a Christian Science school for “problem boys” called Chicago Junior School. He attended that school for seven years, where he got a reputation for being rebellious — but also for being a “sissy.”
By all accounts, the “problem boys” there frequently fooled around sexually — though with nothing serious behind it. At fourteen, Rodwell pursued a relationship with an adult man. When the two were caught by police, who refused to believe Rodwell when he insisted he’d started the relationship and was at fault, the man was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor. The police tried to encourage him to lie in his testimony, asking him to say that the man had paid him money. Rodwell refused, and was threatened with juvenile detention — ultimately he was just ordered by the court to see a psychiatrist, but the experience colored his view of the legal system for the rest of his life.
Rodwell also fully believed the Christian Science teachings he was learning — particularly the idea that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good.” As a result, after he graduated and began attending Sullivan High School, he enrolled himself in a Christian science Sunday school. It was in these classes he learned that Christian Science didn’t approve of homosexuality — something Rodwell determined he was going to have to change. After high school, Rodwell relocated to Boston to study ballet before moving to New York City in 1958 — intentionally moving to Greenwich Village, where he’d heard there was a large queer community. Rodwell was hoping to become involved in the Mattachine Society.
Unfortunately, the Mattachine Society required its members to be 21 or older. Rodwell also couldn’t get into any of the gay bars yet — so he spent his time in parks, connecting with the gay community on the streets. This made him pretty vulnerable to the police, and he was involved in more than one scrape with them. But this only made him more radical.
In 1962, Rodwell was dating Harvey Milk — who was still in the closet (and just, generally, had a lot of growing to do before he becomes the Milk we all know and love). This was Rodwell’s first serious relationship. Rodwell’s outspoken activism was unsettling for Milk, and he also blamed Rodwell for an STD that he contracted. (Not unreasonable, really.) In September, Rodwell was arrested for resisting the police when they swept through a popular cruising area of Jacob Riis Park. While in jail, Rodwell was physically abused by one of the guards. When he was released from jail, Milk dumped him. His self-confidence rattled, Rodwell tried to end his own life. Fortunately for the entire queer community, the attempt failed. He left New York to travel for a couple of years.
In 1964, Rodwell returned to New York and devoted himself to activism for the “homophile” community (as we called ourselves then — I am so glad we don’t use that term anymore). He was volunteering with the Mattachine Society — using his legal name, which was a rarity in that time — and even serving as their vice president. He founded the Mattachine Young Adults organization, and was an early member of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — which coordinated various homophile groups from around the eastern seaboard. On September 19, he and several other notable activists including Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, and Renee Cafiero staged a protest against the military’s exclusion of gay service members — and the practice of dishonorably discharging those who were found out. This is officially recognized as the first organized LGBTQ+ protest in United States history (though I suspect there were some before that we just don’t acknowledge).
In a coordinated protest with ECHO, Rodwell and Wicker led a protest at the United Nations Plaza in New York on April 18, 1965 — joined by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and roughly 25 other protesters. Days after this protest, the sit-in protest at Dewey’s began in Philadelphia. With the other leaders of ECHO, including Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, it was decided they needed regular protests to remind the nation about the plight of the queer community — they could not afford to only protest when there was a crisis happening in Cuba or in Philadelphia. And so, on July 4, 1965, the first of the Annual Reminders was held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In 1966, Rodwell was ejected from a bar called Julius’ for wearing a pin that read “Equality for Homosexuals.” On April 21, with the help of John Timmons and Mattachine president Dick Leitsch, Rodwell held a “sip-in” at the bar. This was specifically to protest a rule by State Liquor Authority that prohibited homosexuals from gathering in places that served alcohol. Rodwell and his cohorts held that the rule encouraged bribery and corruption amongst the police. The publicity from this sit-in led directly to that particular rule ending.
In order to try make the Mattachine Society more accessible, Rodwell proposed they open a storefront. When the idea was rejected, he cut his ties with the organization. In November of 1967, Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the country’s first store that focused on queer authors. The store was so named because Oscar Wilde was the most notable homosexual he could think of and he wanted absolutely not confusion about what the store was all about. The place functioned as more than just a store — Rodwell also envisioned it as a community center that didn’t have age restrictions and didn’t rely on alcohol (or the organized crime families that owned most of the gay bars in the city). To that end, he found the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) out of the bookshop, and led their rallies in that year. In 1968, he started publishing their periodical HYMNAL. Harvey Milk — now friends with Rodwell — was a frequent customer of the store, and it would later be the inspiration his own shop/community center/campaign headquarters Castro Camera in San Francisco. Rodwell also met Fred Sargeant at his store. Sargeant became heavily involved in HYMN and a romantic relationship blossomed.
On June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. (Did you forget, in all of this, that this was coming up too?) Rodwell and Sargeant were walking through Greenwich Village when they happened to see a crowd gathering outside the bar — and caught the beginning of the riots. Rodwell was a leader in fighting back, and led the crowd in various “gay power” chants. He also had a camera with him, and tried to take pictures to document the event. Unfortunately, none of the pictures were successfully developed — which is extra sad because we have hardly any pictures from the first night of riots (even though Rodwell also used a pay phone to call the press and let them know what was happening). Nevertheless, he did share his account of the night — which he described as “one of those moments in history that, if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next day, Rodwell created a flyer — which HYMN helped him to disseminate through Greenwich Village — that read “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” The flyers helped encourage further protests the next several nights — protests Rodwell participated in as well.
After the annual reminder of that year — which took place a week after Stonewall — Rodwell decided that the needs of the community had been changed after the riots. He began writing a resolution in his store. In November, Rodwell, Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the resolution at a Philadelphia meeting of ECHO to change the annual reminders. Instead of happening on July 4 in Philadelphia, they proposed, there would be simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country on June 28. This would be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and there would be no dress code (as the annual reminders had had) or age limitations. And so Pride began.
Despite he tremendous work so far, Rodwell found he’d never really been able to address the homophobia in Christian Science. In 1970, he placed a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a very visible place in his store in order to meet other gay Christian Scientists. Meanwhile, he was continuing to work on advocating for queer rights. He is often credited with inventing the word “heterosexism” in January of 1971, when he wrote “After a few years of this kind of ‘liberated’ existence such people become oblivious and completely unseeing of straight predjudice and – to coin a phrase – the ‘hetero-sexism’ surrounding them virtually 24 hours a day.” In 1973, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop moved from its address on Mercer Street to the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street.
In 1978 Rodwell formed Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS) with Ray Spitale, Bob McCullogh, and Bob Mackenroth. While they were not the only gay Christian Science organization in the country, they were the only one actively challenging the church’s policies — actively challenging the excommunication of three of their members. This quickly became Rodwell’s primary focus for his activism. GPICS created an eight-page pamphlet entitled “Gay People in Christian Science?” which they proceeded to mail to every Christian Science church, college organization, and practitioner that they could find. Overall, they mailed out 8,000 copies. They then made plans to hand out the pamphlets at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. To organize this in the least offensive way possible, Rodwell alerted security for the event of their intentions.
When they arrived, they discovered extremely heightened security and police presence. Undeterred, they set up their table and began distributing flyers. They were quickly informed that the booth was illegal and that they needed to leave. The group obeyed, though Rodwell and a handful of others remained on the premises and handed out their pamphlets more discreetly. Unfortunately, the pamphlet wasn’t enough to change the church’s minds and in 1981, the church fired Chris Madsen from the Christian Science Monitor for being a lesbian. GPICS returned to the annual meeting that year, this time fired up. Instead of simply handing out pamphlets, they engaged in loud and disruptive protests.
In the years that followed, queer activism within Christian Science moved to become primarily focused to areas in the Midwest. Although Rodwell remained involved, he took on a much less significant leadership role. He remained heavily involved in queer activism for the remainder of his life.
In 1992, Rodwell received the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service. In May of that year, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In March of 1993, he sold the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop to Bill Offenbaker. He passed away on June 18 that year. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church finally began to allow gay and lesbian members.
It’s honestly hard to think of anyone who, in our history, has been so devoted to our community and done so much for us. I find his name crop up in almost everything that happened for our community in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and for some reason I’m always surprised. And given his influence on Harvey Milk, what he accomplished for us actually extended all the way to San Francisco.
The third name given by eyewitnesses at the Stonewall riots for the person who may have thrown the legendary “first brick” was Zazu (sometimes “Zasou“) Nova — and if I had to put money down on one of them, this is who I would pick. The sad thing is, there’s just not a ton of information about her and her name is often left out of conversations about the riots altogether.
Nova was a transvestite (in the common lingo of the day) and a sex worker on the streets of Greenwich Village in 1969. Nova had given herself the title “Queen of Sex” and was known to carry herself as though she were actually royalty. Nova was a practicing Unitarian, and was said to be quite proud of having a religious upbringing. It was rumored Nova had spent time in prison for murder — and though it’s definitely true that she’d been in prison, the why is all conjecture.
Whether or not Nova was a murderer, she was definitely a badass. One anecdote shared in the book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter (and coincidentally one of the only places to get information on Nova or on Jackie Hormonafrom their lives before the riots) relates that she and a man named Martin Boyce were about to get jumped by five men, when she pulled a heavy chain out of her purse and chased the five men away.
Now, Zazu Nova was not inside the Stonewall Inn when the police raided it. But Nova frequently worked Christopher Street, and the raid drew quite a crowd. Nova was absolutely present at the start of the riots, and absolutely had the, let’s say, gumption to react to the police abusing Stormé Delarverie. She was later seen fighting alongside Marsha P. Johnson that first night — which might explain how some witnesses believed that it was in fact Johnson who threw the brick even though she wasn’t there yet.
It’s very difficult to find much about Nova following the riots. She became involved in the Gay Liberation Front that was founded after the riots. She was also a founding member of New York Gay Youth and was involved in Street Action Transvestite Revolutionaries, the organization started by Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — though I can’t find exactly to what extent. What became of her after those organizations fizzled out, I truly cannot find.
And that’s it. That is all that I could find about someone who may be one of the greatest heroes of the modern LGBTQ+ movement.
I wish this article was going to be longer, but I have honestly scoured the internet for more information on this person, and I have almost nothing. Nevertheless, Jackie Hormona contributed the Stonewall riots — and he should be acknowledged for what he did.
Rumors flurried about who began the actual riots outside the bar. Legend has it that a queen threw the first brick, right after Stormé Delarverie was forced into the back of a police wagon. In the confusion, eye witnesses recounted three different queens in that action — Marsha P. Johnson became the most popular of these names — probably because she was already the most well known, but by her own recounting of the event she wasn’t there yet. The other two were Jackie Hormona and Zazu Nova.
It’s honestly proven very difficult to get any other information about these two. Jackie Hormona’s birth name might have been Jack Daniel Whitehall (I say that because I saw that written not very definitively on a not a very reliable website, but it’s the only other name I’ve found.) Jackie was a sex worker who regularly hustled on Christopher Street. Though Jackie used a drag name, Jackie wasn’t exactly a drag queen — he wore subtle make up to enhance his looks. He had a reputation for being much more level-headed than the other queens — and moral. He would break up fights, he would stop the street workers from stealing from each other, but he also stood up against the police when they harassed the local street queens. But Jackie also had a reputation as being kind of a loner and keeping a distance from the rest of the queers on the streets of Greenwich Village, which is why there’s not a lot more information I can find.
Jackie was definitely at the riots on the first night. We know this because he appears in a very famous picture that I guarantee you’ve seen. In fact, it’s already been on this site once!
I will say, I don’t personally think Jackie Hormona was the one who threw the “first brick” (if that’s even a thing that happened and not just legend that came out of this) because most witnesses who were there and saw it claimed it was a drag queen. And while Jackie was certainly associated with drag queens, street queens, and transgender women, he would have been hard to actually mistake for one if you saw him throwing a brick. I think his reputation for standing up to the police led some people to believe, when they saw him there, that he must have started things off. Which is not unreasonable. Even if that’s not the case, though, I’m quite sure he jumped right in.
Jackie also became quite involved with the Gay Liberation Front that formed after the Stonewall riots. There are two pictures of him with GLF banners (both in this article!). After that I can’t find much of anything except that he may have been one of the victims of the AIDS epidemic.
Sometimes called “the Rosa Parks of the gay community,” Stormé DeLarverie was a butch lesbian who’s arrest is often credited as the moment that sparked the Stonewall Riots — despite being quite adamant that “it was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
DeLarverie was born in 1920 to a white man and a black woman — who worked as a servant for her father’s family. DeLarverie’s exact date of birth was never exactly known, so she celebrated it on December 24. (I’m not sure why you’d pick that if you’re given a choice, but I guess we can’t all have June birthdays…) As a kid, DeLarverie was bullied constantly. In her teenage years, she joined the circus — getting a job riding jumping horses for Ringling Brothers Circus, until she was injured in a fall and was unable to resume the work.
DeLarverie realized she was a lesbian around the age of 18. She entered into a relationship with a dancer named Diana, who she was with for about 25 years until Diana’s death in the ’70s. DeLarverie carried a photo of Diana with her for the rest of her life.
In 1955, began touring as the MC and the only drag king in the Jewel Box Revue — the first racially integrated drag show, appearing regularly at the Apollo Theater. Audience members would attempt to “guess the girl,” ultimately being surprised during a song entitled “Surprise with a Song” that the girl was actually DeLarverie, who was often sporting a mustache and a tailored suit. DeLarverie was noted particularly for having a strinkingly handsome appearance as a boy — which inspired a lot of other lesbians of the time to begin wearing traditionally masculine clothing as well. Her career as a performer would be explored in the 1987 documentary Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box.
DeLarverie continued performing with the Jewel Box Revue until 1969, becoming quite well known and influential in drag culture. 1969, however, was the year the most truly secured her place in queer history. DeLarverie was at the Stonewall Inn working as a bouncer when the police raid began in the early morning hours. Although resistance to the raid truly started inside the bar itself, the real riot on the street is often said to have begun with a woman many have identified as DeLarverie. She was brought out of the bar and through the crowd outside several times, but kept escaping — at least once by punching an officer (which she, according to friend Lisa Cannistraci, believed was the first punch of the riot.) At some point, DeLarverie was hit in the head by an officer’s baton and began to bleed from the wound — she struggled and complained that her handcuffs were too tight, before looking to the crowd and asking “Why don’t you guys do something?” At this point, the police officers picked up DeLarverie and hurled her into the back of the police wagon — and the crowd erupted. (It was at this moment that the legendary “first brick” was thrown.)
Now, it hasn’t been confirmed that DeLarverie was actually the woman that that story is about — but it has been absolutely confirmed that she was there and was one of several butch lesbians fighting against the police. In truth, it’s entirely likely that the above story did happen, and no one’s name but DeLarverie’s has ever been put forth for it, but there probably wasn’t just one inciting incident that sparked the riots — a number of things were happening simultaneously that cumulatively led to the uprising.
The riots transformed DeLarverie, who became a fierce activist and a protector of the LGBTQIA+ community afterwards. She had a state gun permit, and was known to patrol the neighborhoods around lesbian bars looking for intolerance or, as she described it, “ugliness” against her community. She was a regular staple at the Pride parades and rallies that followed after Stonewall, and also acted as a bouncer at several lesbian bars until she was 85 years old. Meanwhile, she also continued to perform, often putting on benefits for abused women and children and volunteered for queer organizations and charities as well.
She was also a well-respected member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, holding several offices there including Chief of Security and Ambassador. She also served as Vice President from 1998 to 2000.
In 2010, DeLarverie moved into a nursing home in Brooklyn. With dementia setting in, she did not know she was living in a nursing home but she retained her memories of the Stonewall Riots and her childhood. On June 7, 2012 Brooklyn Pride Inc. honored her at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, where they also aired the 1987 documentary about her. Two years later on April 24, the Brooklyn Community Pride Center honored DeLarverie “for her fearlessness and bravery.” One month — to the day — later, DeLarverie died in her Brooklyn nursing home from a heart attack at 94 years old.
DeLarverie led a long life, but her legacy with the LGBTQIA+ community will continue for many many years to come. Every time there is ugliness against this community, I hope you hear her asking that question that changed the course of history for queer people everywhere: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.
Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.
Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)
Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.
Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside theGay Liberation Front— and with their next iteration, theGay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.
In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.
She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”
Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.
After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village
There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!
Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.