William Dorsey Swann

Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.

So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.

By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.

At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.

Excerpt from The Washington Post
The Evening Star
The Washington Critic

Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.

13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.

Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”

The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”

In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”

Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.

Mr. Brown, NOT William Dorsey Swann

Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.

Carlotta

Aside from how important queer representation in the media is, it’s also something that fascinates me. And part of that discussion, routinely, is who gets to play these characters. In an ideal world, where any queer person would be considered evenly for any role alongside cisgender and straight actors, that shouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. It stands to reason, that if transgender actors wouldn’t get considered for cisgender characters, the the reverse should be true. That’s often not the case even now. So, let’s take a moment to consider what it must have been like to be a transgender actor in the 1970’s.

Carol Byron was born in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia on September 2, 1943. She was assigned the male gender at birth and named “Richard” by a mother who ultimately abandoned her four months later, placing her child in the care of a woman named Hazel Roberts. Her new mother enjoyed teaching her song and dance routines. At eleven years old, however, her mother Evelyn came back into the picture with a new husband, and took custody of their son. This new stepfather physically abused their kid. Carol dropped out of school at 15 years old, and began working, taking a job putting makeup on mannequins and arranging the displays at David Jones. A year later, she ran away from home to avoid the abuse — but continued her job. At the age of seventeen, she took on the name Carol and began transitioning to live life as a woman.

She was arrested for crossdressing, but actually beat the charge based entirely on being flippant. Not a strategy I recommend, but when she came before the judge she asked what the “offensive behavior” was — the judge explained, dressing as a woman. And she responded, “You have a wig and robe on.” The case was dismissed.

She took on the stage name Carlotta, apparently from Empress Carlota of Mexico (who I will admit I know almost nothing about) and set about establishing herself. About this time, Lee Gordon — an promoter with a resume that included names like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland — was opening what may have been Australia’s first drag club, the Jewel Box Revue Club in King’s Cross, Sydney. They hired Carlotta as a performer. Before too long, the club changed its name to Les Girls Restaurant and kept Carlotta on for its Les Girls caberet act. The cast was advertised as exclusively men in drag, though some — like Carlotta — were transgender women. Carlotta quickly became the star of the show. Because of that, she earned the nickname “Queen of the Cross”. Although Gordon was no longer one of the owners at this point, he continued helping Carlotta as her manager.

In 1970, she had her first film appearance — credited as appearing as herself in a movie called The Naked Bunyip. This wasn’t exactly a big break, but it did open some doors. The movie was, apparently, fairly influential. One of those doors was for her to be cast as Miss Robyn Ross on a show called Number 96 — a show that had already broken ground with gay character Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham) the year before. The character of Robyn Ross was the new girlfriend of character Arnold Feather (played by Jeff Kevin), and appeared in four episodes in 1972. Ultimately, it was revealed that she was a transsexual showgirl — a fact which led to the end of the romance, and the end of her storyline on the series. Here’s her “coming out” scene — the language is, obviously, not what we would currently use. To keep this scene, and the end of this storyline a surprise, her scenes were all shot on a closed set and she was initially credited as “Carolle Lea“.

Four episodes, of course, doesn’t seem like a big deal. Especially on a soap opera, which churns out new episode practically every day. But these four episodes were a very big deal because they were the first time that a transgender person played a transgender character on television anywhere in the world.

Afterwards Carlotta decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery (also known, now, as a gender confirmation surgery). Prior to the surgery, a board attempted to cure her — putting her through torturous testing including electric shock therapy on her, though she tore the wires off of her. She also, reportedly, threw a shoe at the doctors engaging in the tests. The feisty outburst worked and she was able to get the surgery. She was not, as is sometimes reported, the first person in Australia to have the procedure. She was, however, the first person in Australia that was publicly reported as having the procedure.

Some time afterwards, she was invited to do a drag performance in London. She jumped at the opportunity, the show was hugely successful, but found she didn’t enjoy it and soon returned to Australia. Where she married a guy who’s name is nowhere to be found but since I see some places where her name is reported as Carol Spencer so I’m guessing his last name was Spencer. She tried out a life of “domestic bliss” as a housewife, but it doesn’t last too long.

Carlotta at the Les Girls 25th anniversary show in 1988

Carlotta showed up on film again in 1982 playing Ron in a movie called Dead Easy. I don’t know if that character was transgender or not, it’s a fairly minor role and I haven’t seen the film.

In 1987, she toured New Zealand with a touring production of Les Girls. Short after that, her marriage ended — she left him so that he could have the opportunity to become a parent. So she resumed working at Les Girls until 1992. With her off and on career with them, she had performed with them for an impressive 26 years.

In 1994, she published her first book — He Did it her Way: The Legend of Les Girls with James Cockington. That was the same year the iconic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released. Carlotta was one of the inspirations behind the movie — and it, in turn, inspired her. She attempted to start her own show: Carlotta & Her Beautiful Boys which launched in 1996. This was a popular show but not a financial success and ended up bankrupting her after three years.

But Carlotta is not a woman who can be kept down. In 1997, she began appearing as a recurring panelist on the show Beauty and the Beast. (I’m linking to the Wikipedia page on this one because, personally, I was a little confused when that didn’t have to do with fairy tales and talking furniture.) On the show, the panelists answer letters from viewers and Carlotta’s life up to that point made her invaluable to the show. Kids, particularly queer kids, from all over Australia wrote the show specifically in the hopes of getting her advice. Here’s a clip of her on the show in 2001 (not talking about queer issues though, I can’t find any clips of that.)

She was popular on Beauty and the Beast and that led her to more appearances as a television personality. In 2003, she appeared on the short-lived comedy talk show Greeks on the Roof. She also published another book, entitled Carlotta: I’m not that Kind of Girl. Two years later, Carlotta launched a show that was a half-million dollar production based on her recent book Carlotta’s KingsX. She subsequently appeared on Good Morning Australia and on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.

Carlotta’s portrait in the Australian National Portrait Gallery

Also in 2005, the cast of The Naked Bunyip reunited for a short video “In a Funny Sort of Way” which discussed the movie and its impact on Australian cinema. So, 2005 was a very busy year for Carlotta. In 2006, she appeared in four episodes of the documentary series 20 to 1. That was also the year that Australian National Portrait Gallery purchased a portrait of Carlotta and incorporated it into their collection.

Carlotta later launched a touring one-woman show called Carlotta: Live and Intimate. In 2013, she began appearing as a regular guest panelist on the morning news show Studio 10. The following year, a made-for-TV movie about her life was made called Carlotta. The film was criticized for only hinting at the harsher parts of Carlotta’s life as a transgender woman. Carlotta was played by cisgender actor Jessica Marais and while I would like to criticize that choice, but Carlotta was actually involved in the casting.

Carlotta and a young fan in 2019

In 2018, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Her doctors caught it early, performed surgery, and she made a full recovery and jumped right back into her career. In 2019, she continued touring with her musical revue Carlotta: Queen of the Cross which features a wide variety of music, especially from other queer artists like Peter Allen (whom she had been friends with) and Stephen Sondheim.

On January 26, 2020 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQ+ community and to the performing arts. Although this is the most recent and most impressive recognition Carlotta has received for her decades of work, she’s also been recognized with the King’s Cross Award, the Drag Industry Variety Award (in 1997) and a Australian Club Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2018). That last one may have to get given to her again, as Carlotta is still performing, and no doubt has much more that she will achieve.

Heroes of Stonewall: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.

Miss Major — can’t find a date for it but this is such a fantastic picture

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.

Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.

After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.

Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.

After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.

She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.

In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.

Miss Major in the 90s

In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.

In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).

Miss Major, Grand Marshall at San Francisco Pride

She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”

And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.

More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.

Miss Major and her daughter Janetta Johnson

While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”

And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.

(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)

Heroes of Stonewall: Stormé DeLarverie

obit-delarverie-articlelarge
Photo Credit: New York Times

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.

storme_delarverie_no_photo_cIn 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.

stormebysambassett1
Photo by Sam Bassett

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?”

Heroes of Stonewall: Sylvia Rivera

0w5sda97-75dv-q78d-s6ky-6zbn3d195rj8-1541658467Of 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 the Gay Liberation Front — and with their next iteration, the Gay 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!”

sylvia-rivera-marsha-p-johnson
Rivera and Johnson

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.”

the-crusade-of-transgender-activist-sylvia-rivera-6-1Despite 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.

by Luis Carle
Rivera’s portrait in the National Gallery — also featuring Christina Hayworth (left) and Rivera’s partner Julia Murray (right) — which shows them at New York Pride in June of 2000.

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.