No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Iconic Photo: Photo 27

Sylvia Rivera
at New York City Hall

Considered the mother of the Trans-Rights Movement, Sylvia Rivera dedicated her life to moving forward both Trans and Gay Rights. She is a Civil Rights pioneer beginning such work towards the end of the 1960s when fighting for such rights was not only dangerous but also less common than it might appear currently in the United States. Rivera also importantly anticipated many of the critiques of the Gay Rights Movement that are still relevant today.

Born in the back of a Taxi cab in 1951, Rivera's life began in Brooklyn. Rivera's mother died, however, only three years later, causing the young Rivera to move to live with a grandmother. Rivera was born Rey Rivera, and was being raised a boy, but when the young Rey took a liking to women's makeup and clothing at an early age the grandmother began beating Rey for what she considered to be effeminate behavior. Escaping this bad environment, Rey moved to living on the streets at the age of eleven living as a young drag queen.

In 1969 police spontaneously raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village of New York City. The raid purposefully targeted the Inn because it was known to be frequented by homosexuals. In response to the occurrence an ongoing series of demonstrations and violent protests. The Stonewall Riots mark the first time in the history of the United States that the gay community intensely protested government sponsored discrimination against homosexuality. The riots instigated movements across the United States demanding protections and rights for the gay community. In this way, the Stonewall Riots are considered the beginning of the Gay Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

During the Stonewall Riots Rivera was one of the major speakers at the Stonewall Inn, one of the primary organizing centers during the riots. In this way, Rivera became one of the major figures of the gay civil rights movement from the very beginning. However, when conversations with the general public became possible through the riots, other leaders of the movement attempted to "clean up homosexuality" to make it more palatable to members of the heterosexual mainstream. In this way, the gay rights movement initially tried to ignore trans and drag rights, even though many of the people fighting in the Stonewall riots would have been disregarded as a result. Rivera refused to allow trans and drag rights to be thrown out of the conversation in this way and stepped to the forefront by speaking even louder on the issue. Her argument was that instead of legitimately fighting for recognition and protections on their own terms, gay rights leaders were trying to simply assimilate into mainstream heterosexual culture. Why would assimilation be desireable into a culture that was already actively oppressive and violent towards those attempting to assimilate? Assimilation wouldn't lead to gaining freedoms, it would just allow a new form of oppression.

Unfortunately, Rivera's attitude led to her being banned from New York's Gay and Lesbian Community Center, as well as being marginalized generally from the very community she'd helped to defend in the face of police abuse.

Rivera started the Gay Liberation Front, and the Gay Activists Alliance, and helped to start STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group dedicated to helping homeless trans youth, much like Rivera had been in early life. She was also radically activist for the rights of people of color, specifically those that were members of the gay community. The gay rights movement had been predominately focused on white issues ignoring the particular needs of people of color. Rivera demanded that the needs of people of color had to be addressed as well. Rivera's position was unique in that gay rights groups tried to ignore Rivera's Latina (Puerto Rican and Venezualean) identity, and those fighting for Latino/a rights tended to avoid gay rights.

When asked to discuss her commitment to civil rights, Rivera explained that her goals, and those of people that worked with her, were actually to destroy the Human Rights Campaign. After trying for a long period to work with the organization, Rivera realized that even in such a group people in positions similar to hers were forced not to ride at the back of the bus, but to ride on the bumper of it, and that even only if they were lucky. She argued that if that was as good as they could get through the Human Rights Campaign, then the Campaign didn't deserve to be fought for. The very campaign that claimed to strive for equal rights was actually just perpetuating the same oppression coming from mainstream culture but by pushing it further into the very group of people that otherwise could have been understanding and helping each other. The point of activist work was for recognition and rights to be far more inclusive, and far less assimilationist, and in that way far less damaging to real people, than that.

Sylvia Rivera's presence in the Gay Rights and People of Color movement was deeply controversial, even in the midst of her total dedication to it. Today she is considered one of the crucial leaders of those early stages, and also recognized as importantly radical in comparison to her more assimilationist counterparts. There is also a sense of grief and regret for the marginalization and mistreatment that Rivera suffered, not only from mainstream America, but also on the part of the very community she fought to defend. Her critique of the community was for the sake of the community--to help bring true liberation for the people.

Rivera stands as a deeply important reminder of the need to be committed to critiquing the very causes, issues, and ideas we value most. It is through our willingness to demand more that genuine care and gains can be had. Rivera reminds us too that when it comes to a question of something as foundationally important as human rights, assimilation may appear safest but is often not a genuine path to acceptance nor so-called equality.

When interviewed about her role in the Stonewall Riots, Rivera said, I'm not missing a minute of this. It's the revolution.

A street in Greenwich Village New York has been renamed Rivera Way in her honor. Her legacy also lives on through the Slyvia Rivera Law Project and the Slyvia Rivera Food Pantry in New York.

No comments:

Post a Comment