Famous GLBT & GLBTI People

Sylvia Rivera: Her star still shines

By Mark Segal
PGN Publisher
2002 Philadelphia Gay News

Tuesday night, arriving home from meetings at about 9:30 p.m., I decided to check my e-mail one last time, and to my horror, there were many folks who had e-mailed me with the news that Sylvia Rivera had died. The shock and disbelief was overwhelming.

For those of you who didn't have the pleasure of knowing her, Sylvia was New York City's Gay Liberation Front first and most outspoken trans/street person. Most likely, she was the first person to fight for drag queens in this country.

While I was busy starting Gay Youth as an alternative to GLF for younger people, Sylvia was starting Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries - STAR. Because of my support and friendship with many of the GLF drag queens, Slyvia made me an honorary member of STAR.

After moving back to Philadelphia I lost touch with Sylvia, running into her from time to time. Our last visit was at the 25th anniversary of New York City's GLF. We were all there, and guess what happened? Even though most of the members hadn't seen each other in years, the old battles and arguments started up - and we were being filmed, no less.

At one point I had enough, and stood up, told everyone to shut up, and said, "Don't you realize the history we've created? The movement we've inspired? And all you can do is bring up old grudges. Learn to enjoy what you've accomplished."
Several rows in front of me, a voice yelled, "You go, girl! Tell them where it's at, Mark." That was Sylvia, who I hadn't seen. We both got up and hugged.

Sylvia, in a sense was GLF's resident drag queen, and let me tell you, when she had a point, she'd stay with it until it reached consensus (that was the only way in GLF to get off of one agenda item and onto another - another reason the meetings went on and on).

I was the baby of the group. At 18 they allowed me to organize on my own. The same was true for Sylvia. Gay Youth and STAR held dances together and movie nights. Another thing we did was coalition: When there was a dispute in GLF, we sided together and fought until we reached a compromise - usually when everyone was just getting tired.

Sylvia taught me what it was like to live a trans life.

She had a heart of gold. I guess I can tell you the story of her and Marsha (another drag queen) needing new wigs but without the funds. So they went down to the subway stop and waited for a train with a lady sitting next to an open window. When the doors closed, and before the train left they reached in and grabbed the wig  right off the lady's head. This may seem cruel, but living on the streets taught Sylvia and Marsha many tricks of survival.

But find a sister or brother in need, and there was Sylvia. We used to joke that she spent more time in jail then I did - me for
demonstrations, her for hooking and other offenses. After our GLF reunion, we e-mailed.

She was still hard at work trying to take care of the drag queens who had been unjustly treated by the system, fighting to get lawyers to defend clients, taking care of those in jail or simply working with the new young trans people who found themselves on the streets of New York City.

There will never ever be another Sylvia Rivera, and that is a sad thing for all of us. She was a little part grand larceny and a lot more sweet charity - with a little Danny Kaye in there somewhere. Today, all we have in our homogenized movement are clones.

Sylvia, you go girl!

Mark Segal is PGN publisher. "Mark My Words" appears weekly.

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