Burdens and Disruptions
The Continued Relevance of Sylvia Rivera’s Trans Latino Activism
The morning of July 26, 2017, transgender Americans serving in the military came under attack. This attack did not involve physical force or gunpowder, nor was it fought on the battlefield against international armies. Rather, it came directly from the United States’ own commander-in-chief, as Donald Trump released a series of tweets in which he announced his decision to ban transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. In justifying the need for such an exclusionary policy, Trump chose to position transgender people as a liability for all Americans. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory” he wrote, before going on to claim that the nation’s armed forces simply could not be “burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender [sic] in the military would entail.”[i][ii][iii]
Responses to this discursive effort were swift. Within 24 hours, both professional news sites and users on social media began circulating a 2016 report on military spending commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense that disproved the president’s allegations. This report showed that medical treatments specific to transgender individuals represented, in “the most extreme scenario,” a 0.3% increase in military spending. (In contrast, and as The Washington Post reported, “the military spends five times as much on Viagra as it would on transgender troops” – a fact that highlights the monetary costs associated with protecting traditional notions of masculinity.)[iv]
Yet, as has become strikingly common, the discrediting of the president’s claims through hard evidence has proven largely futile. Even more importantly, it has elided the issue that actually lies at the center of the president’s messages: the configuration of the transgender body as a threat to national stability and a hindrance to the nation’s success on the global stage. Beyond representing yet another instance of Trump blatantly invoking inaccurate facts and figures, the tweets make clear that the president’s promise to “Make America great again” is a promise indelibly tied to the public disavowal of transgender people as citizens of the nation-state.
In his 2001 book Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship, political theorist Shane Phelan defines citizenship as “recognition and participation.” In the context of domestic policy and ideology, Phlean specifies that “U.S. citizenship has always embodied dreams of living one’s life as one chooses while also being gainfully employed and willing to serve if called.”[v] Banning transgender people from serving in the military limits their right to participate and to make individual choices as national subjects, while at the same time preventing them from exercising their duty to “serve if called.” Trump’s approach to garnering support for the institutionalization of policies designed to reinforce transgender people’s status as second-class citizens is to tap into Americans’ larger anxieties over their agency as citizens. This is the kind of fear-mongering, divisive process that asks Americans to conceive of transgender subjects as a threat to their very own survival.
For those of us who are members of the LGBT community, and for our allies, Trump’s actions represent yet another attack. As such the president’s insistence on preventing transgender people from enacting their rights as citizens should be a call to action for many of us to resist the White House’s insistence on depicting minorities as enemies of the nation-state. However, the search for such avenues of resistance must first lead us to confront a tense history of our own: the history between the official gay rights movement and transgender subjects. This history demands that we understand Trump’s comments as representative of an issue that is far larger than either the radicalized white nationalist movement or the Republican Party. Rather, the legacy and struggles of early transgender political activists – activists like Sylvia Rivera – can illustrate how gay rights leaders and organizations have themselves spoken in the past as Trump is speaking now, justifying the exclusion and disavowal of transgender subjects through discourses of stability, liability, and progress.
Born in New York City on July 2, 1951, and assigned male at birth, Sylvia Rivera was a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan street queen who eventually gained recognition as a symbol of queer liberation and gay pride. Rivera was one of the key participants in the Stonewall riots of 1969 – the gay uprisings traditionally credited for organizing the clandestine and insular queer activism of the 1960s into a nationally-visible, rights-based movement. In the early 1970s, Rivera joined the gay rights organizations that emerged in the aftermath of the riots but became frustrated with their refusal to incorporate transgender rights into their agenda. Despite this frustration, she continued to be one of the most active members of these groups until a 1974 rally in Christopher Street commemorating the anniversary of Stonewall. At the rally, gay rights leaders, who were concerned over the reputation of the movement, told Rivera and other queens that they were no longer welcome in these organizations.
Beyond her involvement in the Stonewall riots, Rivera has been praised for her pioneering work as a transgender rights activist. Alongside fellow street queen and Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which sought to offer protection to homeless transgender youth and is considered the first group dedicated to the fight for transgender rights.[vi] Exiled from the gay rights movement she helped ignite, Sylvia Rivera remained largely forgotten throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t until the release of Martin Duberman’s 1993 book Stonewall that Rivera reentered the cultural consciousness as a source of celebration in narratives not only of LGBT liberation and gay pride, but also of transgender activism.
While these celebratory narratives tend to map Sylvia Rivera’s trajectory from homeless transgender prostitute to queer icon onto a conventional narrative of U.S. individualism and success (often ignoring her Latina cultural heritage in the process), a closer look at her tense relationship with the gay community reveals a far more complicated picture. Given its iconic status in the history of LGBT rights, the Stonewall Inn serves as a crucial space to historicize middle-class, white, gay men’s equivocal treatment of Sylvia Rivera. A member of New York’s street queen community – a group of homeless, gender-nonconforming, queens of color (the word “transgender” as we know it today was not yet in use) – since she was eleven, Rivera relied on sex work as her main source of income and was a habitual drug user throughout the 1960s. A New York statute that allowed for the arrest of a person found to be wearing less than three articles of clothing corresponding to their biological sex, such as pants, a man’s shirt, and men’s shoes for biological males, further made her a regular target for the New York City police force.[vii] The predominantly middle-class, white, gay male clientele at the Stonewall Inn, in turn, saw Rivera and other street queens as a potential liability to the continued survival of the Stonewall Inn. Duberman recounts how Rivera “had never been crazy about Stonewall” because “Men in makeup were tolerated there, but not exactly cherished,”[viii] and Rivera herself later recalled that, “very few drag queens were allowed in there, because if they had allowed drag queens into the club, it would have brought the club down.”[ix] Thus, Rivera’s experience at the Stonewall Inn reveals the similarities between the bar’s middle-class, white, gay male clientele and Trump’s portrayal of transgender people as a liability. For the Stonewall patrons, the street queens represented a threat to the bar’s viability and order, a belief that became the basis for the patron’s discrimination of the queens.
Ironically, the deeply-embedded marginalization of transgender people created a space for them to participate in protest movements of the 1960s beyond the Stonewall riots, including the Civil Rights movements, the women’s liberation movement, and the protests against the Vietnam War. Yet Rivera admitted that they remained “outcasts” in these movements, specifying that “[t]he only reason they tolerated the transgender community in some of these movements was because we were gung-ho, we were front liners…We had nothing to lose. You all had rights.”[x] Rivera’s words serve as an important reminder that the simultaneous deployment- and disavowal-of transgender bodies has historically played out in some of the most progressive and anti-establishment movements in modern U.S. history. As Rivera’s story indicates, these movements benefitted significantly from the continued marginalization of transgender subjects without actually incorporating them into their larger political agenda.
This exclusionary process is particularly evident in the history of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Though transgender people were instrumental to the development of the Stonewall riots, they were excised from the official gay rights movement once they came to be perceived as a threat to the movement’s political viability in the national context. The Gay Rights Bill, passed in New York City in 1986, exemplifies gay rights leaders’ quick turn from deploying transgender activists to disposing of them when they became inconvenient. Gay rights organizations had lobbied for this bill for more than fifteen years – years during which Sylvia Rivera acted as one of the bill’s most passionate supporters, even going as far as to get arrested for being the only one willing to go to Times Square and ask for signatures.[xi] However, when New York City officials made it clear that they would only support the bill if protections for transgender people were removed, gay rights leaders chose to comply, sidelining transgender rights. The process of passing the bill points to gay rights leaders’ own implication in the Trumpian representation of transgender citizens as a burden and a disruption. Much like Trump, approaching transgender subjects through this type of discourse helped gay rights organizations to justify the exclusion of transgender persons in the very process of forcing the government to recognize queer people as citizens.
In her various speeches, oral histories, and essays, Rivera identified the fourth anniversary of Stonewall in 1973 as the defining moment when the official gay rights movement left transgender people behind. To commemorate the anniversary, a rally was organized at Washington Square Park. Originally scheduled to participate in the rally as a featured speaker, Sylvia Rivera was banned from getting on stage; similarly, drag queen entertainers were banned from performing at the rally. Instead of being allowed to represent a key segment of the LGBT community, Rivera and the drag queen entertainers were told they were “a threat and an embarrassment to women” because they wore female clothing and makeup.[xii] While Rivera resisted this exclusion by physically fighting her way onto the stage, she continued to lament the fact that they were “pushed out of something [they] helped create.”[xiii]
This exclusion created long lasting dilemmas in the relationship between the gay rights movement and the transgender community. Even after her newfound visibility in the 1990s, the gay rights movement struggled to legitimize Rivera and her cause. On one hand, Rivera was now leading Pride parades in cities across the globe, including New York City and Rome. On the other hand, when the Latino Gay Men of New York invited Rivera to give a speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City in 2001 (only months before her death), the event organizers had to request a special permit so that Rivera would be allowed to enter the space.[xiv]
Nor has this dilemma been resolved. To date, white, gay men continue to construe Sylvia Rivera’s legacy as disruptive and threatening to LGBT history and gay pride. David Carter’s 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, a historical retelling of the riots written in response to 1993’s Stonewall, actively works to delegitimize Duberman’s invaluable recovery of Sylvia Rivera’s legacy by refusing to mention Rivera in the book altogether. His refusal to acknowledge Rivera is further exacerbated in a self-serving “Author’s Note” in which the author makes passive-aggressive references to “spurious accounts…that do not withstand careful scrutiny,” and again to “false testimony” and “inaccurate accounts” of Stonewall.[xv] Naturally, he posits these unnamed Stonewall imposters as a threat to the entire legacy of Stonewall.
As President Trump begins to enforce his ban of transgender troops, Sylvia Rivera’s legacy continues to complicate traditional notions of progress even as it reminds us that Trump’s rhetoric can hardly be contained within the far right. As a gay, naturalized U.S. citizen from Venezuela, I am keenly aware of the harms that the current administration’s nationalist agenda has inflicted on the rights of disenfranchised groups. Still, even as many of us are victims of the current administration’s policies and ideological warfare, it is crucial that we continue to remember that we do not exist outside of the dominant forces and discourses that have served to limit the rights of other minorities and marginalized segments of the population. Sylvia Rivera’s legacy asks us to confront and to remember the far-reaching effects of leaving people behind in the name of progress and stability.
R. Gabriel Mayora is a queer Venezuelan scholar currently serving as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Emerging Scholar of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Florida.
Gabriel Mayora is on twitter @thedrgabriel.
Carter, D. (2004). Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Duberman, M. (1993). Stonewall. New York: Dutton.
Highleyman, Liz (2009). Sylvia Rivera: A Woman Before Her Time. Smash the Church! Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, ed. Tommi A. Mecca. San Francisco: City Lights Books. 172-176.
Ingraham, C (2017). The military spends five times as much on Viagra as it would on transgender troops’ medical care. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/07/26/the-military-spends-five-times-as-much-on-viagra-as-it-would-on-transgender-troops-medical-care/?utm_term=.3e891472e8a1
Phelan, S (2001). Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Rivera, S. (2002). “Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books. 68-85.
Rivera, S. (2007). Sylvia Rivera’s Talk at LGMNY, June 2001, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City.” CENTRO Journal. 19(1). 117-123.
Trump, D.J. (2017). “After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow……” Tweet.
Trump, D.J. (2017). “….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming …..” Tweet.
Trump, D.J. (2017). “….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” Tweet.
[i] Trump, D.J. (2017). “After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow……”. Tweet.
[ii] Trump, D.J. (2017). “….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming …..” Tweet. [emphasis added]
[iii] Trump, D.J. (2017). “….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” Tweet. [emphasis added]
[iv] Ingraham, C (2017). The military spends five times as much on Viagra as it would on transgender troops’ medical care. Washington Post.
[v] Phelan, S (2001). Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 3.
[vi] Highleyman, L (2009). Sylvia Rivera: A Woman Before Her Time. Smash the Church! Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, ed. Tommi A. Mecca. San Francisco: City Lights Book. 172-176.
[vii] Duberman, M. (1993). Stonewall. New York: Dutton.
[viii] Ibid., 191.
[ix] Rivera, S. (2002). Queens in Exile: The Forgotten Ones. GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, p.78.
[x] Rivera, S. (2007). Sylvia Rivera’s Talk at LGMNY, June 2001, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City. CENTRO Journal. 19(1), 118.
[xii] Rivera, S. (2002), 82.
[xiv] Rivera, S. (2007).
[xv] Carter, D. (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 269.