In what can be seen as a great step forward in the LGBT movement, especially in the Trans movement, this week the Smithsonian Museum announced that a photograph of Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall activist and transwoman, will be featured in the National Portrait Gallery.
Sylvia Rivera is arguably one of the foremost activists in the fight against gender discrimination, but it was that night in 1969, outside the Stonewall Inn in New York, when she and others in the LGBT community finally had had enough and stood up against the police force that had been arresting them simply for being LGBT and publicly humiliating them while doing so.
The riots that began that night in June lit the spark that became the LGBT rights movement in the country, a march that still goes on today. And now Sylvia Rivera will be honored as the gay icon, hero, advocate and activist by the Smithsonian.
Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery:
“At the National Portrait Gallery, we look to include portraits of people who have made a significant impact on American culture. In the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, Sylvia Rivera expanded the gay liberation movement and fought for equal rights for people who embraced different gender identities.”
In the portrait, left, installed in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibition earlier this month, Rivera is seen holding the hands of her partner Julia Murray and activist Christina Hayworth on the Saturday before New York City’s 2000 gay pride parade. At their feet is a hand-written poster that reads, “Respect trans people/men!”
The photo was taken by Puerto Rican photographer Luis Carle.
But Sylvia Rivera didn’t have it easy in those years after Stonewall. While she did go on to become a powerful voice in the passage of New York’s Sexual Non Discrimination Act, she faced discrimination and racism by the Gay Activist Alliance [GAA], an LGBT group she campaigned with, because of her minority status as a trans woman of color.
It began when she protested the $2 cover fee at the GAA’s Saturday night dances because she thought the fee made the events inaccessible to the most-disenfranchised members of her community. So she began hosting her own free dances in the street outside of the event with fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson that were free for everyone; and hundreds of people would attend and dance to music from boomboxes for hours.
She did that because she wanted trans Americans especially trans people of color, to be acknowledged and accepted within our own community; she wanted trans people to be heard. And so, along with Johnson, Sylvia Rivera became a loud voice for inclusion and helped found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries [STAR], a liberation group and homeless shelter for LGBT youth.
Rivera knew how hard these young people had it, often times being turned out from their homes because they were gay or transgender; she herself had run away from home at an early age and made money as a trans sex worker on 42nd Street. She wanted better for future generations and she worked hard to make sure that happene,d and in doing so she has been dubbed the ‘Mother of all Gay People.’
Sylvia Rivera, on that night in 1969:
“We were led out of the bar and they cattled us all up against the police vans. The cops pushed us up against the grates and the fences. People started throwing pennies, nickels, and quarters at the cops. And then the bottles started, and then we finally had the morals squad barricaded in the Stonewall building, because they were actually afraid of us at that time. They didn’t know we were going to react that way. We were not taking any more of this s***. We had done so much for other movements. It was time.”
And so now it’s time, and well past time, to honor Sylvia Rivera for what she’s done, what she did, what she said, and how she said it. For without Sylvia Rivera, and the spark she ignited back in 1969, who knows where we might be today.
Still, the march goes on ….