June 29, 2011

Setting the Record Queer: Sylvia Rivera and Other Myths of Stonewall

As many may already know, June is "Gay Pride Month" or "LGBTQIA Pride Month" or whatever queer term is in vogue at the time. President Obama has of course officially declared June "LGBTQ Pride Month". The reason for June being pride month is that the Stonewall Riots occurred on June 28th, 1969. They took place at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that was raided by the police, resulting in those being targeted by the raid to fight back. Sylvia Rivera is the individual sometimes credited with throwing the first blow.

Over the years, the image of the Stonewall Riots has gradually grown to become the cornerstone event in the gay civil rights movement. It is almost literally "the" event that everyone credits as starting the path of queer liberation.

Originally, I had intended to do a straightforward article on the Stonewall Riots, but a couple of historical details I came across recently made me rethink that. First off, it almost goes without saying that Stonewall was not the beginning of the queer rights movement. It was not even the first violent queer uprising. There are two events that pre-date the Stonewall Uprising. One is the Dewey Lunch Counter Sit In and the other is the Compton Cafeteria Riot.

The Dewey Lunch Counter Sit In took place in May 1965, more than four years before the Stonewall Riots. More importantly, it featured primarily trans African American protesters. The Compton Cafeteria Riots took place at a Compton Cafeteria located in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco and that riot too primarily featured transgendered/transvestite participants.

Now what does all have to do with Sylvia Rivera? Sylvia Rivera was a trans woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. What made her famous, was the fact that she was one of the instigators of the Stonewall Riots. She worked actively during her life to promote queer rights, particularly the rights of transgendered and transsexual individuals. This activism was highly controversial though and she frequently clashed with the more mainstream gay activist groups such as the Human Rights Campaign.

According to queer critic Michael Bronski Rivera declared the following a short time before her death, "One of our main goals now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because 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."

From reading several sources regarding Sylvia Rivera, I find myself with the image of a flaming queen, ready to set the rest of the gay rights movement on fire. Anger appear to have been the foundation of Sylvia Rivera's crusade, particularly against the marginalization of trans and people of colour within the LGBTQIA community.

Now I need to be clear here, there is a distinct history of such marginalization of anyone who is non-white and gay and lesbian within the gay and lesbian community. Sylvia Rivera herself is one such example of this marginalization. Already, her memory seems to be fading. I complimented the documentary Stonewall Uprising for it's comprehensive coverage of the riots, but I have no memory of Rivera being mentioned, in spite of the key role she played. Furthermore, I found no article on Sylvia Rivera in the book Queers in History by Keith Stern, which also fails to mention Ruth C. Ellis.

The historical narrative that places increasing emphasis on Stonewall as the one and only beginning of the gay rights movement furthers this erasure of non-white gays and lesbians by forgetting the earlier events that whose primary participants were black and/or trans. Sylvia Rivera's elimination from any historical narrative creates even more such whitewashing. I question any movement that has shown the sort of willingness to forget its own history as easily and quickly as the Queer Movement has. When forget history, we forget the very basis of our own identities.

Jessi Gan perhaps put it best in "Still at the Back of the Bus": Sylvia Rivera's Struggle (which I highly encourage others to read):
Mainstream gay politics' narrow, single identity agenda situated Rivera on its margins, and viewed her memory as both manipulative and dispensable. By contrast, Rivera's own political affinities, while fiercely resisting cooperation remained inclusive, mobile, and contextual. Her political practice, informed by a complexity situated life, built bridges between movements, prioritizing the project of justice above arbitrary political boundaries.

Further Reading:

"Still at the Back of the Bus": Sylvia Rivera's Struggle
Stonewall and Beyond: Lesbian and Gay Culture
Wikipedia Stonewall Entry
The 1965 Deweys Lunch Counter Sitins
Wikipedia Compton's Cafeteria Riot Entry
Sylvia Rivera Law Project, "Who Was Sylvia Rivera"

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