Sylvia Rivera, the Stonewall hero and godmother of the transgender community, would have been sixty years old today. It is a gift to have known someone who is already deservedly becoming a legend. It’s hard to swallow that it has already been nearly ten years since she passed. In many ways, the NYC transgender community is still missing her, almost as much as those who knew her.
Last Friday when I mentioned her name to an older person, he pointedly said that he was “not friends” with Sylvia, although he had been friends with her best friend in life, Marsha P. Johnson. I understand that sentiment. Sylvia was a very difficult person to be around for those she disagreed with. One cannot take her greatest gifts without remembering that Sylvia had once been a teenage sex worker on Times Square, that she had been a transvestite, that she had been homeless, that she had been a junky, or that she was a proud woman of color. To have not had any of these attributes, however, would almost certainly have diminished her abilities as a leader in her last days. Most of us in this diverse community have at least some of these experiences.
When I finally accepted myself in 2000, one of my first thoughts was that there were people around who were heroes to me. I got the idea that if I offered myself to some of these people, they would be able to teach me on my path. Sylvia was good at accepting help from others by that time in her life. After she saw how useful I could be, we became friends. The fierce spirit that everyone knows of Sylvia was contrasted equally with a gentleness of loving spirit any of her family or others of those close to her could confirm. Sylvia could hold your pain and give you hope. The best place to measure the stock of Sylvia wasn’t when she was at the head of a political rally or kicking cops at Stonewall, or scaling the walls of City Hall to smash windows with her heels. To see Sylvia at her best, one had to visit and help her at her job distributing food to the homeless at the Metropolitan Community Church on 36th Street in New York City. Every one of those homeless people knew Sylvia and she knew each one of them. Most people have the entitlement of separating people into all kinds of subsets based on religion, race, class, sexuality, etc. Homeless people and transgender people do not have this. Each person comes at you uniquely and there is no telling what that person will be like until they have expressed themselves, even if you knew them before that moment. More than anyone I have ever met, watching Sylvia interact with the homeless people at her church helped teach me to be better at taking the world this way. Sylvia could find her way inside anyone who wanted to be found. She had been there.
It is my guess that Sylvia would have found more today to applaud in the trans male community than in the trans female community. She would have loathed the arguments we have been having in the female community and her words would be a blowtorch. She would have had no time for transsexuals who felt put upon by the transgender community. She would have gotten GENDA passed years ago with signs that said “TRANNY POWER.” Sylvia did not brook shame and she recognized all kinds of powers in words. She respected those who were afraid, but not those who were afraid and whined about their plight. If you didn’t like other people in the community, that was not her problem. She didn’t have the time left. Sylvia fought for the rights of all transgender people literally up until the day she drew her dying breath when she had an argument in her room at St. Vincent’s Hospital with ESPA leaders Matt Forman and Joe Grabarz, and they lied to her for the last time. Sylvia would always have rather been with the fighters rather than people fighting amongst themselves.
There are so many more things to say about Sylvia. A friend of mine on the phone today said her impression of Sylvia was one of fierceness. Sure, long before models on television expropriated the word, Sylvia was the original fierce and I am grateful to her for that, but more, I’m glad for the softness she taught me in all the fierceness. I‘m most thankful that the last word I shared with Sylvia was love. That is what she truly was to the whole transgender community in the end and why we still talk about her and her amazing life.
Happy Birthday, Sylvia.
Photos part of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery