Leslie Feinberg interviews Sylvia Rivera
'I'm glad I was in the Stonewall riot'
I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on
42nd Street. The early 60s was not a good time for drag queens,
effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did.
Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I
didn't really come out as a drag queen until the late 60s.
When drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was.
I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn't even in full
drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched
We always felt that the police were the real enemy. We
expected nothing better than to be treated like we were
animals-and we were.
We were stuck in a bullpen like a bunch of freaks. We were
disrespected. A lot of us were beaten up and raped.
When I ended up going to jail, to do 90 days, they tried to
rape me. I very nicely bit the shit out of a man.
I've been through it all.
In 1969, the night of the Stonewall riot, was a very hot,
muggy night. We were in the Stonewall [bar] and the lights came
on. We all stopped dancing. The police came in.
They had gotten their payoff earlier in the week. But
Inspector Pine came in-him and his morals squad-to spend more
of the government's money.
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 shit. We had done so
much for other movements. It was time.
It was street gay people from the Village out front-homeless
people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the
bar-and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us.
The Stonewall Inn telephone lines were cut and they were left
in the dark.
One Village Voice reporter was in the bar at that time. And
according to the archives of the Village Voice, he was handed a
gun from Inspector Pine and told, "We got to fight our way out
This was after one Molotov cocktail was thrown and we were
ramming the door of the Stonewall bar with an uprooted parking
meter. So they were ready to come out shooting that night.
Finally the Tactical Police Force showed up after 45
minutes. A lot of people forget that for 45 minutes we had them
trapped in there.
All of us were working for so many movements at that time.
Everyone was involved with the women's movement, the peace
movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I
believe that's what brought it around.
You get tired of being just pushed around.
STAR came about after a sit-in at Wein stein Hall at New
York University in 1970. Later we had a chapter in New York,
one in Chicago, one in California and England.
STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless
people and anybody that needed help at that time. Marsha and I
had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I
decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the
Mafia's control at the bars.
We got a building at 213 East 2nd Street. Marsha and I just
decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids.
We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going.
We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent.
We didn't want the kids out in the streets hustling. They
would go out and rip off food. There was always food in the
house and everyone had fun. It lasted for two or three
We would sit there and ask, "Why do we suffer?" As we got
more involved into the movements, we said, "Why do we always
got to take the brunt of this shit?"
Later on, when the Young Lords [revolutionary Puerto Rican
youth group] came about in New York City, I was already in GLF
[Gay Liberation Front]. There was a mass demonstration that
started in East Harlem in the fall of 1970. The protest was
against police repression and we decided to join the
demonstration with our STAR banner.
That was one of first times the STAR banner was shown in
public, where STAR was present as a group.
I ended up meeting some of the Young Lords that day. I
became one of them. Any time they needed any help, I was always
there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us
as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect.
It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself-being part of
the Young Lords as a drag queen-and my organization [STAR]
being part of the Young Lords.
I met [Black Panther Party leader] Huey Newton at the
Peoples' Revolutionary Convention in Philadelphia in 1971. Huey
decided we were part of the revolution-that we were
I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a
revolutionist. I was proud to make the road and help change
laws and what-not. I was very proud of doing that and proud of
what I'm still doing, no matter what it takes.
Today, we have to fight back against the government. We have
to fight them back. They're cutting back Medicaid, cutting back
on medicine for people with AIDS. They want to take away from
women on welfare and put them into that little work program.
They're going to cut SSI.
Now they're taking away food stamps. These people who want
the cuts-these people are making millions and millions and
millions of dollars as CEOs.
Why is the government going to take it away from us? What
they're doing is cutting us back. Why can't we have a
I'm glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I remember when
someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought: "My god, the
revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!"
I always believed that we would have a fight back. I just
knew that we would fight back. I just didn't know it would be
I am proud of myself as being there that night. If I had
lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that's
when I saw the world change for me and my people.
Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.
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