:: Donate now ::

Email this articleEmail this article 

Print this pagePrintable page

Email the editor


Memorial for Stonewall combatant

'Long live the spirit of Sylvia Rivera!'

By Elijah Crane
New York

A memorial for revolutionary transgender activist Sylvia Rivera convened at the Metropolitan Community Church on Feb. 26. Rivera died here on Feb. 19, after battling liver cancer. She was 50 years old.

Rivera was one of the original combatants in the Stonewall Rebellion--the famous 1969 New York City uprising credited with birthing the modern lesbian, gay, bi and trans liberation movement. She co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970 with Stonewall warrior Marsha "Pay it no mind" Johnson.

The rebellion was just the beginning of a lifetime of revolutionary activism for Rivera. But her struggle against racism and trans oppression had begun much earlier as a homeless Puerto Rican 10-year-old battling for survival on the streets of New York City.

This "Celebration of the Life of Sylvia Rivera" brought together a multinational and multi-generational crowd of hundreds from transgender, lesbian, gay and bi communities. Her partner Julia Murray and other family members from Transy House, where the couple resided, filled the front rows.

In recent years Rivera had become a member of the MCC congregation and worked in the food pantry. As Rivera had requested before her death, the kitchen remained open to the community while the services were going on.

Moshe Moses opened the evening with a solo rendition of one of Sylvia Rivera's favorite gospel songs. A spirited choir set the celebratory tone and raised the roof with their impassioned performance.

The whole room joined the choir for a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," historically viewed as the African American national anthem.

Ten speakers commemorated Rivera's life of struggle and revolutionary leadership, sharing personal stories of their relationships.

The Rev. Pat Bumgardner said, "Justice for Sylvia was every hungry person being fed and every sick person being cared for."

Bumgardner added that Rivera continued to hold political meetings from her hospital bed to the last hours of her life. One of the primary topics of those meetings was the struggle for trans inclusion in the proposed state Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. Rivera pursued the goal of trans inclusion in every lesbian/ gay/bi organization and initiative.

Rev. Bumgardner concluded, "Let us always remember what a true revolutionary she was."

During the Stonewall Rebellion, Rivera made the acquaintance of Bob Kohler, who later became a best friend and father figure. Kohler shared with the crowd several moving stories about their relationship.

Kohler recollected one of his early political experiences with Rivera. He prefaced the story by sharing how "Whenever Sylvia was at a loss for words at a demonstration, she would start the Gay Power chant."

Kohler described an occupation of Weinstein Hall at New York University in response to its refusal to rent space to a gay organization for a planned event. After occupying the hall for a week, about a dozen cops wielding rifles entered, trained their rifles on the activists, and announced that they had 10 seconds to leave the room.

As a cop began the countdown, Kohler heard the click of the rifles pointed at them. He said to Rivera, "I think we should leave!" The next thing he heard was "Gimme a G! Gimme an A! ..." as Rivera began the famous shout-and-response.

This was one of many heart-warming testimonies of Rivera's revolutionary perseverance. Kohler and others referenced the close relationship between Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, another Stonewall warrior, who was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992.

After moving remarks about Sylvia Rivera's legacy, Kohler concluded by quoting a poem by William Wordsworth:

Though nothing can bring back
the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory
in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind

'She brought together
different currents'

Lesbian transgender activist and author Leslie Feinberg spoke of the effects of the loss of these revolutionary transgender freedom fighters. "The human toll of oppression and the AIDS epidemic have created a gaping chasm; virtually generations lost. As a result, our history is episodically recalled. The act of collectively recovering memory is itself an act of struggle. Look at the gift Sylvia has given us tonight: She brought together the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement."

Feinberg explained that "In the breach of historic memory, some may think that Sylvia and Marsha Johnson started the struggle for our liberation at Stonewall." But, "resistance is as old as oppression.

"Sylvia lived to see quantitative resistance transformed into qualitative, collective fight-back. What Stonewall ushered in was the birth of a mass struggle from coast to coast and around the world. It was the second great international wave of gay and trans liberation in the 20th century. And Sylvia and STAR were woven with a thousand threads to the historic liberation movements of African Americans, Latinos, Native peoples, women and the upsurge against the Vietnam War."

Feinberg concluded, "As we gather together at the Stonewall later tonight, let us recall that we stand at the site of an uprising in the spirit of Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth, John Brown and Harriet Tubman. As we march shoulder-to-shoulder, let us recall that the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River--it is ours to determine.

"From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle to the anti-WEF protests, the struggle will not rest till freedom's won for all."

Michaelangelo Galloza offered an intimate account of his friendship with Sylvia Rivera and the many parallels in their lives as transgender Puerto Rican people. He spoke of their shared struggle to survive "the lie that it was our fate to die drunk or in a jail cell."

Galloza explained that he and Rivera had been "lifted up by the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party." He said the oppressors "still haven't realized that all the oppression fuels the flames of desire."

Galloza described the common ties that he and Sylvia Rivera shared with their revolutionary heroes, including Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron and Marsha P. Johnson.

What they shared, he said, is that "we are survivors of a war against us, a war we were born into."

With a call to continue the struggle for liberation, Galloza concluded, "We have to work on what separates us from our own spirits by the tools of the oppressors. ... By following the truth, we will win."

Her activism inspires

Joo-Hyun Kang, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, echoed the sentiments of every speaker in stating "We should all be inspired by her activism."

Kang described a 1970 armed takeover of a church in east Harlem by the Young Lords and the support that Rivera's organization, STAR, provided.

Rivera's "quest for justice," Kang pointed out, "was always about all people, not limited to LGBTs. Single issue politics was never in Sylvia's vocabulary." The thunderous applause of recognition by the crowd confirmed that this is a well-known truth about Rivera.

Long-time friend and housemate Dr. Rusty Moore said, "Sylvia is a person of many facets. I want to focus on her political activism and her struggle for trans inclusion in SONDA."

One of the anecdotes she shared was of a conversation she and others at Transy House had with Rivera not long before her death in which Rivera stressed, "We need a transgender shelter in this city and that's what I'm going to do!"

Moore ended by saying, "SONDA and a trans shelter, that what Sylvia wants us to talk about. We're all afraid we're not strong enough without her."

But, as everyone attested to, the movement can take inspiration from the life of Sylvia Rivera and her unrelenting war against oppression and use it to fuel the resistance.

Other speakers included Bebe Scarpinato, Erykah Rumdas and Randy Wicker. Historian Martin Duberman announced that the CUNY Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies has introduced a "Sylvia Rivera Award in Transgender Studies" as an annual prize for the best articles or books on transgender lives.

Stonewall means fight back!

After the memorial at MCC, a crowd of more than 300 gathered in front of the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village where some of Rivera's ashes were spread.

In addition to those who attended the service, many more from the lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities joined in.

A horse-drawn hearse carriage carrying Julia Murray led a procession to the waterfront at the Christopher Street Piers where more of Rivera's ashes were to be spread.

Before making their way from the Stone wall Inn, several rounds of the "Gay Power" chant were shouted.

The spirited marchers called for "Trans rights now!" and "Trans revolution!" as they made their way through Greenwich Village. Passersby cheered.

Once at the pier, candles were lit, songs were sung and some of Rivera's ashes were scattered into the river. A bouquet of flowers was launched into the water while a jazz band played. A small dance troupe offered up a performance while a musician plaintively played what has become the anthem of this oppressed group: "Somewhere over the Rainbow."

A final round of "Give me a G! Give me an A! ..." spelled out the Gay Power chant. And for the first time that many long-time activists in the group could recall, the crowd added one more verse, "Give me a T! Give me an R! ..." as they called for Trans Power.

People lingered, as youth and elders exchanged stories about their experiences with Rivera. "There is so much to say about her contribution to the struggle, her years of fighting for the liberation of all peoples," trans activist Imani Henry told this reporter.

"To me she was the example of a revolutionary," he continued. "She showed up at every demo, without even being asked, without a lot of fanfare--to do mailings at the International Action Center, on buses from Brooklyn to anti-war demonstrations like those against the bombing of Yugoslavia and protests against police repression and for Mumia.

"She was an inspiration to me and to so many others. Simply put, regardless of what was happening in her personal life, she made time and took the energy to show up for every struggle."

Additional memorials are being planned around the city to honor the legacy of Sylvia Rivera.

Reprinted from the March 7, 2002, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news