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Why We Owe LGBTQ+ Victories to an Early Trans Activist

7 minute read
Cervini is an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ culture and politics, and the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America.

History is written by the victors, but what does it mean if we achieved victory only because of someone else’s battle?

As a historian of LGBTQ+ politics and culture, it’s my obligation to look at the hidden side of history, the part of our past that isn’t written by the victors, the history that’s buried in obscure archives, often conveniently forgotten. And that history tells us that we owe many of our victories, including marriage equality, to someone who never wrote a book or got the full recognition they deserve: a trans woman of color.

Fifty years ago, on May 21, 1970, Sylvia Rivera stood before a judge in New York City. Only eighteen years old, she was wearing a purple jumpsuit and large sunglasses.

“Name?” asked the judge.

“Ray Rivera—but call me Sylvia,” she said.

The judge turned to her attorney. “Counsel, is your client a man or a woman?”

Her lawyer paused for a moment. “Yes, your honor.”

By the age of twelve, Rivera had become a sex worker on 42nd street. There, she formed a family of fellow “street kids,” and on the night of June 27, 1969, these youths—many of whom were homeless, thrown out by their families—joined the gender non-conforming patrons of the Stonewall Inn to initiate America’s first widely-publicized queer insurrection against police oppression. Now, historians refer to those four nights of resistance as the Stonewall Riots. And although her story changed over time, Rivera said she was there.

A few months later, in March 1970, Rivera learned about the recently-formed Gay Activists Alliance, the more pragmatic, politically-oriented offshoot of the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front.

“The members are all right, they don’t put down no one because they act different or wear make-up,” she wrote to her fellow “sister queens.”

“Girls, we are needed!”

Rivera threw herself into one of the GAA’s first initiatives, a petition for a City Council bill against gay employment discrimination. And on April 15, 1970, at 7:30 PM, a police officer saw Rivera gathering signatures for the petition on 42nd street. The officer told her to leave, but Rivera refused; she had the constitutional right to be there.

According to court documents, she screamed “discrimination against homosexuals” while the officer dragged her to the police car.

On May 21, Rivera arrived at her trial––charged with disorderly conduct––without an attorney. The GAA had failed to find anyone to represent her.

Then, something miraculous happened. A young attorney named Harold Weiner, in court for a different case, noticed Rivera. Upon learning the details of her arrest, he agreed to represent her on the spot.

Although the arresting officer never showed up to court (four witnesses were prepared to testify that Rivera had done nothing wrong), the judge, horrified by Rivera’s refusal to abide by gender norms, refused to dismiss the case. After three months, five aborted hearings, and another arrest for “female impersonation,” a new judge threw out the original arrest.

Meanwhile, Rivera’s new attorney continued helping the GAA. Weiner filed the group’s articles of incorporation that fall. After a sixteen month legal battle, an appellate court approved the GAA’s application. Because of Sylvia Rivera, the GAA became an officially recognized corporation in the state of New York.

To support Rivera’s legal battle, the GAA re-established its Legal Action Committee, which had gone dormant. Until her trial, the organization had given up on fighting in the courts, focusing instead on direct action and political pressure. Because of Sylvia Rivera, the GAA became a legally-oriented organization.

In early 1972, the GAA’s Legal Action Committee spun off and funded a new organization: the Lambda Legal Defense Educational Fund. Twenty years later, when no other gay rights organization dared engage in the first legal battle for marriage equality in Hawaii, Lambda Legal became the first to do so. Lambda’s attorneys, including Evan Wolfson, were an instrumental part of the marriage fight for the next two decades, which culminated in the 2015 Supreme Court decision. Because of Sylvia Rivera, we have gay marriage.

So why doesn’t every gay American celebrate this fact?

A few months after her arrest, Rivera planned her own demonstrations against anti-gay policies at New York University. According to internal meeting minutes, the GAA refused to support them because “the demonstrations were called by ‘street people.’”

Disillusioned by the GAA, Rivera then partnered with Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson to form a new organization, Street Transvestites for Gay Power. “You people run if you want to, but we’re tired of running,” the duo declared.

When they decided to open a homeless shelter for other street kids, the GAA refused to support it. In response, Rivera and Johnson changed the name of their group: they shed the “for Gay Power” and became Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) instead.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly saw “drag queens” like Rivera and Johnson as threats to their cause. Homosexuals were supposed to look and act respectable––not transgress gender norms––to gain acceptance. Plus, some exclusionary lesbian feminists claimed that Rivera and Johnson, nothing more than “men in dresses,” were degrading “real” women. For these reasons, at the 1973 Pride celebration, organizers barred Rivera from speaking to the crowd. She spoke anyways: “I have been thrown in jail, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?” The crowd booed her.

Gay activists exiled Sylvia Rivera, heartbroken, from the movement.

The following year, politicians and gay activists removed trans protections from a proposed city council anti-discrimination bill. The bill still failed.

In the early 2000s, the Human Rights Campaign refused to include trans protections in its proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill still failed.

Sylvia Rivera leads an ACT-UP march past Union Square in New York, on June 26, 1994.
Sylvia Rivera leads an ACT-UP march past Madison Square Park in New York, on June 26, 1994.Justin Sutcliffe—AP

“I have nothing to be proud of except that I’ve helped liberate gays around the world,” wrote Rivera in 2001. “I’m still sitting on the back of the bus, still struggling to get kids into proper housing, and to get them education, to get them off drugs.”

She died of cancer the following year. Since then, although her name has become more prominent, historians and activists alike have erased the full, dynamic, and complex story of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most significant pioneers in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality, either consciously forgetting her or relegating her role to a single riot.

As a historian, how do I correct this error in the telling of our past? And as a cis white gay man, part of a community that celebrates marriage and prosperity and our own presidential candidate, how do I make amends for the sins of my ancestors?

I have a moral obligation to join Sylvia’s fight. To donate to the Transgender Law Center, in a life-or-death battle to protect Black trans lives and trans immigrants during the pandemic.

To send cash to the ACLU, fighting the Republican Party’s war on trans children.

To help make the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides legal services to low-income trans people, the most well-funded LGBTQ+ organization in the country.

To reach out, to offer help and care and shelter, to the most marginalized members of our community.

The great thing about history, even if we can’t change the past, is that we’re creating it right now. In 2020, a year of tumult, we have the opportunity to create a more just, honorable history for future generations to study: a history that says Sylvia fought for us, and then we fought for her.

Correction, July 6

A caption in the original version of this story misstated the park Sylvia Rivera was seen marching past in a photograph. It was Madison Square Park, not Union Square Park.

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