Sylvia Rivera — Part 2
Welcome back to Sylvia’s kitchen, for the second part of a never-before-heard interview from 1989. Pull up a chair for a conversation with the Stonewall veteran and trans rights pioneer who reflects on a life of activism while she cooks a pot of chili.
Episode first published October 22, 2017.
Listen to the first part of Eric Marcus’s interview with Sylvia Rivera and explore the accompanying episode notes here.
In this second part, Rivera mentions being informed about the sit-in at New York University’s Weinstein Hall by Bob Kohler. Click here to learn more about the protest and find out more about Kohler in his Village Voice obituary here. After the Stonewall uprising, Kohler helped cofound the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which you read about here.
Rivera was also involved with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), another influential gay rights group founded in New York City in the wake of Stonewall. GAA’s records are housed at the New York Public Library; for more background about GAA and to find out what the library’s GAA collection holds, click here.
In the episode, Rivera mentions being arrested for “upper-head female impersonation.” The law that historian David Carter cites as the one used by the New York City police against people like Rivera is an “anti-mask” law that dates back to the mid-19th century. For an overview of the history of laws regarding cross-dressing, click here.
Rivera also mentions her friend—and fellow Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries member—Bebe Scarpinato. Learn about her here.
Sylvia Rivera’s memory lives on with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization that “works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression.”
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and welcome to the third season of Making Gay History!
Just as I did for our first two seasons, I’m taking a deep dive into my decades-old audio archive to bring you the voices of LGBTQ history.
For the start of this new season, we’re bringing you the second part of a conversation I had with Sylvia Rivera back in 1989. Sylvia talked about her memories of the Stonewall uprising and how she left home in 1962 when she was only 11 years old. If you haven’t already heard that episode, I urge you to have a listen.
So here’s the second part of that conversation in Sylvia’s tenement apartment kitchen in North Tarrytown, New York. It’s Saturday evening, December 9th, 1989. Sylvia’s friend Rennie has just left for work. On Rennie’s way out, she asked Sylvia to save her a drink for when she gets back. Sylvia promises that of course she would, but as soon as Rennie is out the door Sylvia pours herself another generous glass of vodka from a bottle that is already well on the way to being emptied. Sylvia’s boyfriend Frank is in the next room watching TV.
Sylvia Rivera: Frank! What are you doing? I just realized, you have to go and buy me some tomato sauce. I forgot to buy the tomato sauce for the chili. So could you go out and get that? And, huh? Uh, pick up a couple cans. Yeah, nice cans. Not the little ones. No, not Aunt Millie’s. I need tomato sauce. We’re not making pasta.
But, no… It’s um… You can sell anything out on the streets. You can sell men, young boys, and young women. There’s always a customer out there and they are the ones that are sick.
I remember just going home and just scrubbing myself in a tub of hot waters. “Oh, these people touched me.” I mean, the sleaze. Even if they weren’t old. They could have been young. I remember sleeping… When I was 13 and 14 years old, I remember sleeping with guys that were 20 and 21 because they were paying me. And they had their hang-ups.
Eric Marcus: You knew what you were.
SR: I knew I was a whore at that time. I knew I was out to make money.
EM: And these guys were pretending they were something else, coming to you for…
SR: They came for a fantasy trip. That’s what it was. It was a big fantasy.
EM: How did the police treat you when you were a kid and out on the streets?
SR: The first time that I got arrested it was like, “I’m going where?”
EM: What had you done?
SR: You were a faggot.
EM: Were you dressed in women’s clothes?
SR: Well, back then, when I first started out, I was in women’s clothes. It was what, what they call right now, even right now what I’m wearing is “scare” drag.
EM: Scare drag? What is scare drag?
SR: What I’m wearing right now. You don’t have the tits on or anything. You just have a little makeup on. You have your hair out. You got women’s clothing on. And that’s what they called scare drag. Every time that I used to go in front of a judge, “upper-head female impersonation.”
EM: That was the charge.
EM: Upper-head female impersonation. In other words, from the neck up.
SR: Um, hmm.
EM: That’s incredible.
SR: The laws back then were very strange.
EM: So from, let’s say up until ‘69 you weren’t involved in gay rights or any of that stuff, were you?
SR: Before the Stonewall I was involved in the Black liberation movement, the peace movement. I just felt that I had, I had the time and I knew that I had to do something. And then when the Stonewall happened…
EM: You were, let’s see, 19, 18 years old then…
SR: Um, hmm.
EM: You were still a kid by most standards.
SR: Yes. It was like a god-sent thing to me. I mean, I just happened to be there when it all jumped off. I said, “Oh, well, great,” I said, “Now it’s my time.” I said, “Here, I’m out there being a revolutionist for everybody else.” I said, “Now it’s time to do my thing for my own people.” And I joined GAA, and that first year that we were petitioning for gay rights, on April 15, of that year…
EM: So it was 1970?
SR: It was 1970.
SR: I got arrested for petitioning for gay rights on 42nd Street.
EM: You had a petition… Was it for the…
EM: … the city gay rights bill?
SR: The city gay rights bill.
EM: Who were you getting to sign it?
SR: I was asking people to sign it in the middle of 42nd Street.
EM: Were you dressed in drag?
SR: No, I was dressed casually. Make-up, you know, the hair and whatnot.
EM: Scare drag.
SR: The cops came up to me and says, “No, no, no no, you can’t do this. Either you leave or we’re going to arrest you.” I said, “Well, fine, arrest me.” They very nicely picked me up and threw me in a police car and took me to jail.
EM: For taking out a petition.
SR: Yup. I went in front of the judge. The judge looked at the two arresting officers and he’s like, “Don’t you realize what’s going on?” You know, I could see his look in his face. “Well, number one,” I says, “I’m letting him go.”
EM: To the policeman.
SR: Uh, hmm. He says, “You don’t realize what you just did.” He says, “The whole country is going up in uproar and you are messing with people…”
EM: Who are signing petitions.
SR: Yeah. Right. And I’m like, “Oh, Okay.”
EM: Now, were you part of… there was a protest at NYU.
SR: One of the sit-ins. That was one of the sit-ins. We always had dances there and all of a sudden they didn’t want us to have any dances there. And, so, okay, we won’t have any dances. We just took over Weinstein Hall. It was a nice sit-in for three or four days. It was interesting.
EM: So you were there.
SR: Yeah, I was there. And my brothers and sisters from the gay community themselves were not very, very supportive.
EM: Of you.
SR: Of, of anything that went down. At that time, I was sleeping in the park. ‘Cause I had already given up my job, given up everything for gay liberation. I was sleeping in Sheridan Square Park, okay? And Bob Kohler came and told me, he says, “We’re having a sit-in.” He was from GLF. He’s one of the originators from Gay Liberation. And the people that held that sit-in for three days was my people, the people from STAR. We were there and everybody says, “Oh, it was because you didn’t have a place to live.” That wasn’t true, we could’ve picked up a trick and stayed at a hotel. But we were there for them. Marsha, myself, and everybody else. I mean, when they came in and threw us out there was nobody there except what they call the street people. Or the STAR people.
EM: Was STAR formed already by then?
SR: Actually STAR was born out of the NYU sit-in.
EM: What does STAR mean.
SR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
EM: What was the reason for starting it?
SR: My brothers and sisters kept on using us and we wanted to be by ourselves.
EM: How many queens were involved in STAR? It was a small group? Three? Four?
SR: It was very small.
EM: A half dozen?
SR: It was like… It was myself, Marsha Johnson, Bambi Lamour, Endora… I had like several women in there. Okay, wait a minute.
EM: So it was maybe a half-dozen.
SR: Yeah, a half-dozen. Bebe. Bebe was part of my group at one time.
EM: Did you ever testify at City Hall with Bebe, for the gay rights bill?
SR: Oh, ho.
EM: Tell me about that.
SR: Heh, heh, heh…
EM: I’ve heard stories.
SR: Heh, heh, heh… Whoo… And Miss June Bartel. I think it must have been the first time that we went. And, you know, I gave them my point of view. And Bebe got up and gave her point of view. And then after that, you know, we said, “Well, we’ll play it cool, you know.” We went to the ladies’ room. Well, actually… No, we went to the ladies’ room, they wouldn’t let us in.
EM: This is the police.
SR: Yes. “It’s okay, we won’t go in there, we’ll just go into the men’s room.” We went to the men’s room. We came out. We, you know, fell out, you know, in a little line. And, I forget the councilman’s name. He says, “And why should I have my children being taught by them, men that dressed in women’s clothing.” Now, here Bebe is going to become a teacher, okay? And we’re like, “What is this man’s problem?” He just like really put us down.
So June comes out of the bathroom and she walks right in front of the council table and she says, “Where the fuck do you want me to go and take a piss at? Do you want me to take my pants down right here and piss in front of you?” And she’s standing there with this little mini and she pulled up the mini and there’s the G-string standing on and they’re like freaked out. Here’s June like, you know, they’re like, “Oh, my god, he’s gonna show it. Is it real?” And June very nicely says, “Oh, well, I guess we have to leave now.” And she just pulls back her clothes on and says, “Now, tell me where I can go piss.”
No, but I did testify. I testified a couple of times. And the gay rights bill, as far as I’m concerned, you know, to me, the gay rights bill and the people that I worked with on the gay rights bill and when I did all the petitioning and whatnot, when the bill was passed… That bill was mine as far as I’m concerned. I helped word it and I worked very hard for it. And that’s why I get upset when I give interviews and whatever, because the fucking community has no respect for the people that really did it. Drag queens did it. We did it, we did it for our own brothers and sisters. But, damn it, don’t keep shoving us in the fuckin’ back and stabbing us in the back and that’s… And that’s what really hurts. And it is very upsetting.
EM: Not only do you get beaten up by the straights, you get beaten up by the gays.
SR: You get beaten up by your own, and that’s what hurts.
Marsha and I fought a lot for the liberation of our people. We did a lot back then. Marsha and I had a building on Second Street, which is called STAR House. And when we asked the community to help us, there was nobody to help us. We were nothing. We were nothing! And now we were taking care of kids that were younger than us. I mean, Marsha and I were young and we were taking care of them. And GAA had teachers and lawyers and whatnot and all we asked them was is, well, if you could help us teach our own so we can all become a little bit better. There was nobody there to help us. There was nobody.
EM: They left you…
SR: They left us hanging. There was only one person that came and helped us. Once again is… Bob Kohler was there. He helped us paint. He helped us put wires together. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doin’. I mean, we took a building that was, I mean, a slum building. We tried. We really did. We went out and made that money off the streets to keep these kids off the street.
EM: So you sold yourselves to take care of the kids.
SR: Instead of showing them what we were doing. ‘Cause we already went through it.
EM: Did you want to protect them? What were you protecting them from?
SR: From the world. From life in general. There’s, you know, to show them that there was a better life.
EM: Who were these other kids, the young ones? Where did they come from?
SR: From everywhere. We had kids from Boston, California, everywhere. We had them…
EM: Where were their families?
SR: I guess at home.
EM: So these were kids like you who had to leave.
SR: They were good kids. I’ve seen a couple of them after, you know, the movement and whatnot. And they’re all… The ones that I’ve seen they’ve done very well. It makes you feel good.
EM: Yeah, but if you’d had your way, you would have had a building where kids could come and…
SR: I woulda loved to have had, to be honest with you, like every time I see the commercial, Covenant House, I said, “I woulda loved to have had that.” I woulda loved to seen that, a STAR House for the children, for people that know… You know, these kids already knew. You always get that feeling, you know. You’re different, so go somewhere.
EM: So they came here. But you needed the help of… I would imagine you and Marsha did not have resources, the experience, uh…
SR: We just didn’t have any monies and we…
EM: You needed the help of GAA or someone else…
SR: We needed the monies from the community and the community was not going to help us.
[Frank returns home with the tomato sauce.]
Frank: I got two cans.
SR: Oh, you did? Good. Let me finish this chili and then I’ll make the rice. Get the can opener. It’s all the way over there.
EM: So is there anything, anything that I haven’t asked you, any story, anything that you’d like to… that I should know?
SR: I’d like to do a lot more for the movement, but the movement just doesn’t want to deal with me.
EM Narration: Sylvia’s dream of a safe place for LGBTQ youth came to an end when she and Marsha were evicted from the derelict building that was home to STAR House. But later that decade, in 1979, Dr. Emery Hetrick and his life partner Damien Martin, founded The Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth. It’s now called HMI and you can learn more about that organization in Making Gay History’s season two, in Joyce Hunter’s episode.
I wish I could say that in the years after I first met Sylvia, she lived happily ever after in North Tarrytown with her boyfriend. But her friend and partner in the movement Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992, and Sylvia’s life went off the rails. She wound up homeless and living on an abandoned pier near Greenwich Village.
Sylvia eventually stopped drinking and rejoined the movement, and in 2001 even tried to re-start STAR, renaming it Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, but she died of liver cancer a year later. Sylvia was 50 years old.
I’ve got a few people to thank for this first episode of season three, including our executive producer, Sara Burningham, and audio engineer Anne Pope. We had production assistance from Josh Gwynn. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Myers. Thank you, also, to social media strategist Will Coley, our webmaster, Jonathan Dozier-Ezell, and researchers, Bronwen Pardes and Zachary Seltzer. Our guiding light since the very first episode is Jenna Weiss-Berman.
The Making Gay History podcast is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Season three of this podcast is made possible with funding from the Ford Foundation, which is on the front lines of social change worldwide.
So long! Until next time!