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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 44
Sylvia Rivera honored by National Portrait Gallery
Section One
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Sylvia Rivera honored by National Portrait Gallery

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Legendary Transgender activist Sylvia Rivera has been honored by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., with an installation in the Gallery's 'Struggle for Justice' exhibition.

Rivera is depicted at New York City's 2000 Gay Pride celebration in a photograph by Puerto Rican photographer and Visual AIDS member Luis Carle. Her partner Julia Murray is shown to her right, and activist Christina Hayworth is to her left.

Rivera was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage and began to identify as female at an early age. Her grandmother, who raised her, disapproved of Sylvia's gender identity and threw her out of their home when Sylvia was only 10.

Rivera tried to support herself as a prostitute in the Times Square neighborhood and became a regular at the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run hangout for drag queens and Trans people - especially African-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Rivera was part of the Stonewall Rebellion in June 1969 and was also involved with the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalists in the mold of the Black Panther Party.

In the wake of Stonewall, Rivera became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Within the emerging LGBT movement, Rivera fought for recognition of the Trans and drag communities and became disillusioned with mainstream groups like HRC when they appeared to abandon the Trans community to win legal protections for Gays and Lesbians alone.

Never one to lobby officials - Gay or straight - discreetly, Rivera was banned from the New York City Gay and Lesbian Community Center for several years because on one cold winter night she aggressively demanded that the center open its doors to homeless youth.

Rivera was treated as an outcast by mainstream LGBT groups for most of the 1970s and '80s, and she happily reciprocated their scorn.

'When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, 'We don't need you no more,' ' she told Z Magazine. But, she added, 'Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.'

Shortly before her death, she recommitted herself to activism, saying, 'I'm tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It's not even the back of the bus anymore - it's the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.'

Rivera had struggled for many years with substance abuse and died of liver cancer in 2002.

Throughout her adult life, Rivera referred to herself with female pronouns, but she also expressed a nonbinary sense of her gender identity, calling herself a 'gay man,' a 'gay girl,' a 'transvestite,' and a 'drag queen,' terms that some would now find mutually exclusive.

She was partnered with Julia Murray but also resisted the designation 'Lesbian.'

'People now want to call me a lesbian because I'm with Julia, and I say, 'No. I'm just me. I'm not a lesbian,' ' she wrote in her essay 'Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones.'

'I'm tired of being labeled. I don't even like the label transgender. I'm tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that's who I am.'

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