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Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall & the STAR Story
A recent discussion here on Kasama has touched on evolving issues of gender identity and the struggle for the liberation of women and queer people. Coincidentally, an excerpt from an interview with the late Sylvia Rivera was circulating this morning on social media. A friend pointed me to the source of this interview, an extraordinary pamphlet entitled "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle," published as a downloadable PDF by Untorelli Press. The introduction to this pamphlet, by Ehn Nothing, touches on a lot of the issues we have been discussing, and really makes the point that this was a movement forged in the gritty reality of the streets in a pre-gentrification New York City. When I moved to New York in the early 1980s I remember seeing STAR veteran Marsha P. Johnson many, many times on the streets of the village: and not because she was just "hanging out," but because that was where she lived. It was a hard life and the lessons these heroic, ground-breaking revolutionaries learned and shared were the product of blood and tears. Here's the introduction to the pamphlet, and the interview with Sylvia Rivera. Be sure to track down the original and read the whole thing. —ISH
QUEENS AGAINST SOCIETY
BY EHN NOTHING
It seems obvious that the study of history is a necessary element of continued war against the present world. There are tools lying in every failed insurrection, every temporarily-established zone of free play, every campaign of sabotage that ended in a jail cell or shootout. To ignore these lessons is to forfeit valuable weaponry and strategic insight. History is a weapon.
Additionally, creating a narrative of revolt against the constraints of civilization gives us a lineage to draw motivation from, to keep us warm when we feel broken under the weight of this miserable world. By understanding ourselves as part of an ongoing war that has been raging for 12,000 years, we dynamite a history that would keep us as either spectators or pawns in a theater created by bosses, politicians, and police. History is a compass.
As we search the past for weapons and inspiration, we must also be careful. Every “revolutionary” murderer has been made into martyr by historians trying to “reclaim” the past. The end result of that path is establishment of political cults, with their own party purity and sacred texts. As individuals who would like to see the entire tradition of managed revolution go up in flames, it is not for us to establish the dead as heroic martyrs, but rather to understand them as individuals like us, exemplary in the context of pacified contentment, but flawed nonetheless. To “honor our dead,” then, cannot take the form it takes for the religious purists (whether they be Catholic or Leninist in nature), but can only exist as sustained attack against society and the proliferation of spaces and relationships from which that attack can be realized.
Currently, this strategy is elaborated upon in the vandalism, sabotage, and arson taken up by individuals or informally-organized groups of individuals in solidarity with prisoners of war, deceased comrades, or others lost to or harmed by the operations of power. Underlying these attacks is an ecology of revolt that extends far beyond any specific smashed window, glued lock, or torched police car. Our relationships of support, our solidarity with imprisoned comrades, our criminal intimacies, our squats, our syntheses of survival and attack are the materials from which our insurrectional practice springs forth.
It is with this in mind that I wish to critically engage with STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and its activities in the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement. As a broke, gender-variant person who desires an insurrectional break with the existent, the activities of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson hold valuable lessons on revolt, survival, street-level self- organization, the failure of leftism and feminism, and the interruption of the gender order. I do not wish to make martyrs out of Sylvia or Marsha, nor do I wish to uncritically valorize their activities; the failures and limits of STAR are of more interest to me than mythologized stories of Sylvia Rivera throwing shoes or bricks or Molotov cocktails at police during the Stonewall riots. I hope to engage STAR as a historical weapon and as a precedent of contemporary queer insurrectional projects.
I am not the first to engage with STAR or attempt to rescue its activities from the dustbin of history. Beginning with Martin Duberman’s Stonewall in 1993, there has been a renewed interest in STAR, including academic essays, anthology contributions, documentary films, and archiving. While this may seem like a lot of attention for a group that existed for just a few years in the early 1970s, the lack of critical engagement or archiving of gay street culture and the self-organized networks that existed within it makes material hard to come by. So while much of the wider current that made ruptures like the Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria riot (1) possible has been lost to history or remains uninvestigated and unarchived, STAR exists as a relatively well-documented example of street queens’ resistance.
This renewed interest in STAR is not without its problems. Much of the critical writing and archiving is coming from professional academics or activists: positions whose prejudices affect the interpretations of STAR’s history. In addition, the main audience for this work is the self-described “radical queer” milieu, which is often also coming from positions within academia, the non-profit industrial complex, or gay activism. While I am reluctant to level accusations of appropriation against middle-class, white leftist queers, this transference of history from “radical queer” academia/activism to “radical queer” academia/activism traps that history in a framework completely divorced from the reality Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson existed in. So we see an attempt to pull STAR into a framework of feminism, communism, or “radical queer;” and a reduction of lived experiences to facts one can repost on the internet to maintain one’s image in the “radical queer” subculture. What we are left with is individuals scrambling to mobilize STAR to reinforce their ideologies, political positions, or self-constructed images, no matter how divorced those things may be from the lives of street queens or the methodology of resistance embodied by S TA R .
It could be said that, in my writing, I too am guilty of appropriation. Admittedly, I am not a sex worker, in quite the same position of economic precarity, or oppressed by white supremacy in the way Sylvia and Marsha were. However, my approach to STAR is not in service of protecting or reinforcing any ideology. Unlike the academics and activists who wish to position STAR in a context of charitable social work (Benjamin Shepard), or “transgender” liberation (Leslie Feinberg and others), my goal is to draw out currents within STAR’s praxis and relate them to a project insurrection, allowing Marsha and Sylvia to speak for themselves and refusing to situate STAR within frameworks, such as anarchism, that I identify with. I feel that Marsha and Sylvia’s words, while I may ethically diverge from them significantly at times, speak their own truths.
In the following essay, I draw out particular attitudes, positions, and issues embodied in STAR and the culture of gay liberation that they fought in: conflict with the white gay left, street-level survival, self-defense, anti-police and anti-prison politics, direct action, and anti-assimilationist queerness.
ASSIMILATIONIST AMNESIA, IDENTITY INSOMNIA
In order to understand STAR’s practices and ideas, it is important to understand the context they existed in, both within the wider society and within the gay subculture. With the increase in historical studies of Stonewall, the fact that gender-variant people, queers of color, and gay street kids were at the front lines has become more evident. However, the continued resistance to this narrative by assimilationist gays and the view of Stonewall as a disconnected, exceptional moment of gay revolt, has allowed only traces of the wider context of white supremacy, class oppression, transphobia, and hegemonic reformism to be brought to light. The resistance that STAR faced as a multi-racial group of revolutionary street queens illuminates the wider dynamics of the gay liberation movement, and allows us to understand the foundation upon which the current white supremacist, cissexist, middle-class gay assimilationist movement is built upon.
Race, Class, Revolution
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were not respectable queers, nor were they poster-children for the modern image of “gay” or “transgender.” They were poor, gender-variant women of color, street-based sex workers, with confrontational, revolutionary politics and, in contrast to the often abstract and traditionally political activists of Gay Activists Alliance, focused on the immediate concerns of the most oppressed gay populations: “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time” (Sylvia Rivera quoted in Feinberg). Within the predominantly white, non-gender- variant, middle-class, reformist gay liberation movement, Sylvia and Marsha were often marginalized, both for their racial, gender, and class statuses, and for their no-compromise attitudes toward gay revolutionary struggle.
After the initial rupture of Stonewall – which, as Sylvia describes, “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” (Feinberg interview) – the gay liberation movement had to deal with uppity street queens who rejected abstract politics in favor of street- level concerns. Those with nothing to lose are often those who push hardest when the time comes; this was true at the Stonewall riots, and continued into the gay liberation movement, much to the dismay of those whose idea of “gay liberation” was either inclusion in straight society or managed revolution. These forces of gay normativity and revolutionary management marginalized, erased, and silenced those whose bodies, histories, or ethical orientations refused dominant models. Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance meetings became battlefields. As Martin Duberman describes in Stonewall: “If someone was not shunning [Sylvia’s] darker skin or sniggering at her passionate, fractured English, they were deploring her rude anarchism as inimical to order or denouncing her sashaying ways as offensive to womanhood.” The particular position Sylvia and Marsha occupied was, by nature of their very identities, resistant to the goals of the increasingly-assimilationist gay movement. Revolutionary street queens of color were an impediment to the goal of assimilation into the white straight capitalist world, leaving the general membership of GAA “frightened by street people” (Arthur Bell quoted in Gan).
This marginalization continues today in the revisionist history favored by the modern equivalents of GAA assimilationists. The presence of gender- variant people, people of color, poor people, and street people at Stonewall and in the gay liberation movement that followed has been erased or minimized by assimilationists who wish to present a respectable movement of reformist white gays seeking inclusion in capitalism and state institutions.
This selective history has also been reconfigured and replicated by the burgeoning transgender movement. The activists and politicians of this movement, seeking the same inclusion of transgender individuals into white capitalist society that the GAA assimilations sought in the 1970s, have created a generalized “transgender” subject in the narrative of Stonewall and the gay liberation movement. As Jessi Gan points out, “the claim that ‘transgender people were at Stonewall too’ enacted its own omissions of difference and hierarchy within the term ‘transgender’” and, as they celebrated Sylvia Rivera’s visibility as transgender, concealed her status as a broke woman of color. This erasure of the complexities of Sylvia and Marsha’s lives is one example in an ongoing white supremacist, colonialist project taken up by transgender activists, who wish to subsume all variations from Western binary gender under the umbrella of “transgender,” regardless of the origins of the term or the self-understanding of gender-variant individuals. This flattening of complex experiences also allows for transgender individuals who are white, middle or upper class, assimilationist, or institutionally educated to appropriate the experiences and struggles of radical gender-variant people of color as part of a grand narrative of “transgender,” thereby separating themselves from any responsibility to engage and attack systems of oppression outside of the vague “transphobia.” The “transgender” or “genderqueer” movements, true to their origins within academia and activism, remain dominated by – to utilize Sylvia’s characterization of the gay liberation movement at the 1973 Liberation Day rally – “a white, middle-class, white club.”
Feminist & Assimilationist Betrayal
In a similar move, some feminists have celebrated STAR as an early example of trans women’s participation in feminist organizing, but usually without acknowledgement of both the history of feminism’s violence against male-assigned-at-birth gender-variant people, or how this violence played out against STAR and Sylvia in particular. While both Sylvia and Marsha noted respectful treatment by lesbians situationally (see the interview with Marsha in this zine and Duberman’s Stonewall), the growing tide of radical feminism and lesbian separatism played out violently against STAR, specifically at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in Washington Square Park. Blocked from speaking and physically attacked by lesbian feminists for parodying womanhood, Sylvia stormed onto the stage, grabbed the mic, and confronted the audience for its whiteness, class privilege, and lack of concern for prisoners. As Sylvia describes it: “I had to battle my way up on stage, and literally get beaten up and punched around by people I thought were my comrades, to get to that microphone. I got to the microphone and I said my piece.” The betrayal, led by lesbian-feminist Jean O’Leary, caused Sylvia to drop out of the movement for decades and attempt suicide.
While the incident proved to be the dramatic end to STAR, it occurred within a context of betrayal by the gay liberation movement and growing hatred for male-assigned gender-variant people within feminist theory and activism. With the dropping of transvestites from the New York antidiscrimination bill - which Sylvia was arrested climbing the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to crash a meeting on (Wilchins) and which she attacked a Greenwich Village councilwoman with a clipboard in the service of (Highleyman) - the gay liberation movement turned toward assimilation and reform and began to distance itself from revolutionaries, street people, queers of color, and gender- variant individuals. STAR’s politics – “picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary” (see Marsha interview in this zine) – could find no harmony with a movement of white middle-class gays seeking inclusion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
It is no surprise that STAR would come into conflict with a gay movement turning its focus onto integration into capitalist society. From the beginning, STAR’s concerns were not for sloganeering, posturing, masturbatory intellectualism, or “movement building.” Survival, as both an attempt to provide for basic needs of living and as a tension toward self-defense and offensive struggle against a society that threatened them, was central to all of STAR’s activities, and is key in understanding their positions in the conflict within the gay liberation movement.
Before exploring STAR’s projects and revolt, I would like to complicate the narrative - favored today by those who would like to ignore the necessity of struggle in their immediate lives - of Stonewall as the origin of queer struggle against society. Stonewall, like the Compton’s Cafeteria riot before it, was only possible because of pre-existing conflictual zones – metropolitan neighborhoods “where social tolerance for sexual difference was high and police interference with neighborhood life was lax or nonexistent” and in which queers shared money from hustling, food, housing, self-defense, and tricks of the trade (Freidman). STAR, therefore, should be seen as one particularly visible manifestation of a wider network of self-organization amongst street queens and poor queer people. Their true origins, then, are not necessarily “political” in nature, but rooted in an informal type of solidarity and mutual aid, often linked to criminality and hatred for the police. STAR as an organization came out of the occupation of NYU’s Weinstein Hall in 1970. The university had refused to allow gay dances, organized by a gay student group, to occur on campus, so gay liberationists occupied the hall and held a sit-in. The arrival of the Tactical Police Force caused the gay liberationists to abandon the occupation. STAR, initially called Street Transvestites for Gay Power, was born of the frustration with the gay liberation movement for its refusal to defend itself and be committed to struggle against the police (see STAR NYU statement in this zine).
The immediate concerns of life – food, housing, money, safety – were central to all of STAR’s projects. Sylvia and Marsha – who, in a common practice amongst street queens and queer sex workers, had secretly turned hotel rooms into temporary communal living spaces, sometimes for 50 or more people (Feinberg) – began work on self-organizing spaces and projects to provide for their needs and those of other street kids. Prior to the formation of STAR House, Sylvia and Marsha had a trailer truck in a parking lot in Greenwich Village, housing two dozen street kids. This was short lived, as Sylvia and Marsha came home one day with food for the kids, only to discover that their home was driving away, with 20 kids still sleeping in it. (Duberman). They then formed STAR House: “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” (Feinberg). This living situation proved to be temporary, and they were evicted for not paying rent. Before leaving, however, they destroyed any work they had done on the building and removed the refrigerator (Duberman). With the members of STAR in precarious living situations, STAR had difficulty actualizing its planned projects, which included dance fundraisers, another STAR home, a telephone line, a recreation center, a bail fund for arrested queens, and a lawyer for queer people in jail (see Marsha interview).
Equally important to establishing living situations and securing food was the need for self-defense against bashers and police. The generalized sharing of skills amongst queer street kids and sex workers focused heavily on discerning what situations were safe and which weren’t, and protecting each other from police. Police and imprisonment were violent and intense, especially for broke street queens. Marsha recalled one transvestite being “grabbed right out of her lover’s arms” while on the street (see Marsha interview). In jail, gender-variant prisoners faced rape and abuse by police and inmates, and legal manipulation that caused some queens to have to wait years to get a court date. It is no surprise then, that STAR originated in the frustration with gay liberationists’ failure to confront police at NYU; that STAR’s first public appearance was at a Young Lords demonstration against police repression (Feinberg) ; that Sylvia’s impassioned 1973 speech indicted the gay liberation and women’s movements for forgetting its prisoners of war; or that, upon reentering gay struggle in the 90s, Sylvia focused on police violence against Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, in addition to the murders of Matthew Shepard and Amanda Milan. Sylvia’s attitudes on the police are clear: “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.” (see Feinberg’s interview with Sylvia)
To conclude, I would like to address others with whom I share common enemies and common projects. STAR is just one historical note in a legacy of queer insurgency. With the rise of queer theory and transgender history as respectable subjects of study, other accounts of queer and gender- variant revolt are being rescued from oblivion. Much of the time, those doing this historical rescue work have little more in mind than furthering academic careers or reforming systems of exploitation and control. For queer insurgents, then, recovering our history from obscurity and recuperation is a necessary element of struggle. If we do not critically engage this history, we not only lose analytical tools that could aid the spread and sharpening of our revolt, but also abandon the dead to vultures who reduce everything to image and commodity. Everywhere we falter in our analysis or fail to recognize the tools and weapons lying in history, queer academics, “radical queer” scenesters, assimilationist filth, and all other types of gay managers and cops will turn those struggles toward their ends.
The struggle for queer liberation, fed on the sweat and blood of individuals like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, continues. Many in the gay world today would have us abandon struggle as an antiquated reaction to domination. If they speak of Stonewall, it is to cordon it off as an antique to be admired. This gay pacifism is not merely the result of gays and lesbians seeing their revolution come to be via gay marriage and hate crime legislation; it is an attempt by newly-integrated bosses and police to prevent revolt in their ranks. Our war, then, is against the gay defenders of society as much as it is against the straight ones.
But it is not only gay capitalists and professional politicians who seek to stifle revolt. Time and again, we have seen the partisans of “radical queer” one moment celebrate queer riots of the past, and the next mobilize identity politics to condemn queer riots today. We have seen these careerists use images of past queer insurrection to sell their books and further their art careers, all with a barely contained hatred for all forms of struggle outside of their control. For those of us who, through our ethical inclination toward insurrection, have come into conflict with these perennial enemies, the distinction is clear. Glitter is not a basis for affinity. We prefer to forge our friendships in a shared practice of revolt, because we can only truly know each other when we cease to be servile, that is, when we are destructive together.
(1) The Compton’s Cafeteria riot was an uprising against police repression of queer people that occurred in 1966 in San Francisco. After a queen fought back against police who attempted to arrest her, queers and street people destroyed furniture, smashed out the windows of the business, smashed out the windows of a police car, and burned down a sidewalk newsstand. The next night a picket occurred, during which the replacement windows of the cafe were again smashed. For more on this, see Susan Stryker’s film Screaming Queens.
(Below is a list of secondary sources cited in this essay. All other sourced material is reprinted later in this zine.)
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall.
Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries”: http://www. workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/
Friedman, Mack. “Queens, Hookers, and Hustlers: Organizing for Survival and Revolt Amongst Gender-Variant Sex Workers, 1950-1970”: http://zinelibrary. info/files/queenshookershustlers_read.pdf
Gan, Jessi. “Still at the back of the bus’: Sylvia Rivera’s struggle”
Highleyman, Liz. “Sylvia Rivera: A Woman Before Her Time” in Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation
Wilchins, Riki. “A Woman for Her Time”: http://www.villagevoice.com/2002- 02-26/news/a-woman-for-her-time/
‘I’M GLAD I WAS IN THE
AN INTERVIEW WITH SYLVIA RIVERA
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 me.
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 of there.”
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 Weinstein 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 years. 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 revolutionary people.
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
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 that night.
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.
(For a taste of Sylvia Rivera live, I have appended a short video of her forceful, challenging appearance before that Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973, from Dangerous Minds.—ISH)