In 1970, Sylvia Rivera started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with her friend Marsha P. Johnson. STAR was an organization by and for trans women aimed at challenging racism, poverty, policing and incarceration, and trans-misogyny. To do so, members of STAR founds ways to support each other. One of the most important ways they did so was through STAR House, a home where Rivera, Johnson and their friends lived together, along with other young trans women who would otherwise be living on the streets. STAR House provides an impressive model for organizing for trans communities today and I plan to write more about it in the future. Today, however, I want to talk about what happened when STAR House closed.
STAR House was a groundbreaking effort, but it did not last long. Soon after renting an apartment from Mafioso Mike Umbers, Rivera and Johnson found themselves broke and facing eviction.
Umbers told gay writer and activist Arthur Bell, “I think I’m doing more for the cause that any of your organizations, militant, pacifists, but I’ll be fucked if I house that bunch rent free.” So, in July of 1971, Umbers called the police and had the trans revolutionaries put out on the street.
STAR, however, wasn’t going to leave quietly. Historian Martin Duberman wrote “But before she and her ‘kids’ left STAR House, they destroyed all the work they had put into the place and threw the refrigerator out the back window.” Sylvia Rivera said, “That’s the type of people we are: You fuck us over, we fuck you over right back.” She offered no apology.
It is easy to understand why Rivera was upset. She and her sisters were about to return to life on the streets. Before the eviction Rivera’s friend Bambi told Bell, “I’d like to stay here – save our money – get something nice for the fall and move from the East Village. We can’t now. We’ll have to spend our money on eating out and sometimes on hotels, and if the cops come, it’s too bad. At least in this hole you could always come home.” Losing STAR House was devastating. No wonder Rivera wanted to strike back against the people and the system who threatened her survival.
I love the image of Sylvia Rivera, angry and unapologetic, heaving a refrigerator through a window. The sound of the shattering glass and the thud of the fridge hitting the cement must have been magnificent.
Rivera’s transgender rage powered her activism. Her anger got things done. In her anger, she fought back against the police at Stonewall and later at the NYU sit-ins. She screamed at the gay community for abandoning queer and trans prisoners during the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally. Listen to her words (closed captions available). They are electric.
Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally (image description: a transgender woman, Rivera, yells into a microphone.)
As transgender people find ourselves the subject of increasing media visibility, Rivera’s rage is refreshing. The promise of media visibility tempts us to believe that if we behave, we will find acceptance. If we confirm to cisgender, white beauty standards, perhaps we will be able to find work. If we absolve cisgender people who misgender us, perhaps they will learn to use the right pronouns. If we ask nicely, maybe we can use the bathroom in peace. If transgender women of color dress respectably, maybe they will avoid the racist, transmisogynistic violence that kills so many. Whatever we do, we are not supposed to let them know that we are angry. This neoliberal historical moment demands a smiling face, especially from women and non-binary femmes. To survive, we are expected to be trans and happy, but I can’t do it. Neither could Sylvia Rivera.
As a person with depression, I find the burden of compulsory happiness too much to bear. I know when I hoist that weight to my shoulders, I am carrying the weight of cis expectations instead of caring for myself and my delicate heart. If I am going to survive, I need to center my own needs and the needs of the most vulnerable members of my trans community. That means that I need to feel what I feel, including anger. Many people treat anger as dangerous, but when we remember Sylvia Rivera, we learn that anger can powerful.
It is important not to reduce Rivera to her anger, even while we celebrate her transgender rage. Rivera was often used by gay organizers to front dangerous demonstrations became they knew she could be counted on to resist the police. These same people were quick to abandon her when her appearance and manner didn’t fit in with their respectability politics. Others treated Rivera as little more than a loud-mouth. Rivera, however, was more than a screaming queen. She was a brilliant political organizer, a community leader, a powerful speaker, and an incisive political thinker. She was also vulnerable person who suffered greatly as she fought back against the racist, transmisogynistic violence that killed many of her sisters. She survived by creating communities of people she loved deeply. She deserves to be remembered in all her complexity.
If we knew trans history, we would know that our anger is powerful.