ON THE EVENING of Tuesday, February 26, the ashes of Sylvia Rivera were taken from the standing-room-only Metropolitan Community Church in midtown Manhattan and placed in a horse-drawn carriage. The carriage, along with hundreds of mourners, moved slowly down Christopher Street, past the historic Stonewall Inn where the gay-liberation movement was born. When it came to a stop, Sylvia’s ashes were scattered off the piers on the Hudson River. It was a fitting end for a drag queen who had been in the forefront of enormous changes for the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) movement over the past 33 years.
The funeral was exactly what Sylvia would have wanted; indeed, she had made all the arrangements in the months before her death from liver cancer at age 50. Let’s face it: Sylvia — reputed to have hurled the first beer bottle in the Stonewall Riot — had learned long ago that if you wanted something done (never mind done right), you’d better do it yourself.
Sylvia had always remained on the outer fringes of the gay movement — she spent a substantial portion of her adult life homeless and struggling with substance abuse and was famous for her street-smart, no-nonsense, fuck-you-in-your-face brand of politics. But in death she was widely mourned, both by her comrades in Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, or STAR (which she had co-founded in 1971 as Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), and by the most mainstream of gay groups. Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — one of the most respectable, conservative, and well funded of the national gay-rights groups — issued a lengthy statement of respect for her that read, in part, "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Sylvia Rivera, a brave pioneer who helped pave the way for the future of GLBT Americans.... We are proud to honor her enduring legacy."
But the love fete didn’t go both ways. Rivera was constitutionally opposed to the top-down politics of HRC — and that’s putting it mildly. "One of our [STAR’s] main goals now," she wrote in April 2001, "is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because 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." Just weeks before her death, STAR issued a press release that called HRC "a separatist organization devoted to money and power that has insulted STAR and the transgender community through ignorance, arrogance, and transphobia." Indeed, in light of Sylvia’s Rivera’s true feelings, HRC’s reverential elegy seems not only smarmy, but hypocritical.
But what looks at first glance like a nasty in-fight between scrappy transgender street radicals and Beltway professionals — the skirts versus the suits — is actually a fight for the heart and political integrity of the gay-rights movement. While the gay community has always acknowledged the cultural importance of drag queens, cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals, and people of variant gender, the political movement has been focused on securing a variety of legal protections for women and men who, as a group, are identified by their sexual attraction to others of their own gender. The idea that the gay-rights movement might also fight for the right to express gender differently — whether by appearing too butch or too femme, or dressing in clothing intended for (in that quaint phase) "the opposite sex" — is fairly recent. The term transgender itself — a very loose concept connoting pretty much anyone who identifies and presents him- or herself in ways outside of socially prescribed gender roles — came into play only in the early 1990s and was popularized by works such as Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (World View Forum) and Kate Bornstein’s 1994 Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (Routledge). It was an idea whose time had arrived, but it did not meet with complete acceptance within the pre-existing movement. The gay mainstream may have enjoyed the spectacle of campy drag shows, but it had little intention of fighting for the rights of a group that most "normal" people considered freakish or mentally ill.
When Sylvia Rivera argued for civil rights for transvestites and drag queens in 1971, she was far, far ahead of her time. Although she had support in the fresh flush of post-Stonewall politics, when she was a member of the leftist, radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) — whose antiwar, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist agenda was, well, liberationist in the widest possible sense — that window of truly progressive queer politics was short- lived. GLF lasted less than two years. Meanwhile, the national movement became a narrowly focused gay-rights movement that, over the next two decades, would struggle for its members to be accepted by mainstream society as "normal" American citizens who were just like everyone else — except for the fact that they were homosexual.
Drags and trannies not only ran counter to this image, they exploded it. They were the poster children for the mainstream’s worst possible fears. Though many straight people came to accept discreet homosexuals who practiced their vice in the privacy of their own homes, they had a much harder time with men and women who publicly violated gender norms. This was true in 1972, when the New York–based Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) deleted transvestite and drag issues from the first anti-gay-discrimination bill introduced to New York’s City Council, and to a large extent it is still true now.