Link to original Them.us article: https://www.them.us/story/happy-birthday-sylvia-rivera
It was almost the end of my shift at my Tribeca coffee shop when my partner texted me with an address, telling me I needed to get there ASAP. With my apron in hand, I rushed 26 blocks to the West Village. It wasn’t an emergency per se, but apartment hunting in New York brings its own kind of urgency.
The flat’s hardwood floors creaked, and the fire escape looked like it was about to rust off the building. The bathroom tub leaked and everything was crooked. The place was falling apart — and it was perfect. It wasn’t just that it’s in the West Village, the center of the ‘70s LGBTQ+ rights movement in New York. But the apartment, which we did end up renting, was a few doors away from Christopher and Hudson, also known as Sylvia Rivera Way.
Our street, of course, is named after Sylvia Rivera, the Latinx activist at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. As a Latinx trans femme myself, she and I share the same POC family that takes over Christopher Street at night. We both know what it feels like to be hungry while everyone else eats. We know what it’s like to have no option other than survival. Some people have Mother Teresa or Ghandi, but I have Sylvia.
As I began to walk the same streets that Sylvia walked, I saw her everywhere. In the gentle waves of the Hudson River, I felt her. These piers that were once her home became mine. Sylvia and I walked the West Village together.
Images of transgender people were almost always negative back when I started transition in 2012, cautionary tales of what would happen if you dare defy the gender binary. Sylvia became my long-lost, half-Puerto Rican auntie; a role model, someone who was always looking for family, just like I am now. Although the black and white images of Sylvia that exist hid her olive brown skin, I could see the indigenous features much of my Latinx family shares. Her images and descriptions reminded me of home in times where I was not accepted. I dedicated my life to carrying on her legacy.
In 2017 I co-founded a transitional housing project called Trans.formation house in North Carolina. The idea was that transgender people could live in the house for six months to a year to get on their feet. I found a donor that provided us with a house, achieved 501c3 status, and assembled the board. I wanted this to be the southern version of Transy House, the housing project that Sylvia ran for homeless trans women, where Sylvia also lived until she passed away in 2002.
The project started to gain momentum and we already had clients who needed the house. I dedicated six months to finding funding and volunteer support. In the end, it wasn’t enough. The house closed and the non-profit dissolved. I wanted to follow in Sylvia’s footsteps, but my efforts weren’t enough. I left North Carolina feeling like I had failed the community. New York represented a new start, a chance to grow and learn from the people who had been doing the work. If I wanted to be like Sylvia, this was the place to do it.
The truth is, as much as I try to emulate her, if I were alive in the ‘70s I know I would have been scared to transition. The only reason I’m brave enough to be myself today is because of people like Sylvia. I wouldn’t have fought the police. I likely would have ran out the back door.
But when I watch the Hudson River moving under the sky, I’m reminded that Sylvia was also human. She suffered from depression, and once attempted suicide in that river. She stopped doing activist work for many years after being ostracized by the gay community. She felt pain just like i do.
While it’s important to have a small street sign on Hudson Street called Sylvia Rivera Way, it’s equally important to acknowledge that the average trans woman of color can’t afford to live here. Sylvia herself was homeless for much of her life; nearly a third of transgender people polled in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said they have experienced homelessness at some point in their life. Nearly one third also said they were living in poverty, compared to 12 percent of the general population. Black transgender women face the worst of this economic disparity.
Most days I find myself looking out my second floor window, wondering what Sylvia would be doing if she lived in our age of cellphones and memes. Would she still push her way to the front of the Pride parade with a makeshift sign? Would she disrupt the corporatization of queerness? Of course she would.
Sylvia was a flame trying to burn in a world that wanted to snuff her out. After being verbally attacked by the gay community on the pride stage in Washington Square Park, she came back. After being abused physically and emotionally throughout her life, she still fought. She stood up for herself and her chosen family over and over again. No matter how many people tried to extinguish her, she never stopped.
I want to be that flame, too. I’ll create sparks that grow into their own fires. I’ll stand my ground and demand my place in this world. I’ll get weak and rest. I’ll take care of my own. I won’t let labels get in the way of my authenticity. These are lessons Sylvia taught me and I will always be grateful. And today, on her birthday, I promise myself to carry on her legacy.
Happy Birthday, Sylvia