Sylvia Rivera and the Spirit of Solidarity

Symbol of gay and trans pride in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. By Emercado2020 via Wikimedia Commons. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Originally published in the June 12, 2022 issue of The Weekly Letter newsletter.

On June 24, 1973, Sylvia Rivera took the microphone at the Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in Washington Square Park, NYC. Facing boos from the crowd, Rivera spoke:

“Y’all better quiet down. I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help, and you all don’t do a goddamn thing for them…. They’ve been beaten up and raped after they’ve had to spend much of their money in jail to get their self home and to try to get their sex changes. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women of the Women’s Liberation and they write STAR, not the women’s groups, they do not write women, they do not write men, they write STAR because we’re trying to do something for them…. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way?…”

(See video of the speech here.)

While Rivera was a pioneer who fought for all members of what is today called the LGBTQ+ community, her contribution to the struggle of transgender and gender nonconforming people was especially deep. Along with Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which adopted a left-wing manifesto for liberation and provided support for transgender prisoners and unhoused transgender people.

(Gender terminology was in flux during Rivera’s time, and Rivera described her own gender identity in different ways during her life. She is commonly considered a trailblazer for transgender rights, and I primarily use the term “transgender” here to refer to the community she fought for.)

However, the presence of Rivera and others who identified as drag queens at the rally was virulently opposed by members of the organization Lesbian Feminist Liberation, which considered drag queens “female impersonators” (during her own speech, a member of the organization, Jean O’Leary, referred to Rivera as “a man”). Rivera asserted in her speech that she and other gender nonconforming people were marginalized due to factors of race and class. She said that unlike the “men and women that belong to a white, middle-class… club,” those at STAR House “are trying to do something for all of us…”

Rivera was anguished by her treatment at the rally. The context of Rivera’s speech is discussed in the 2017 documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson (available on Netflix). In an archival interview featured in the documentary, Rivera says that after the rally she attempted to kill herself (her life was saved by Johnson). She then left the gay liberation movement.

When Rivera returned to activism years later, she resumed her struggle against the oppression of transgender people. And she was not afraid to criticize the mainstream of the gay liberation movement when it marginalized the transgender community. One focus of Rivera’s ire was the attitude that trans people should wait for their rights until after gays and lesbians secured theirs.

The story of Sylvia Rivera has a lot to teach us. On the negative side, it tells us that social movements can shamefully marginalize those who are multiply oppressed—and on the front lines of the movement—in the name of pragmatism and respectability. The disdain of some feminists toward drag queens also indicates that for some on the left, ideology can take precedence over solidarity.

We can see this fairly clearly in the position of trans-exclusionary radical feminists today. But we can also see the privileging of ideology over solidarity in other contexts, such as in the history of left-wing support for repressive countries because of their status as ‘workers’ states’ or supposedly anti-imperialist states. From the Communists who denied or excused Stalin’s atrocities to Western leftists who viewed Syrian revolutionaries as American puppets, the left has often lost its way regarding international issues due to unquestioning adherence to faulty doctrines.

However, Sylvia Rivera’s uncompromising commitment to the transgender community, to LGBTQ+ liberation more broadly, and her STAR organization’s support for a revolutionary transformation of society as a whole represents the left-wing spirit of solidarity at its best. From the personal to the system-wide, Rivera believed in a revolution from the bottom-up. Her insistence that no one be left behind is an example of a left-wing impulse that is perhaps most elegantly stated in the Industrial Workers of the World slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The importance of prioritizing support for political demands for equality over dubious ideological speculation is argued in an episode of ContraPoints by the YouTuber Natalie Wynn. Wynn argues that opponents of transgender rights distract by asking trans people to justify their gender identity through asking questions like, “what is a woman?” This leads to a dead-end debate about metaphysics and semantics. But the real issue, Wynn says, is not the metaphysics of gender but the concrete reality of inequality and discrimination against trans people.

(Wynn has herself been criticized for comments and actions that have been viewed as marginalizing non-binary people. An article on the website Pride addresses this controversy.)

I think this focus on achieving equality can also help reframe some of the issues that are embroiled in the ‘culture wars.’ Whatever the right-wing may say, the LGBTQ+ movement is not attempting a cultural takeover—it’s demanding dignity and equal status. It’s engaged in a political struggle.

If the fight against oppression is a core part of the left-wing project, then our focus has to be on how we can achieve equality—or, more accurately, equity—concretely in the real world. Although our basic commitments are informed by theory, we must be wary of the ways in which doctrine can steer us away from solidarity.

We are in the middle of a wave of backlash against political and social progress made by the LGBTQ+ community. As a heterosexual and cisgender man, I don’t presume to propose how to guard against the backlash and take the next steps forward. But I will do my best to be in solidarity with the struggle for equity. An injury to one is an injury to all.

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