Meeting Sylvia Rivera

When I took a vacation trip to New York back in May 2000, little did I realize that I would get a chance to meet a historic figure at the same time.

It was back during my NTAC days and the same weekend as the Millennium March. I had no intention of going to DC because the trans community was dissed and ignored in the planning for the march, then made extremely late additions of Riki Wilchins and Jamison Green to the list of speakers when other transpeeps griped about HRC’s ‘bidness’ as usual ‘ignore the trannies’ approach to community event planning.

That’s a story for a later post

Since I was in the Big Apple I was invited by the denizens of Transy House to meet some of the peeps living there.

One of those peeps as I discovered two hours into the visit was Sylvia Rivera.

Thanks to my dad’s job and my then airline one I was used to meeting historical figures, celebrities, public/political figures and icons. It really didn’t faze me that I was meeting the Mother of the Transgender Rights movement.

After I received a big hug from her and she had a chance to eat something, we started talking. Sylvia carried herself with a regal elegance, and she was ever the activist. We discussed in a long conversation the state of the trans movement, especially after she discovered I wasn’t bamboozled by HRC either and couldn’t stand Jim Fouratt’s transphobic behind.

We had a long conversation about her Gay Liberation Front days, STAR (the first political organization for transgender rights in the world), the chopping of transpeople from New York City’s gay rights bill in 1971 that failed to pass, some of the drama and hateraid that was directed her way when the gay community ejected her, Marsha P. Johnson and our transsisters out of the GLF in order to appear more ‘mainstream’, and her adamant belief that we needed to do more as transpeople to fight for our rights and ensure we weren’t erased from GLBT history.

When Sylvia discovered I was a proud Texan, she started criticizing President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.

I politely pointed out that as an African-American transperson from the Lone Star State I have a much higher opinion of LBJ. I also pointed out that an Austin high school and NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston are named for him, an Austin radio station bears his initials in addition to his presidential library (which I’ve visited) being ensconced on the University of Texas campus.

We agreed to disagree on that subject.

It was a little past midnight before we wrapped up the conversation. I ended up staying overnight at Transy House because I was staying in Yonkers with a friend and would have had a long crosstown subway and commuter rail ride there from Brooklyn through Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning. Once I arrived at the Yonkers train station, it would be a 30 minute walk to my friend’s condo from the station unless there was a cab parked there. I also wasn’t sure if the commuter rail trains were still running all the way to Yonkers that late either.

I was planning to return to expand on our conversations, but my life took a different direction several months later. Sylvia died way too soon in 2002 from lung cancer at age 50. I smiled when I heard that even on her deathbed, she was giving the powers that be hell.

One thing I’ve regretted over the years is that I didn’t have a tape recorder or a notepad with me to record for posterity everything we talked about or I didn’t get to see her again. But then again I wasn’t expecting to meet a legend either.

I think about the things we discussed when we approach the Stonewall anniversary or when I’m looking at some situation that crops up between the transgender and gay communities that illustrates perfectly the points Sylvia warned me about almost a decade earlier.

I’m also a firm believer in listening to the wisdom of my elders. Some of what Sylvia divulged to me has served me well over the years. I’m also aware of the fact that I’m walking in Sylvia’s pumps.

The conversation at times felt like she was passing a torch to me that night. It’s my job as I see it, to hold that torch aloft and keep the transgender rights flame lit until it’s time for me to pass it on to the next generation.

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