Why We Owe Gay Marriage to an Early Trans ActivistRoundup
tags: social history, Protest, LGBTQ history, Stonewall Riots
Eric Cervini is an award-winning historian of LGBTQ+ culture and politics, and the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America.
History is written by the victors, but what does it mean if we achieved victory only because of someone else’s battle?
As a historian of LGBTQ+ politics and culture, it’s my obligation to look at the hidden side of history, the part of our past that isn’t written by the victors, the history that’s buried in obscure archives, often conveniently forgotten. And that history tells us that we owe many of our victories, including marriage equality, to someone who never wrote a book or got the full recognition they deserve: a trans woman of color.
Fifty years ago, on May 21, 1970, Sylvia Rivera stood before a judge in New York City. Only eighteen years old, she was wearing a purple jumpsuit and large sunglasses.
“Name?” asked the judge.
“Ray Rivera—but call me Sylvia,” she said.
The judge turned to her attorney. “Counsel, is your client a man or a woman?”
Her lawyer paused for a moment. “Yes, your honor.”
By the age of twelve, Rivera had become a sex worker on 42nd street. There, she formed a family of fellow “street kids,” and on the night of June 27, 1969, these youths—many of whom were homeless, thrown out by their families—joined the gender non-conforming patrons of the Stonewall Inn to initiate America’s first widely-publicized queer insurrection against police oppression. Now, historians refer to those four nights of resistance as the Stonewall Riots. And although her story changed over time, Rivera said she was there.
A few months later, in March 1970, Rivera learned about the recently-formed Gay Activists Alliance, the more pragmatic, politically-oriented offshoot of the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front.
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