zing tsjeng is telling us about the women that history forgot

Read an extract from Zing’s new book series Forgotten Women, about Sylvia Rivera -- the drag queen behind the modern transgender rights movement.

by Georgie Wright
09 March 2018, 3:24pm

Based on your GCSE coursework you’d be forgiven for thinking that in olden days women basically didn’t exist in any other capacity than as breeders and feeders. But, of course, we did. We’ve just been written out of history since day dot. In reality there are thousands of pioneering women who kept humanity thriving and stopped it taking a nosedive into apocalyptic doom. Zing Tsjeng -- UK editor for our sisters at Broadly and all-round phenomenal women herself -- has been tirelessly researching and writing about these unsung historical heroes. While still keeping down a full-time job because -- did we already say phenomenal? Each book in the ongoing series focuses on a different area, and the first two, just released, hone in on The Leaders and The Scientists. We were going to write about them, but we thought hey, why talk about the book when we could just give a you a preview?

So here’s the story of Sylvia Rivera -- the drag queen behind the modern transgender rights movement. Read it, then read the rest after you buy the book(s). Go on.

Sylvia Riviera -- excerpted from Forgotten Women: The Leaders, Zing Tsjeng

A self-described “bitch on wheels”, Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002) was a teenage runaway who became one of the world’s earliest and most passionate advocates for transgender rights. “In many ways,” one writer noted in a Village Voice obituary following her death in 2002, “Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall.”

Growing up in North America in the 1950s and 1960s was brutal for young trans people, let alone a transgender orphan born into poverty. Her mother killed herself when Sylvia was just three and her biological father was already long gone. Sylvia’s forbidding Venezuelan grandmother took her in but despised her love of make-up and would beat her if Sylvia came home with lovebites on her neck.

By the time she was ten, Sylvia was out of her grandmother’s door and hustling with other street queens on New York’s 42nd Street. These teenage hustlers were turning tricks out of financial necessity – most had been disowned by their families or found it impossible to get a 9–5 job in the prevailing atmosphere of homophobia and transphobia. It was here that Sylvia found her family, a marginalized community of outsiders that she would advocate for later on in life.

In the early hours of 28 June 1969, Sylvia headed to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village to go dancing. She was about to turn 18. While Greenwich Village was a relatively tolerant and gay-friendly neighbourhood, the New York Police Department would regularly raid its bars to collect bribes, intimidate and arrest guests. By law, you had to wear at least three items of clothing deemed appropriate for your biological gender -- meaning that trans women, butch lesbians and any other gender-nonconforming individuals could face a night in the cells.

That night, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn erupted into rioting. While reports differ on exactly what prompted the breakout of violence, Sylvia says she was right at the front as people began to throw loose change and coins at the police, shouting, “Here’s your payoff, you pigs! Get out of our faces!” As nickels and dimes turned into glass bottles, the police were barricaded inside the Stonewall Inn. At one point, Sylvia claimed to have hurled one of the first Molotov cocktails at the police.

“All of us were working for so many movements at that time. Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around,” she later told Workers World. “You get tired of being just pushed around.”

Sylvia was electrified; after years of harassment and discrimination, the LGBTQ community was finally waking up and expressing its rage. As the crowds swelled and began to fight back against the police reinforcements that had arrived, Sylvia howled through the streets, “The revolution is here!”

After the Stonewall riots, Sylvia formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P Johnson, a trans black woman and street queen who had become her closest friend. At 213 East 2nd Street in New York, the pair created STAR House, a refuge where LGBTQ runaways like themselves could find food, shelter and clothing. Under Sylvia’s direction, the organization would later go on to fight for key legislation such as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill, which outlawed discrimination against trans people in housing and employment, and organized street actions to protest the murder of trans woman Amanda Milan in June 2000.

But Sylvia’s wider participation in the LGBTQ movement was fraught with complications. She was deemed a troublemaker in gay organizations -- a Puerto Rican -- Venezuelan street queen who was too loud, too dark-skinned and too feminine to fit in with the white middle-class activists. Her concerns for those on the fringes of society -- the trans street kids, queens and hustlers -- did not endear her to most activists, who were focused on gaining mainstream acceptance. Others refused to accept her gender identity; at one rally, she was even denounced by lesbian women for “parodying womanhood” and kept off the stage by people she had once called comrades.

As the mainstream gay rights movement fought hard-won battles for acceptance, Sylvia was there advocating for transgender people to take their rightful place beside them. A year before she died of complications arising from liver cancer, she was speaking at an event hosted by a group of gay male activists. She told them, with her characteristic aplomb, “You have acquired your liberation, your freedom, from that night. Myself, I’ve got shit, just like I had back then. But I still struggle, I still continue the struggle. I will struggle till the day I die and my main struggle right now is that my community will seek the rights that are justly ours.”

Forgotten Women: The Scientists and Forgotten Women: The Leaders by Zing Tsjeng are published by Cassell

Zing Tsjeng
Forgotten Women: The Leaders
Forgotten Women: The Scientists​