Just as all history is contested, just as memory is contested, Stonewall is contested. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we partner with the team at Making Gay History to bring you Sylvia’s Stonewall. In never-before-heard recordings of iconic LGBTQ activist Sylvia Riveria, we not only see that night through her eyes, but also the explosion of activism that followed. Mixing, Sound design and Score by Frank Lopez.
Just as all history is contested, just as memory is contested, Stonewall is contested. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we partner with the team at Making Gay History to bring you Sylvia’s Stonewall. In never-before-heard recordings of iconic LGBTQ activist Sylvia Riveria, we not only see that night through her eyes, but also the explosion of activism that followed.
Mixing, Sound design and Score by Frank Lopez.
Charlie: Welcome to Tales of Your City, an exploration of queer identity and community across America, brought to you by Netflix. My name is Charlie Barnett and I’m the host of this week’s episode New York City.
In partnership with Tales of the City, the new limited series now streaming on Netflix, we are working with independent and queer storytellers each week to shine a light on the cities we inhabit, the ways we connect, and the moments in which we find a space to be our true authentic selves.
Sylvia: I had no fear of nobody. I was already out of my closet.
Charlie: Just as all history is contested, just as all memory is contested. Stonewall is contested. The place. The place’s place in history. Who was there, who wasn’t. Revolutionary trans activist, Sylvia Rivera’s, name has become inextricably linked to the June 1969 riots that sparked an explosion in LGBTQ-plus activism. They’re both icons now – Stonewall and Sylvia.
Icons tend to be reduced to surfaces. We project onto them, endow them with our own meanings. And when we do that, we can lose sight of the multidimensional, the varied and rich reality of life. Sylvia Rivera and the Stonewall uprisings have so many more dimensions, more facets, than the projected lines of iconography.
Back in 1989, 30 years ago, writer Eric Marcus interviewed dozens of queer trailblazers for his oral history book, “Making Gay History.” We are going to dive into those archival recordings with Eric to bring Sylvia Stonewall back to life. To try and fill out those dimensions. There is so much more to the story than one night, but it’s where we’ll start. So, get ready for Sylvia Stonewall.
Eric: All these people are going to tell you they were there. And most of the people who have told me they were there are so clean, and middle-class, and nice, I can’t imagine them ever setting foot in that place. It’s a symbol for people who never saw it.
S1: I knew it was a raid the minute I saw it. Police raided the bars all the time.
S2: It was a full moon and—
S3: One of these hot, sweltering night.
S4: Hot as hell. I think it was so hot you couldn’t stay in the house.
S5: And the riot was on, all of them. To the left, to the right, screaming started it. Things started to be thrown. Everything was happening at once.
S6: And we see these people who are looking young or younger than I am. And they’re throwing things at cops. And I said, “Oh, it’s a riot, these things happen in New York all the time,” you know.
S7: Chorus lines of Queen’s kicking up their heels at the cops, like Rockettes, you know? “We are the Stonewall girls and, you know, fuck you police.”
S8: We are the village girls. We wear our hair in curls. We wear our dungarees above our nellie knee. And when it comes to boys, we simply hypnotize [phonetic 00:03:23].
Eric: Were you one of those that got in the chorus line to kick their heels up at the police?
S9: No, we were too busy [unintelligible 00:03:29] cars and screaming in the middle of the street, because we were so upset that they closed that place.
S10: The look on the cops’ faces. They had that look that you sometimes see with someone who had a trusted pet who suddenly just bit them.
S11: People were throwing bottles and the police were out there with those clubs and things and their helmets on, the riot helmets.
S12: Some queens were searching for weapons and things to throw out. Other queens were in the front lines fighting. Other were cheering on. Others were resting. Others were going to come back. Somebody was giving out soda, beer.
S13: I think somebody else threw a garbage can, so everyone [unintelligible 00:04:10] and threw burning garbage into the premises.
S14: And Sylvia Rivera was there that night, too, apparently.
S15: At that time I didn’t know Sylvia was there.
Eric: The thing about a riot is, when you’re in it, you can only see to your right, to your left, or directly ahead of you. You can’t see what others are seeing. You see only with your own eyes. And then there’s this thing about memory. Memory is constantly shifting reality. Just the act of remembering alters the very memory we recall. Our memories combine with the stories we’ve heard, mixed with the stories we tell ourselves and are remade in our own image. When we look back with our mind’s eye, our memory is utterly personal. Our truth. We’re going to see the Stonewall Riot through Sylvia Rivera’s eyes. We’re going to hear her truth.
I interviewed Sylvia 30 years ago in her cozy apartment in a rundown building in north Tarrytown, New York. Sylvia was cooking chili and drinking vodka. Her friend, Rennie, was hanging out in the kitchen, and Sylvia’s boyfriend, Frank, was in the next room watching TV. Back in 1989, I was so square I was almost cubic and I’d never met anyone like Sylvia before.
Sylvia: Before you came up, you know, I said, you know, Jesus, I just realized how old I am.
Frank: How old are you?
Sylvia: I’m 38. I’m going to be 39. It is old.
Rennie: 39, going to be 40.
Frank: That’s old.
Eric: Sylvia was a trans icon before those two words were generally placed side by side. A street-fighting liberationist. A chosen family matriarch. A voice that screamed in the face of oppression. Stonewall has become like a point on the LGBTQ community’s compass. A date in history that we navigate from and place that we gravitate toward today. When stuff happens, folks gather outside the Stonewall – in celebration, in grief, in protest.
But before June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn was just an afterhours club owned and run by the Mafia. Loved for its dancing boys and despised for its dirty glasses and watered down drinks. Sylvia Rivera was a soon-to-be 18-year-old with more life behind her than most of us have in front of us.
Sylvia: I was born July 2, 1951.
Eric: Where were you born?
Sylvia: At 2:30 in the morning in a taxicab in the old Lincoln Hospital parking lot.
Eric: That’s in the Bronx, isn’t it?
Sylvia: Yup. The old queen couldn’t wait. She said, “I’m about ready to hit the streets.” That’s what my—My grandmother used to always joke about that. I said, “Yeah, you see why I’m always standing out on the street corner.” And then I came out feet first.
Eric: You did?
Eric: So, you landed on—
Sylvia: Hm-hmmm [affirmative]. So, I was ready. I was born to be a effeminate child. My grandmother used to come home and find me all dressed up. And just like, I’d get my ass whipped, of course, you know. “Well, we don’t do this. You’re one of the boys. I want you to be a mechanic.” I said, “No, but I want to be a hairdresser. And I want to do this. And I want to wear these clothes.”
My grandmother came home crying one day. And she says, “Oh, they’re calling you,” with the tears in her eyes says, “They’re calling you a batto [phonetic 00:07:43]” Which means faggot in the Spanish language. And it hurt her so bad because they were doing this to me. And she knew where I was coming from. She even knew. But it hurt her.
When I actually turned 10 years old, I had such a bad feeling about everything that was going on in my life and what my grandmother was going through, I attempted to commit suicide. I choke—well, I took a whole lot of pills. I almost killed myself. And my aunt, upstairs, which she wasn’t really my aunt, after I started getting the effect, I went upstairs and told her what I did. And she rushed me to Belleview.
You know, being gay and the whole nine yards and I had that much respect for my grandmother. I didn’t want—I didn’t want her to suffer. I knew I had to leave. It wasn’t my suffering. I was worrying about her suffering.
I’ve been on my own since 1961, when I got out of the hospital after I tried to kill myself. So, yeah, 10 years old. About 10, 10-1/2. Probably I was almost 11. I thought I was grown. I knew where I was coming from. I hit the streets and became a streetwalker. You stand out in the street and you make money.
Eric: At that age.
Sylvia: That—at that age it was easier to make money.
Eric: Who stopped to pick you up?
Sylvia: Every dirty old man that called themselves straight.
Eric: What were you doing in ’69?
Sylvia: When ’69 came around, I had a job. I worked for the AMPT Company and I was an accounts payable clerk. I used to come in there very flame—I used to make my own suits and whatnot. And walk in there with the full face makeup, the whole nine yards. Okay. But I had no fear of nobody.
Eric: Because you were out there.
Sylvia: I was already out of my closet.
Charlie: On the evening of Friday, June 27, 1969, Sylvia Rivera decided to go somewhere she’d never been before.
Sylvia: It was the first time that I had even been to freaking Stonewall.
Eric: So, what happened that night? Did you normally go out in the evenings with your friends to the bars?
Sylvia: Well, the Stonewall wasn’t a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was, you see. And Stonewall was not a bar for drag queens. There was one bar at that time and that era, which was called the Washington Square Bar. That was the drag queen spot, okay? You could get into Stonewall if they knew you. And there were only a certain amount of drag queens that were allowed into the Stonewall at that time. So, we had just come back in from Washington, my first lover and I. Because, at that time, we were passing bad paper around and making lots of money.
Eric: Bad paper meaning bad money, counterfeit money?
Sylvia: No. We were passing forged checks and whatnot. We were making good money. But it’s all, “Well, let’s go to Stonewall. Let’s do our thing. Let’s go there.” You know. And when it happened, he was like, “Well, you can’t—Sylvia don’t go off.” And I’m like, “Why not?” I said, “I have to go off.” I said, “I have to be part of this.” I said, “I have to.” The feeling is here and it meant a lot. And I was glad that I was there.
Eric: So, you’re—so, you’re at the bar. Were you drinking at the bar or just standing around?
Sylvia: No, I was drinking.
Eric: And what happened? What—Describe—Did the police come? Did—
Sylvia: The police came in. They came in to get their payoff, as usual. It’s the same people that you saw was coming to the Washington Square Bar, too. You know, get their payoff. I don’t know if it was the customers or was the police. It just—everything clicked. Everybody just like, “Why the fuck are we doing all this for?” The people at the bars, especially at Stonewall, were involved in other movements and everybody just like, “All right, we gotta do our thing. We’re going to go for it.” And when they ushered us out—It was nice, you know, when they just very nicely put you out the door. And then you’re standing across the street in Sheridan Square Park. And—but why? Everybody’s looking at each other. But why do we have to keep on constantly putting up with this?
Sylvia: And the nickels, the dimes, the pennies and the quarters started flying.
Eric: Why? Why that? Why did people do that?
Sylvia: The payoff. That was the payoff.
Eric: Oh, oh, oh, oh.
Sylvia: That was the payoff.
Eric: Which symbolized the payoff.
Sylvia: Yep. You already got—
Eric: Here’s some more.
Sylvia: And here’s some more. To be there, you know, was just like—Oh, it was so beautiful that I just, like, you know, it’s like—
Eric: Was it exciting?
Sylvia: Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, “We’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.” They thought that they could come in, say, “All right, you get out,” and nothing was going to happen. They could put that padlock on the door. And they knew damned well, like everybody else knows—Back then they would come in, raid a gay bar, padlock the freaking door. Soon as they left one way—The police would leave one way. The Mafia was there coming in the door. They had a new register. They had more money and they had more booze. This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.
Sylvia: We had to live with it until that day.
Eric: So, did you throw any pennies or dimes?
Sylvia: Oh, I threw quarters and things and what not.
Eric: How were you dressed that night? Describe it for me.
Sylvia: I was dressed—I was in full drag. I was dressed, you know, very pleasantly. Bell bottoms and I had made this fabulous suit at home. It was light beige. Something very, very summery.
Eric: A pantsuit.
Sylvia: Yeah. I was wearing that and I had the hair out, lot of makeup, lots of hair. Well, the hair I’ve always had, you know—
Eric: Beautiful hair. Did you have heels on?
Sylvia: No. I was wearing boots. Some reason—I don’t know why I was wearing boots. I guess because we had just come in from Washington. I don’t know. I was just wearing boots.
Eric: So, what happened next? You’re throwing the pennies . . .
Sylvia: We’re throwing the pennies.
Eric: Or quarters and everything else.
Sylvia: And whatnot. And everything is going off really fab. I thought it was going off really fast. The cops blocked themselves in the bar, because then it’s getting vicious.
Eric: Why was it getting vicious?
Sylvia: Because people went—there was Molotov cocktails coming and, you know, all this really—I don’t know where they got the Molotov cocktails, but they ended up showing up. They were thrown through the door and whatnot. The cops were—You know, they just panicked. Inspector Pine really panicked. He really did. Plus he had no backup. He knew—
Eric: They didn’t expect this.
Sylvia: He did not expect any of the retaliation that the gay community gave him at that point.
Eric: Do you think all of this was in part because people were so angry for so long?
Sylvia: People were very angry for so long. I mean, how long can you live in a closet? I listen to my brothers and sisters that are older than I am. And I listen to their stories. And I’m like—I would never have made it. They would have killed me. Somebody would have killed me back then.
Sylvia: I mean I could have never survived the lives that my brothers and sisters, from the ‘40s, the ‘30s . . .
Eric: You would have been killed.
Sylvia: No. Because I have a mouth.
Eric: Right. Did you say anything that night when you were out in front of the Stonewall? Did you say—did you—
Sylvia: Oh, I was instigating certain things.
Eric: What’d you say?
Sylvia: It’s just like, “Okay. Well, now, here it is. It’s our time. We’re going to do our thing and we’re going to get it.” And we did get it.
Eric: What happened to you?
Sylvia: Oh, I got knocked a little bit by a couple of plainclothesmen. I didn’t really get hurt. I was very careful that night, thank God. You know, I didn’t get really hurt. But I saw other things, other people being hurt and that’s like—
Eric: By whom?
Sylvia: By the police.
Eric: What did they do?
Sylvia: Well, this one drag queen that came out—You know, they brought her out and—I don’t know what she said, but it’s just that they just beat her into a bloody pulp. One—this couple of dykes they took out and threw in a car. They got out one side and—It was just, like, inhumane, and senseless bullshit.
Eric: So, they treated you like animals?
Sylvia: Well, that’s—Yeah. Well, that’s what we were called anyway. We were the lowest of the scum of the earth at time.
Eric: Did you want to sit down?
Sylvia: Frank, what are you doing? I just realized, you have to go and buy me some tomato sauce. I forgot to buy the tomato sauce. Please.
Eric: While Frank heads out to buy tomato sauce for Sylvia in 1989, I’m back here in 2019, standing near the spot Sylvia was just talking about. The Stonewall has been through many incarnations since the uprising. It’s been a bagel shop, a shoe store and now it’s bar occupying half the frontage of the original. It looks so small in comparison to its size in the collective imagination.
Stonewall has come to define the history of the fight for LGBTQ rights, kind of like a brand. This one word used to define so much LGBTQ protest, anger and history. And, in many ways, Stonewall has come to define Sylvia Rivera. But Sylvia won’t be here for the Stonewall 50 celebrations this summer. She died on February 19, 2002 of liver cancer at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was just around the corner from here.
We have a tendency to turn people into saints when they’re gone and we’ve taken the turning point of Stonewall and turned it into a talisman. But history is messier and broader and more complicated than a single famous event. Lives are messier, bigger and more complicated than a single night. Sylvia Rivera’s legacy isn’t confined to this spot, that bar, the little street and the park out front. Sylvia’s struggles for recognition, for support from the gay community, are as important as her Stonewall story.
Eric: Were you park of—There was a protest at NYU?
Sylvia: Yeah. I was there. And it was a nice sit-in for three or four days. It was interesting.
Eric: So, you were there?
Sylvia: My brothers and sisters from the gay community, themselves, were not very, very supportive.
Eric: Of you?
Sylvia: Of anything that went down. When you have a sit-in. You don’t leave a sit-in. The people that held that sit-in for three days was my people, the people from STAR. Actually, STAR was born out of the NYU sit-in, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Eric: Sylvia and Marcia, and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries found space in a near derelict tenement on the lower East Side and opened STAR House. They wanted to provide a haven for homeless trans youth, but they had little support and fewer resources.
Sylvia: When we asked the community to help us, there was nobody to help us. And I mean we took a building that was—I mean, a slum building. We tried. Kept it going for about a year or two. But we went out and made that money off the streets to keep these kids off the street. And we were taking kids that were younger than us. I mean, Marcia and I were young, and we were taking care of them.
Eric: But you needed the help of—I would imagine that you and Marcia did not have the resources and the experience—
Sylvia: We just didn’t have any monies. And we—
Eric: And you needed the help of [unintelligible 00:21:52] or someone ese.
Sylvia: We needed the monies from the community. And the community was not going to help us.
Eric: Sylvia also fought for legislation that would prohibit discrimination in New York City on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. First introduced in 1971, the bill took years of organizing and activism to become law.
Sylvia: The gay rights bill, as far as I’m concerned, you know, that bill was mine. I got arrested for the gay rights bill. I helped word it and I did all the petitioning and what not. When the bill was finally passed, I stood with another girl named Lois—So, we stood there and watched that last vote go down. And she was, “Oh, we did it. We did it.” She says, “You finally fucking did it, bitch.” We did it.
Eric: But the bill didn’t include protections for trans people. It took New York State until this year, 2019, to finally add protections for gender identity and gender expression to the state’s human right law.
Eric: Sylvia made so many contributions and lived on the front lines. But after the early 1970s, when organizations like the Gay Liberation Front proclaimed her part of the vanguard of the revolution, other organizations judged Sylvia too radical, too risky to be a poster child for LGBTQ rights and she was sidelined. By the time I interviewed her, Sylvia had stepped back from her activism and was living a quieter life outside the city. Rennie’s too far away from the microphone for you to hear her very well, but she’s been telling me how Sylvia showed her the spot where she used to sleep in the park across the street from Stonewall.
Rennie: He showed me the park where he used to sleep. And he showed me a whole lot of things with the cops down there. Cops were saying all kinds of comments and stuff when you were walking—
Eric: This Halloween?
Rennie: Yes. One cop said, “Where’re you hiding the salami?”
Eric: What did you say?
Sylvia: Up your ass. That’s what I said.
Eric: The police were saying this to you.
Rennie: Yeah, they were very vicious, I’m telling you. And then—
Sylvia: What was it, the two-hour cops said, “Oh, the bitch is still alive. I thought the old bitch was dead.” They’re talking about me, yeah.
Rennie: I thought she died years ago. I said, “No, she’s doing fine and living in Westchester.” And I just kept on walking.
Eric: So, they know you.
Sylvia: Yeah. Oh, yeah. You got a—you got a reputation after plucking cops’ nerves for almost, what—from 1969 to—
Rennie: To Halloween.
Eric: To Halloween?
Sylvia: Well, still even now. No I’ve been, you know, like, lately I’ve been getting involved in a lot of different things. You know, it’s just not the movement now. It’s just like—I’d like to do a lot more for the movement. The movement just doesn’t want to deal with me. The drag queen has always been there, you know. Except that we’ve been there and they didn’t know it.
Eric: That’s upsetting.
Sylvia: And it is very upsetting.
Eric: Because not only do you get beaten up by straights, you get beaten up by the gays.
Sylvia: Yeah, you get beaten up by your own, and that’s what hurts.
Eric: Hm-hmmm [affirmative]. No one wants you.
Sylvia: We’re just the low trash of life. But I’m tired of being at the bottom of the heap. I want to be at the top of heap.
Eric: I never saw Sylvia again after our conversation in 1989. Just a stone’s throw from the park bench where Sylvia used to sleep is the corner of Hudson and Christopher Streets, a place now called Sylvia Rivera Way.
Charlie: All right, friends and family. Thanks for joining us this week on Tales of Your City. This show was produced by Netflix with Pineapple Street Media. Our music is by Hansdale Hsu You can find us every Monday wherever you find your podcasts. Sylvia Stonewall was produced by the folks behind the Making Gay History podcast. Hosted by Eric Marcus with senior producer Sarah Birmingham, assistant producer Monique LaBorde, researcher Brian Ferry, and mixing and sound design by Frank Lopez.
You can hear more stories from Sylvia Rivera and the voices of a dozen more LGBTQ-plus trailblazers, plus a special limited run season focusing on Stonewall at MakingGayHistory.com, or find episodes wherever you get your podcasts.
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