Sylvia Rivera Law Project Takes Radical, Intersectional Approach in Transgender Advocacy, Reported by Out

Posted on May 22, 2019

How Sylvia Rivera Created the Blueprint for Transgender Organizing

Originally Published in Out on May 21, 2019
Written by Raquel Willis

Two years before her death, Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera served as muse for a photography series captured by Valerie Shaff. The black-and-white images feature the outspoken activist dolled up with razor-thin eyebrows, a bold lip, and wind-strewn hair on a makeshift encampment near the Hudson River. A nearly 50-year-old Rivera was living there in protest of the mostly gay- and lesbian-focused organizations and community groups at the time — particularly, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, which was mere city blocks away. Rivera contended that the mainstream LGBTQ+ organizations were ignoring the needs of local homeless youth and transgender people. “Sylvia was really for the democratization of our movement. She was unwilling to have an agenda be set behind closed doors by the most elite people in the community,” says Dean Spade, a trans activist and associate professor at Seattle University School of Law.

Rivera’s work served as a bridge: on one side, the advocacy world dominated by gay men and lesbians who had historically excluded trans people; and on the other, an increasingly more vocal trans community and an uprising of trans-led organizations. For this next generation of activists, Rivera’s groundbreaking creation of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the accompanying STAR House represented one of the first major initiatives centering trans and gender nonconforming people in our community. Within a year of Rivera’s death in February 2002, the beginnings of a national network of trans-led organizations began to emerge. In August of that year, Spade exalted the legacy of Rivera in the formation of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a multiracial legal aid organization centering trans, gender nonconforming, and intersex people who are low-income. While he was inspired in part by his own discriminatory run-ins with law enforcement and the legal system as a trans man, he also set out to enshrine the radical, intersectional approach to organizing and activism that Rivera utilized throughout her life.

“We designed our organization as a collective, using a horizontal structure. We’re focused on trying to actually build the political capacity of our movements and make change from [the most marginalized],” Spade says. “I think all of that work is in the vein of what Sylvia was asking for because she came from movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s that were very much volunteer-based, grassroots, and trying to build mass mobilizations.” “Sylvia was a very disruptive person who entered movement spaces and demanded to be heard and wasn’t afraid to break the rules, make people uncomfortable, and push for things that were unhearable inside some of the white-led gay and lesbian politics that were more dominant,” Spade says. “The tradition of those kind of tactics are something we really hold on to by lifting her up and honoring her in all of her depth.”

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