Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries

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This page focuses on the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group of transvestite activists that was formed in the fall of 1970 by Sylvia Rivera, along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson.[1]

Members of STAR at the occupation of NYU's Weinstein Hall. September 24, 1970. Copyright Ellen Shumsky. Courtesy of the Photographer.


The Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries emerged out of anger over the police response to a sit-in at New York University's Weinstein Hall. (The University had refused to allow the Gay Student Liberation to hold two planned dances in the subcellar.) Gay Liberationists abandoned the action after NYU sent in the Tactical Police Force—a move that infuriated the founders of STAR. In their first leaflet, they chided gay activists: "All we fought for at Weinstein Hall was lost when we left upon the request of the pigs.... You people run if you want to, but we're tired of running. We intend to fight for our rights until we get them."[2]

STAR became the first group in New York City to focus on the needs of street queens—young transvestites who hustled to make a living.
Sylvia Rivera takes part in a GLF protest against Bellevue Hospital. The hospital, which was controlled by NYU, "treated" a number of gay people. Fall 1970. Photograph by Richard C. Wandel. Courtesy of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive. The photograph has been cropped for this exhibit.
The group's greatest accomplishment was to secure a home for young street queens. Sylvia Rivera had worked the streets herself, so she knew first-hand the challenges these young people faced. She wanted to create a space where they could come for shelter, food, and support—and maybe even develop a foundation that would allow them to leave the streets for good.[3] As she remembered: "We went out and made money off the streets to keep these kids off the streets. We already went through it. We wanted to protect them, to show them there was a better life."[4] Initially securing an abandoned trailer (which was later reclaimed by its owner with over a dozen queens still sleeping in the back), the group eventually found a home at 213 East Second Street.[5]

STAR also planned to secure bail money and lawyers for imprisoned transvestites (an organized effort never materialized) and worked to combat the discrimination queens faced within the gay community.[6] STAR members made sure they were a visible presence at gay liberation actions so that the movement wouldn't ignore them or leave them behind.[7]

Although Sylvia Rivera, Marcia Johnson, and other STAR members like Bebe Scarpi had worked hard for groups like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, they found little support from the existing movement. GLFer Bob Kohler helped the group fix up the STAR House, and GLF gave it money for "beer and setups" at its first dance.[8] But when Rivera asked the Gay Activists Alliance to loan its stereo equipment for the dance, the organization declined, with some members making the argument that GAA was "'not in the rental business.'"[9] Even when STAR was at risk of losing its house, GAA refused to loan money to the group.[10]

Tensions between street queens and other gay liberationists predated STAR. Marcia Johnson remembered that at one GAA dance, "...there was not even one gay brother that came over and said hello. They'd say hello, but they'd get away very quick."[11] While some women in the Gay Liberation Front got along well with transvestites, many other lesbian feminists considered drag an embodiment of all "the things that [they were] trying to break free of—high heels, girdles, corsets, stockings...."[12] In fact, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries was formed in part because of the discrimination street queens had felt within the gay liberation movement. Sylvia Rivera remembered founding STAR "...because my brothers and sisters kept on using us when they needed us, but they weren't treating us fairly. So we wanted to be by ourselves."[13]


GLFer Perry Brass talks about the tensions between "the STAR girls" and GLF:


The issues that STAR addressed remain prevalent today—a fact highlighted by Rivera's decision to reinstate the group in 2001 after the murder of a transgender sex worker.[14] Although almost all of the original members of STAR have since passed, a number of activists and organizations continue their work to care for queer homeless youth—and to push for full equality for all transgender people.


Bebe Scarpi, a friend of Sylvia Rivera who attended many STAR meetings and demonstrations, talks about Sylvia and STAR:


Return to Gay Liberation in New York City.

Categories

Gay Liberation, New York City, New York University, Weinstein Hall, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Street Queens, Transvestites, STAR House, Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance

Contact

Lindsay Branson: lindsay.branson@gmail.com

References

  1. Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Plume Books, 1993), 251.
  2. Reprinted in Arthur Bell, Dancing the Gay Lib Blues (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 120.
  3. Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 251.
  4. Sylvia Rivera, interview by Eric Marcus, Making Gay History (New York: Perennial, 2000), 151-2.
  5. Duberman, Stonewall, 251-2.
  6. "Rapping With A Street Transvestite Revolutionary/ An Interview with Marcia Johnson," in Out of the Closets:Voices of Gay Liberation, 20th Anniversary Edition, eds. Karla Jay and Allen Young (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 114-18; Bebe Scarpi, personal interview, March 5, 2010.
  7. Scarpi, personal interview.
  8. Ibid., 252-3.
  9. Bell, Dancing the Gay Lib Blues, 146.
  10. Duberman, Stonewall, 254.
  11. "Rapping with a Street Transvestite Revolutionary," Out of the Closets, 114.
  12. Jean O'Leary, Making Gay History, 154-5.
  13. Rivera, Making Gay History, 151.
  14. She changed the name to the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. Liz Highleyman, "Sylvia Rivera: A Woman Before Her Time," in Smash the Church, Smash the State, ed. Tommi Avicolli Mecca (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009), 174.


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Jimk said ...
12:59, 23 May 2010 (EST)
I have never seen a photo of the NYU occupation before . The other photo of Sylvia is wonderful . Visitors here may be interested to know that Huey Newtons essay on gay liberation was written after a dramatic discussion w Sylvia in Phila Pa. Thanks for this informative site , its great -


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