The Rosa Parks of the Modern Trans Movement

Sylvia Rivera (far right in illustration above) hated labels almost as much as she hated discrimination. Of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, she lived alone on the streets from the tender age of eleven. Despite her hard life, she rallied, protested, caucused, and got beaten and arrested for the inclusion and recognition of transgender individuals. Some call her the Rosa Parks of the Modern Trans movement.

Early Life

Born to a father from Puerto Rico and a mother from Venezuela in New York City on July 2, 1951, assigned male at birth, her parents named her Ray. Her birth father disappeared early in her life. 

Rivera’s mother remarried. The marriage was rocky. Rivera’s stepfather threatened to kill Rivera, her mother, and her sister. At twenty-two years of age, her mother committed suicide. 

Rivera was three when she went to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother voiced disapproval of Rivera’s mixed background (Venezuelan and Puerto Rican) and darker skin color. When Rivera began experimenting with clothing and makeup, her grandmother berated and beat Rivera for behavior that was too effeminate for a boy. Her grandmother’s disapproval and beatings increased after Rivera’s step-father took her half-sister away

They shuffled Rivera between her grandmother’s home, Catholic boarding schools, and friends’ homes. She started wearing makeup to school in fourth grade. Bullied and mocked, she was the victim of many playground fights and even school suspensions.

Her uncle had her earn extra money with sex work. It’s no wonder that by the age of eleven, Rivera ran away from home, never to return.

Life On the Streets

In New York City, 42nd Street was “home to a community of drag queens, sex workers, and those who were hustling inside and outside of the gay community of New York in the early 1960s.” Rivera ran from home to this area. Here, a group of young drag queens adopted her. They taught her how to eke out a living with sex work and live on the streets, often changing sleeping location every night. Like many young homeless queer youth and older LGBT people in New York City, Rivera and her friends hung out in places they could feel safe and part of a community. Most of those places were Mafia-run bars.

In 1963, twelve-year-old Rivera met Marsha P. Johnson, an eighteen-year-old, “African American self-identified drag queen and activist battling for inclusion in a movement for gay rights that did not embrace her gender.” Rivera said Johnson was like a mother to her.

Fighting for Transgender People

The Riot

The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. It was a place where young men hustled and people from all over the city hung out after work and on weekends. The Inn is famous for being the setting for what’s now known as the Stonewall Inn Riot on June 28, 1929. 

Rivera’s presence and involvement in the Stonewall Inn Riot, like Stormé DeLarverie, is debatable. Some sources quote her as saying she didn’t throw the first Molotov cocktail, but threw the second one. Many sources cite she refused to go home or go to sleep for seven days because she didn’t want to miss a minute of the revolution.

After the Riot, Rivera laid low for a few months. When she heard about newly formed activist groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), she enthusiastically tried to get involved. But her gender identity troubled the members of those groups. 

Exclusion and Discrimination

The first Pride Parade happened in 1970, but the organizers discouraged trans people, including Rivera, from joining the parade. Rivera was passionate about equal rights for trans individuals but faced relentless discrimination, even from the gay community.  

In 1971, Rivera and Johnson started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group focused on giving shelter to queer, homeless youth. They hustled the street to rent a building they named Star House. It provided a safe space to discuss transgender issues. They fed, clothed and sheltered “our other kids.” Though short-lived (STAR died by 1973), 19-year-old Rivera was a like mother to those kids. 

Determined, Rivera fought against discrimination. She even attempted, in a dress and heels, to climb through a window into a “closed door council meeting” discussing trans and gay rights. It wasn’t the only time she was arrested, fighting for inclusion.

Discouraged

Finally allowed to take part in the 1973 Gay Pride Parade. Officially, she could not speak. Outraged, she grabbed the mike and said, 

If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.” She was booed off the stage. 

Womenshistory.org

She fought for trans inclusion in the GAA’s campaign to pass New York City’s first gay rights bill. (It passed in 1986, disappointingly without including trans individuals’ rights.)

Discouraged by rampant discrimination, Rivera attempted suicide. Johnson brought her to the hospital and helped her get well. After that, Rivera left the city, her activism limited to low-key events in her area.

Return to Activism

Rivera returned to the city in 1992, after Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. She and the gay rights movement (expanded to include trans and others) reconciled. In 1994, she honored in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall Inn march.

She started Transy House, modeled after STAR, in 1997. 

Her determination remained. “Before I die, I will see our community, given the respect we deserve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave without having the respect this community deserves. I want to go to wherever I go with that in my soul and peacefully say I’ve finally overcome.” She continued working up to her death.

Death

With her partner, Julia Murray, at her side, Rivera died from complications of liver cancer at 50.

Legacy

Recognized after her death, Silvia Rivera has a street bearing her name near the Stonewall Inn in New York City. LGBT community organizations across the country and the world pay tribute to her.  In 2015, they hung Rivera’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., making her the first transgender activist to be included in the gallery. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) continues her work to secure the rights of gender non-conforming people. And the number of tributes continue to grow.

Rivera experienced abandonment, abuse, homelessness, drug addition, and incarceration. Poor, trans, a drag queen, a person of color, and former sex worker, she embodied “otherness” and fought discrimination her entire life. Metaphorically, she sat at the front of the bus and earned the honorific, the Rosa Parks of the Modern Trans movement.

What did you know about Silvia Rivera before reading this post?


Image Credits

First Image by Dramamonster at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Final image by Gotty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How Do You Recognize a Strong Woman?

For the past four years, this blog has featured brief biographies of women. Each woman featured shows strength, but it’s not necessarily physical strength. If it’s not physical strength, how do you recognize a strong woman?

Daring greatly is being brave and afraid every minute of the day at the exact same time.

Brene Brown

She doesn’t wait to be saved or given permission to act.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

Mother Teresa
Photo of Mother Teresa in her blue on white habit

Sensitive, kind, and dedicated to serve others, Mother Teresa was a strong woman. She acted on her convictions and founded the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa and her missionaries cared for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, ran soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, as well as orphanages and schools. She put her own health at risk and worked tirelessly to help those in need.

Strong women challenge themselves. 

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.

Oprah
Photo of Simon Biles in a red long-sleeve leotard, mid-air during a gymnastics routine.

America’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles is physically small, but she didn’t let that stop her. Her strength isn’t only physical. A focused and dedicated athlete, she challenges herself and works hard to achieve her goals. 

Strength can be mental, emotional, or physical. Physical strength isn’t necessary to be a strong woman. But women can also be physically strong.

A strong woman speaks her mind.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

Maya Angelou
Photo of Kamala Harris By Office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, is confident, assertive, and full of personal charisma. She does not shrink herself to fit the roles or expectations of others. Vice President Harris speaks her mind and does not back down when others attempt to diminish her.

She can make choices against convention

It’s ok to care about what other people think, but you should give a little more weight to what you, yourself, think … The habit of thinking is the habit of gaining strength. You’re stronger than you believe.

Nnedi Okorafor
Photo of South African female combat troops with helmets, weapons, and in cammo

Strong women know others might judge them for choosing a career that goes against what is “feminine.” They also know that others do not determine their self-worth. They find their self-worth inside themselves.

Photo of a female construction worker carrying a long beam over her shoulder.

She can say no.

We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.

Isabel Allende

Rosa Parks was soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. Some described her as timid and shy. But in 1955, Rosa said no. She refused to give her seat up for a white man. She might have been ‘timid and shy’ but she was a strong woman.

A strong woman seeks the right attention

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Though she was a shy and retiring person, Eleanor Roosevelt gave 348 press conferences as First Lady. She stepped into the role of First Lady and used her position and her voice to help others. Eleanor was a United Nations delegate, a human rights activist, a teacher, and a lecturer who averaged 150 speaking engagements a year throughout the 1950s.

She frees herself from the victim mentality

Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.

Carol Burnett
Photo of Oprah Winfrey clapping

Outgoing, enthusiastic Oprah Winfrey is idealistic and has the interpersonal skills to make others want to join her to make things happen. She had plenty of reasons to see herself as a victim, but she changed her life. And she works to change the life of others.

Her Strength May Not be Recognized

One small crack does not mean that you are broken. It means that you were put to the test, and you didn’t fall apart.

Linda Poindexter

Strength is not always visible. Others may refuse to see it. Sometimes you may have difficulty seeing past your perceived flaws or the insults and injuries life has dealt you.

The broken heart still has heart beats. Though you may feel like death, you are stronger than you think.

Qwana M. BabyGirl Reynolds-Frasier

Strength is contagious

Learn about the strengths of the women before you and around you. Surround yourself with strong women. Find mentors and be a mentor. 

Fight and push harder for what you believe in, you’d be surprised, you are much stronger than you think.

Lady Gaga

How do you recognize a strong woman? Sometimes you need to look in the history books. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror.

Photo Credits:

Photo of Mother Teresa by Laurel  Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Simone Biles in 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, CC BY 3.0 BR, byFernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Kamala Harris Public Domain 

Photo of female South African troops by MONUSCO, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of female construction worker  from Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Rosa Parks Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Oprah Winfrey by Machocarioca, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of old woman by Free Photos on Pixabay

Unconventional Women of History No One Taught You About

It takes a strong woman to face a world that doesn’t value her gender. Some are strong enough to make the world see her, to value her. Historical labels for those who were born one gender but identified as another included monstrous, perverse, or insane. We may never know their truth. Only the tip of hidden history, this is an introduction to unconventional women of history no one taught you about.

Image of rainbow colored male and female silhouettes representing unconventional women of history no  one taught you about.

Eleanor Rykener 

December 1394 court records documented the arrest of Eleanor Rykener (also known as John Rykener) London during December 1394 for a sex act with a man while dressed as a woman. She wore women’s clothing and worked as an embroideress, prostitute, or barmaid. Records are incomplete. But to many Rykener was a trans-woman. Wikipedia has a short and fascinating article on Eleanor.

Moll Cutpurse

Mary Frith or Moll Cutpurse (c. 1584–1659), royalist, pick pocket, fence, and pimp, had a “boisterous and masculine spirit.” She wore britches, smoked a pipe, carried a sword, and drank in taverns. Learn about Moll.

The Chevalier d’Eon 

Black and white image of The Chevalier d’Eon one of the Unconventional Women of History No One Taught You About
Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Declared a boy at birth, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (1728-1810) was the son of a minor aristocrat. His family secured him a position in civil service. He rose quickly through the ranks. Then he left France as a diplomat and a spy. When he returned to France, it was as a celebrity, a writer, and a woman. Was it a trick to save his life or his true gender? Read more about d’Eon

Charlotte Cushman

Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) was an American actress. Some described her as a woman of weird genius, somber imagination, great sensibility.

Jane Adams

Jane Adams (1860-1935) was a social reformer and lesbian suffragist, social worker, activist, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. 

Alan L. Hart

Alan L. Hart (1890-1962), a radiologist, physician, tuberculosis researcher, and writer. Hart discovered how to use x-rays to detect tuberculosis. When he was born, doctors identified him as female and named Alberta Lucille Hart. Besides helping thousands with tuberculosis, he was one of the first female-to-male transgender persons to undergo a hysterectomy in the United States and lived the rest of his life as a man. Oregon Encyclopedia can tell you more about Hart

Stormé DeLaverie

photo of Stormé DeLaverie performing as her male persona

Stormé DeLaverie (day-la-vee-ay) (1920-2014), was an entertainer,  bouncer, activist, and drag king.

Look for Hidden History

The saying goes that the winner writes the history books. It’s up to us to uncover the hidden history, to learn from the truth, and to grow into better people and better nations. Strong women have been around since the dawn of time. Some of those strong women were unconventional women of history no one told you about. This is a short list. There are many, many more. It’s up to you to overcome prejudice, step out of your comfort zone, and learn. You might surprise yourself and admire some of these women.

The Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor

It was an age where women couldn’t vote, non-whites rarely went to school, and the American government said Native Americans weren’t citizens. The odds were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. Some of her own people rejected her learning and caregiving. But she persisted. She earned a degree in medicine and worked tirelessly to improve her tribe’s health and welfare. Read about the amazing first Native American woman doctor and her people.

old black and white photo of the Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor, Susan LaFlesche Pinotte
Susan LaFlesche, Public Domain

Adapt to Survive

Omaha Chief Big Elk visited Washington D.C. in 1837. There he saw a coming flood that would wipe out his people. He warned them they needed to adapt to survive.

He chose a man with a similar vision to succeed him as chief of the Omaha Tribe. Joseph La Flesche, Susan’s father, was of French and Indian descent.

Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes) was one of the seven Omaha chiefs who signed treaties ceding over 90% of the tribe’s land to the U.S. government in 1854.

Chief LaFlesche made a bold push for assimilation. But not everyone in the tribe wanted to assimilate. The tribe split into two parties. 

It is either civilization or extermination.

Chief LaFlesche

The Young Men’s Party built log cabins rather than teepees, laid out roads, and individual farming parcels.

The Chief’s Party remained loyal to traditional ways and medicine men and wouldn’t budge. They called the village of log cabins, “The Village of the Make-Believe White Men.”

Early Life

On June 17, 1865, Susan was born the youngest of three daughters to Chief LaFlesche and his wife Mary, (One Woman).

image with old photographs of Susan's parents. Joseph is in a suit coat white shirt and tie. Mary has looped braids on each side of her head and  is wearing a high necked dress with a cloak or blanket around her shoulders.
Public Domain

She grew up in a log cabin in the Village of the Make-Believe White Men. Her parents taught her native traditions and heritage. But they refused a tribal name and tribal markings for her.

At eight, Susan stayed at the bedside of an elderly woman in agonizing pain. They sent a messenger for the white agency doctor four times. Each time the doctor promised he’d come soon, but he never did. The woman died. It was an episode that affected Susan for the rest of her life.

“Do you always want to be simply called those Indians, or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?”

Chief Joseph La Flesche

Susan attended the Mission School on the Omaha Reservation until she was fourteen.

Then she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. At seventeen, she returned home and taught at the Quaker Mission School for two years. While working there she met and cared for the ethnologist, Alice Fletcher. Fletcher encouraged her to go back east and get a medical degree.

Higher Education

And Susan did. In 1884, she enrolled at the Hampton Institute, one of the nation’s first and finest schools of higher education for non-white students. The resident physician there, Martha Waldron, was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Waldon encouraged Susan to apply to WMCP. Alice Fletcher helped Susan secure scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the Women’s National Indian Association.

We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization. The white people have reached a high standard of civilization, but how many years has it taken them? We are only beginning; so do not try to put us down, but help us to climb higher. Give us a chance.

Susan La Flesche, Hampton graduation speech

Susan finished WMCP’s three year program in two years. She graduated at the top of her class of thirty-six people. After a year’s internship in Philadelphia, she returned home.

In 1889, she was 24. She could not vote and as an Indian, she could not call herself a citizen but she was a doctor. 

Dr. Susan

black and white portrait of Dr. Susan
Dr, Suan LaFlasche Picotte Public Domain

Susan served as one of the reservation physicians. It was rare to be a Native American and a doctor. Susan was the first Native American Woman to hold the position.

She opened her office in the government boarding school. Tribe members filed in. So many insisted on seeing only Dr. Susan that the white male doctor quit. That made Susan the only physician for more than 1,300 people on a reservation stretching over 450 square miles. She became their doctor, their translator, lawyer, accountant, priest, and political liaison.

Susan made $500 per year and had to buy her own supplies when the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran out. She made another $250 per year from the Women’s National Indian Association for her work as a medical missionary.

At first she made house calls on foot, later on horseback, and still later in her buggy. She often encounter Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and her learning. Some rejected her care simply because of tensions created by her father.

For years this amazing Native American woman doctor fought epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and diphtheria. She got the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales within towns inside the reservation. She taught proper hygiene and encouraged the use of screen doors to keep out disease carrying flies. And she discouraged communal drinking cups, and the mescal used in religious ceremonies.

In poor health, she resigned in 1893 to recover and to care for her sick mother.

Marriage

In 1894, Susan married Henry Picotte, a Yankton Sioux who worked with Wild West Shows. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska where she set up a private practice. She served both white and non-white patients.

She had two sons whom she occasionally took with her on house calls.

My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Her husband became an alcoholic and died of tuberculosis in 1905. 

After her husband’s death, Susan and her sons moved to Walthil. There she resumed her efforts to improve the health and conditions of her people.

Politics

In 1906 she led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on the reservation.

Susan returned to Washington D.C. in 1910 to present an argument to the Office of Indian Affairs. She argued that most of the Omaha tribesmen could manage their own affairs but the Indian Office had stifled them to the point they could not protect themselves from fraud. 

She continued to work with the tribe. Her dream was to build the first hospital on the reservation not funded by the government. And in 1913, that hospital opened its doors.

Death and Legacy

Susan La Flesche Picotte passed away on September 18, 1915.

Image of the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center Museum in Nebraska, site of the hospital the amazing first Native American Woman Doctor opened
Public Domain

After her death, they renamed the hospital Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. It served patients for an additional thirty years, then closed its doors. It is now a museum and became a national historic landmark in 1993. They hold an annual festival there every year in her memory.

Final Words

The society and government and conditions were against Susan LaFlesche Picotte. A strong woman, she became a doctor anyway. What amazing strength she had to spend her lifetime relentlessly fighting for better health and living conditions for her people. She was the Amazing First Native American Woman Doctor.

Will You Help Forge a Gender Equal World?

Do you celebrate International Women’s Day? This year March 8th is the day. A day to remind us that gender has been used to justify abuse for centuries. It is sad we must have such a day across the world and in the United States. It takes hard work to forge a gender equal world. To remind us all that an inclusive world is a world of respect and kindness and diversity.

Photograph of a woman with her back to the camera and raising a globe in the air. It takes hard work to forge a gender equal world.

#ChoosetoChallenge

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge. It asks that we all be alert to and challenge gender bias.

We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

Internationalwomensday.org

Anisa Nandaula’s spoken poem about the theme is short and powerful. Take a listen.

We who are privileged to live in a society with freedom of speech can choose to speak up or remain quiet. Speaking out isn’t comfortable. But we need to remember that our current freedoms came because someone challenged the status quo—challenge common beliefs. Because someone stood up and said no, that’s not the way it has to be.

What Does a Gender Equal World Look Like?

Did you know that there are languages that are gender neutral? They have pronouns that refer to a specific gender such as him and her, but their words have no gender assigned to them. English is a gender neutral language. Most nouns, adjectives, and pronouns are not gender specific. Other languages have as many as three genders and a few have twenty. And why not? Our world is wonderfully diverse. From daisies to Venus flytraps and giraffes to flamingos, diversity makes our world beautiful.

In the gender equal world I envision, we would deny no one basic human rights based on gender. No one would be abused due to gender. The world would embrace all genders and be gender neutral. Not the connotation of neutral that means none, but the kind of neutral that doesn’t rank or mistreat or reward a person based on their gender. One that doesn’t assign anyone a gender but allows us to express our gender openly and without prejudice. A gender equality where every person has the right to choose their own destiny regardless of gender. An equality that celebrates our diversity. The kind in which no sex trafficking, or child brides, or domestic abuse exist. The kind where posts like mine about strong women aren’t necessary because we live in a gender equal world.

Help Forge a Gender Equal World

Women have had decades of challenging the beliefs that hold them back. And there is a long way to go to be equal. We have a choice. Be silent or challenge. Challenge notions that the female gender means weak or less than.

We celebrate International Women’s Day because the spotlight needs to shine on abuses women endure. Does that mean we only challenge injustices for women? No. To forge a gender equal world, we cannot deny or question another’s rights based on gender. To forge a gender equal world we must #choosetochallenge all gender bias and abuse. And someday in a gender equal world, our diversity will be our astonishing beauty and our greatest strength.