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“Y’all better quiet down.” Sylvia Rivera & the fractures of gay solidarity.

"While the Stonewall rebellion had increasingly been commemorated through the new gender-normative style of the moment, the most criminalized in the community who couldn’t live up to that norm were left behind or unwelcome."

Jules Gill-Peterson12 June 2024

“Y’all better quiet down.” Sylvia Rivera & the fractures of gay solidarity.

Tensions came to a head in 1973 at Christopher Street Liberation Day, the annual commemoration of Stonewall today called Pride. Sylvia Rivera had been scheduled to speak on the stage set up in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, where the march ended. But when she arrived, she found a contingent of gay people who were staunchly against street queens and tried to stop her from speaking. Rivera had to physically fight her way up to the stage, after which she delivered a legendary speech commemorated by its first line, “Y’all better quiet down.” 

The context in which Rivera delivered that opening line is preserved in video footage that has recirculated since the artist and activist Tourmaline freed it from archival obscurity and digitized it. The shaky camera swerves from within the crowd, pointed up at the stage. The occasional phrase spoken into a microphone is nearly drowned out by a soundtrack of constant disagreement: yelling, cheering, booing, and a hundred conversations raging in every direction. 

The tension in the air is palpable even in grainy black and white. A lesbian first took the microphone and addressed the rowdy crowd. “All right, it’s up to the gay people, whadd’ya wanna do?” she asked about Rivera. A gay man then took the mic and added: “Listen, we don’t know what you want.” He polled the crowd to see if they wanted her to speak. “Will the people who want it say yes,” he directed—to which the crowd roared back in approval. “That’s the end of the conversation,” he declared.

As Rivera was finally ushered onstage, a muffled voice can be heard screaming off screen, perhaps saying, “They’re going to take over,” in reference to the queens. But the organizer holding the mic quieted the interrupter, emphasizing that “she is speaking.” Rivera then burst onto the stage and delivered her first line in a jumpsuit pictured in many photos from the day. While the crowd had cheered when they first saw her, a chorus of boos followed. Leaning one hand on the microphone stand and holding her hip with the other, Rivera looked out on the crowd in disappointment, like a mother chastising her children. 

After watching them for a few seconds and conferring with an organizer onstage, she whisked the microphone up to her mouth and lobbed her first line to the park to behave themselves. Another voice, somehow just as loud without a microphone, shot back at her, brimming with venom: “Shut the fuck up!” Walking casually across the stage as if to prove she was unafraid, Rivera screamed her speech out in angry bursts, stopping every so often to wait out the battery of insults, boos, and jeers returned to her. She delivered a powerful indictment of the blatant trans misogyny of the gay liberation movement that had distracted from the political cause she was there to speak about: “your gay brothers and sisters in jail!” 

While Christopher Street Liberation Day had increasingly commemorated the Stonewall rebellion through the new gender-normative style of the moment, the most criminalized in the community who couldn’t live up to that norm were left behind or unwelcome. Rivera reminded the crowd that incarcerated gay and trans people wrote a steady stream of letters to her and the members of STAR, asking for help. The prisoners would have asked everyone in gay liberation for help, but “you don’t do a goddamn thing for them,” she railed.

Like a wedge, trans misogyny had fractured the political solidarity of the gay liberation banner in less than four years. The abandonment of the incarcerated was also the abandonment of street queens, considering they were hit the hardest by police violence and violence from men. “Have you ever been beaten up and raped in jail?” Rivera asked the crowd. “Now think about it.” By giving up the anti-police focus of Stonewall, the gay movement was leaving its sisters to rot in jail. “The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women,” yelled Rivera. “They write ‘STAR’ ” on their letters instead of “the women’s groups. They do not write ‘women.’ They do not write ‘men.’ They write ‘STAR’ because we’re trying to do something for them.” Failed by both women’s liberation and gay liberation, the STAR banner was the only one still directed at patriarchal violence, sexual assault, police brutality, and mass incarceration. This Rivera knew in her bones, her flesh, and her soul.

“I have been to jail,” she railed at the crowd. “I have been raped. And beaten. Many times! By men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter. But, do you do anything for them? No. You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs.”

At this point Rivera was leaning forward with the microphone perched beneath her lips, so that her voice rang out at maximum volume, blanketing the crowd. “I will not put up with this shit,” she warned them. “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”

A segment of the crowd applauded these lines before Rivera moved into the final act of her speech. “I believe in the gay power,” she boomed, reminding the crowd of their common cause. “I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights. That’s all I wanted to say to you people.” She then urged them not to forget about the gay and trans people in jail, giving them the address of STAR house on East Second Street, where they could rejoin the cause forged at Stonewall. “The people are trying to do something for all of us,” roared Rivera. “Not men and women that belong to a white middle class, white club. And that’s what you all belong to!”

The crowd resounded as Rivera bellowed, “Revolution now!” and led a chant to spell out “gay power” one letter at a time. By the end, the crowd sounded more unified than when she had first taken the stage. Out of breath from shouting, Rivera gave one last “Gay power!” with every ounce of energy she had, before bowing her head and walking offstage to loud applause.

Rivera’s speech wasn’t the cause of the split in gay liberation. Rather, it reflected what was by then an overwhelming truth: the gay world and the gay movement did not want street queens in their ranks anymore. If Rivera, like Johnson, had worked in leadership positions and put her life on the line since the Stonewall riots, she was a long way from being crowned queen of gay liberation in Washington Square Park. The political mood of the 1970s reflected the broader social and cultural shift that Newton observed in her second preface to Mother Camp. The queen of the gay world had been dethroned.

— An edited excerpt from A Short History of Trans Misogyny by Jules Gill-Peterson.

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