In a 1989 interview, the New York City LGBTQ activist and icon describes the tumult of the uprising in Greenwich Village
The New York City LGBTQ activist and icon Sylvia Rivera discusses the Stonewall uprising, the clubs in Greenwich Village at the time, and the oppression faced by drag queens and trans people.
From a 1989 interview with journalist Eric Marcus for Making Gay History.
Eric Marcus: Up until 1969 you werent involved in gay rights or rights or any of that stuff.
Rey Sylvia Lee Rivera: Before gay rights, before the Stonewall, I was involved in the Black Liberation movement, the peace movement. I felt I had the time and I knew that I had to do something. My revolutionary blood was going back then. I was involved with that.
Marcus: How so?
Rivera: I did a lot of marches. I had to do something back then to show the world that there was a changing world. I got involved with a lot of the different things because I had to. I had so much anger.
Marcus: About what?
Rivera: About the world, the way it was. The way they were treating people. When the Stonewall happened. The Stonewall was fabulous. Actually it was the first time that I had been to friggin Stonewall. It was, like, a godsent thing. I just happened to be there when it all jumped off. I said, Well, great, now its my time. Here, Im out there being a revolutionist for everybody else. I said now its time to do my thing for my own people.
Marcus: What happened that night? Did you normally go out with your friends to the bars?
Rivera: The Stonewall wasnt a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was. Stonewall was not a bar for drag queens. There was one bar at that time in that era which was called the Washington Square Bar, Third Street and Broadway, where the hotel collapsed many, many years ago. That was the drag queen spot. If you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you. And there were only a certain number of drag queens that were allowed into the Stonewall at that time. This is where I get into arguments with people. They say, Oh, no, it was a drag queen bar, it was a black bar. No, Washington Square Bar was the drag queen bar. We had just come back in from Washington, my first lover and I. At that time we were passing bad paper around and making lots of money. We were passing forged checks. And I said, Lets go to Stonewall. And when it happened, my friend was like, Dont go off. And I said, Why not? I have to go off. I have to be part of this. I said, I have to. The feeling is here. It meant a lot and I was glad I was there.
Marcus: So you were at the bar doing what?
Rivera: I was drinking.
Marcus: What happened? Did the police come?
Rivera: The police came in. They came in to get their payoff as usual. They were the same people who always used to come into the Washington Square Bar too. You know, get their payoff. It was like, I dont know if it was the customers or it was the police. Everything just clicked.
Marcus: When you say clicked you have to describe to me what you mean by that. I wasnt there.
Rivera: Everybody like, Why the fuck are we doing all this for? The attitudes in people, and a lot of people at that time were so involved, like I said I was involved in different movements. The people at them bars, especially at the Stonewall, were involved in other movements. And everybody like, All right, we got to do our thing. Were gonna go for it. When they ushered us out, they very nicely put you out the door. Then youre standing across the street in Sheridan Square park. But why? Everybodys looking at each other. But why do we have to keep on constantly putting up with this? And the nickels, the dimes, the pennies, and the quarters started flying.
Marcus: Why that? Why were people throwing change?
Rivera: The payoff. That was the payoff. You already got, and heres some more. To be there was so beautiful. It was so exciting. It was like, Wow, were doing it! Were doing it! Were fucking their nerves. They thought that they could come in and say, All right, you get out, and nothing was going to happen. They could put that padlock on the door and they knew damn well like everybody else knows that they would come in, raid a gay bar. Padlock the friggin door. As soon as the police were gone one way, the mafia was there cutting 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 until that day.
Marcus: Did you throw any pennies or dimes?
Rivera: I threw quarters, and pennies, and whatnot.
Marcus: How were you dressed that night?
Rivera: I wasnt in full drag. I was dressed very pleasantly. I was wearing a womans suit. Bell bottoms were out then. I had made this fabulous suit at home and I was wearing that and I had the hair out.
Marcus: What color fabric?
Rivera: It was a light beige. Something very summery. Lots of makeup and lots of hair.
Marcus: Did you have heels on?
Rivera: I was wearing boots. I dont know why I was wearing boots.
Marcus: Were you still hustling at the time?
Rivera: Oh yeah.
Marcus: What happened next?
Rivera: Were throwing the pennies and everything is going really fab. The cops locked themselves in the bar. It was getting vicious. There was Molotov cocktails coming in. I dont know where they got Molotov cocktails, but they were thrown through the door. The cops, they just panicked. Inspector Pine really panicked. Plus he had no backup. He did not expect any of the retaliation that the gay community gave him.
Marcus: Do you think that this happened in part because people were so angry for so long?
Rivera: People were very angry for so long. How long can you live in the closet? I listen to my brothers and sisters who are older than I am and I listen to their stories. I would never have made it. They would have killed me. Somebody would have killed me. I could never have survived the lives that my brothers and sisters from the 40s and 50s did. Because I have a mouth.
Marcus: Did you say anything that night out in front of the Stonewall?
Rivera: Oh, I was instigating certain things. But I knew we would get it. I got knocked around a bit by a couple of plain-clothes men. I didnt really get hurt. I was very careful that night, thank God. But I saw other people being hurt by the police. There was one drag queen, they brought her out, I dont know what she said, they just beat her into a bloody pulp. There was a couple of dykes they took out and threw in a car. They got out the other side. It was inhumane, senseless bullshit.
Marcus: They treated you like animals.
Rivera: Thats what we were called anyway. We were the lowest scum of the earth at that time.
Marcus: What were you trying to do? What were your hopes?
Rivera: Marsha [P Johnson] and I fought for the liberation of our people. We did a lot back then. We did sleep in the streets. Marsha and I had a building on Second Street, which we called STAR House. When we asked the community to help us [tears coming down face] there was nobody to help us. We were nothing. We were nothing! We were taking care of kids that were younger than us. Marsha and I were young and we were taking care of them. And GAA [a major LGBT activist organization in New York City, one of several Rivera participated in] had teachers and lawyers and all we asked was to help us teach our own so we could all become a little bit better. There was nobody there to help us. They left us hanging. There was only one person that that came and help us. Bob Kohler was there. He helped paint. He helped us put wires together. We didnt know what the fuck we were doing. We took a slum building. We tried. We really did. We tried. Marsha and I and a few of the other older drag queens. We kept it going for about a year or two. We went out and made that money on the streets to keep these kids off the streets. We already went through it. We wanted to protect them. To show them that there was a better life. You cant throw people out on the street.
Marcus: Who were these young kids? Where did they come from?
Rivera: From everywhere. We had kids from Boston, California, everywhere.
Marcus: Where were their families?
Rivera: I guess at home. They were good kids. Ive seen a couple of them after the movement. The ones that Ive seen theyve done very well. It makes you feel good, it does.
Marcus: Things didnt turn out as you had hoped.
Rivera: Well, you figure its always going to happen. Every time I see the commercial for Covenant House, I say, I would love to have had that. I would love to have seen a STAR House. These kids already knew. You always get that feeling. Youre different. We just didnt have the money. The community was not going to help us.
Marcus: Were they embarrassed by you?
Rivera: The community is always embarrassed by the drag queens.
From THE STONEWALL READER edited by the New York Public Library, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Also from oral history interview with Eric Marcus. Reprinted with permission of Eric Marcus and Making Gay History.