On June 27, 1969, Sylvia Rivera, a 17-year-old drag queen from the Bronx, led the charge at the Stonewall Riots. She talks to David Isay about her life since then.
What has happened to me since the riots? Well, I became a junkie for many years. And then I got off of junk and ended up hustling the streets again. (Even then I was working hard for the movement.) Then I moved to Westchester, and I ended up having lovely jobs in food service. My lover Frank and I bought a house. Unfortunately we went into crack and we lost it. That's how I ended up homeless. So I moved to a pier in the West Village. That first winter was one of the worst, with all the snow and everything, but we survived. I was the typical mother to all the children living out there -- everybody came to Sylvia when they needed advice or comfort. I guess it comes from not having a mother or not having any love when you were a child and always being told that no one wanted you. When I see someone that's alone, and the person is hurting and they need some comfort, my heart opens up. I can't say no if they need a little help. I lived on the pier for about a year and a half. Now I live in Transie House in Brooklyn. (That's "Transgender House.") It's a house for all transgendered people or anyone who has a problem. Everybody calls me Ma -- Ma Sylvia. We help everybody that we can and we get involved in everything that we can: Matthew Shepard, Diallo, Louima. We just go all over getting arrested. We do dish at each other every once in a while, but what do you expect out of a bunch of transgendered ladies? My future wife is Julia Murray. Before I met her, I had heard about Julia. Julia was -- can I say this? Julia had lost her mind for a while, O.K.? Like most transgendered people do. We all get confused, we lose our minds, we end up in hospitals. Julia had lost her mind. And when I was moving into Transie House, Julia was just coming home. We became very good friends. The beautiful part about Julia is that she never likes to sleep alone, so she would always come down to the living room (that was my room in Transie House) and lie on the rug. And I'd tell her "lie on the bed." We did this for a long time and we spent a lot of time together as friends. Then one day it just happened, and we've been lovers ever since. That was four months ago. We plan to get married in a church in the early spring of next year. I never thought that I was going to get into the situation of marrying somebody, but I'm very happy. I don't plan on getting a sex change as my partner has already done. But I feel that both of us being transgendered, we understand what the other has gone through. We have always been with men, but the men that we have met in our lives haven't been able to give us the sensitivity that we share between ourselves. She's a person that has made my life different. She's helped me -- I'm not doing drugs, and I'm not drinking so much. It's just that we're happy together. And people have to understand that: people are people. We just want to be ourselves. And she's a great person for me. When I was young, I never thought I was going to be a part of gay history -- I didn't even expect that gay history would be in existence. So there's a lot of joy in my heart to see the 30th anniversary of Stonewall. You know what was beautiful about that night? To see the brothers and sisters stand as a unified people. But I do get depressed when this time of year comes around: for 30 years I've been struggling and fighting, and I still feel like an outcast in the gay community
From the June 27, 1999, New York Times Magazine. Photograph by Harvey Wang for the New York Times Magazine.