The life and views of Sylvia Rivera, as described by a brief autobiography in the book Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, are supportive of much of the theory of intersectionality that Gloria Anzaldua offers in her work, though some disagreements arise regarding how to fix the problem of inequality. Both recognize the diverse ways in which people oppress others and the various overlapping constituents of our identity, and were themselves the subjects of discrimination for multiple reasons including ethnicity and a refusal to conform to traditional gender roles. Also, Rivera and Anzaldua each describe a strong belief in the need to form coalitions among various groups.
Gloria Anzaldua understood that people are composed of a conglomeration of overlapping identities, and that we can be persecuted for one or more of these aspects of ourselves. This intersectionality both creates conflict when we are forced to choose between any two aspects of our identity and also gives us each a unique experience. Anzaldua was conflicted because even though she knew the history of Mexicans around the Mexico-U.S. border, she constantly saw them depicted as villains by the American entertainment industries. She was called names by kids at school for not being white and ignored by society when too poor to afford food and clothing. Having gay friends and choosing to have sex when she did aroused criticism by her family, as did a refusal to conform to traditional gender roles such as getting married, having children and being a passive woman.
Even before becoming Sylvia, Ray Rivera knew oppression from many fronts, and left home when just ten years old because of the hate that came from his grandmother who said openly that she didn’t want to raise a boy with Puerto Rican blood, that she instead wanted to raise a white girl. Spanish culture also often dictated that if one was effeminate, that one was automatically gay, which put him in a box from early childhood, and he was harassed by children at school, one person even using the word “faggot,” because he played with girls. And after becoming Sylvia, she was ignored by society following emotional and physical abuse by her grandmother and also while homeless and penniless on the street.
Once on the street, Sylvia was oppressed by society for being transgender, and also for being forced into prostitution in order to make money – and instead of the government creating programs to assist people with finances, housing and employment, she and the other prostitutes who were in the same situation were simply arrested. Anzaldua would probably identify with much of Sylvia’s oppression, particularly with being harassed and being forced into boxes by one’s culture.
They both discuss the divisive and misrepresentative properties of labels that we are given, both by ourselves and by others. And the writers’ comparable experiences and mindsets led each to develop views of labels that were similar and supportive of each other. When taken together, Rivera shines some interesting light onto what Anzaldua means when she compares herself to Shiva and a spider woman because of the several diverse realms she feels a part of: the gay world, the working class world, the world of women, the literary world, and those of socialists and the occult. Rivera wrote in Genderqueer, “People now want to call me a lesbian because I’m with Julia, and I say, ‘No. I’m just me. I’m not a lesbian.’… I’m tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am… I’m not living in the straight world; I’m not living in the gay world; I’m just living in my own world with Julia and my friends.” She says plainly, “I am Sylvia Rivera.” First, this seems to have precisely the same meaning as what Anzaldua says in La Prieta, “Who, me confused? Ambivalent? Not so. Only your labels split me… Both cultures deny me a place in their universe. Between them and among others, I build my own universe.” In other words, they both see themselves and love themselves (though not without effort) as they are, whole, and without the numerous divisions imposed by society. But they also recognize that those different aspects of themselves exist and wish to transform these characteristics from walls that demarcate rooms in a house to something more akin to parts of a forest. The squirrel is not the oak tree, but despite this they interact intimately and assist in each others’ survival and well being. They are different but are both integral and intertwining parts of the whole.
Their situations contributed to their understandings of the connections between people and how we must all fight for each other as well as for ourselves. In 1970, Rivera petitioned for gay rights with the Gay Activist Alliance, even getting arrested for “not having an American flag” while collecting signatures. But she wrote in Genderqueer, “I found out later on that they only believe in acquiring civil rights for the gay community as a whole… I enjoyed Gay Liberation Front better because we concentrated on many issues for many different struggles. We’re all in the same boat as long as we’re being oppressed one way or the other, whether we are gay, straight, trans, black, yellow, green, purple, or whatever. If we don’t fight for each other, we’ll be put down”
Her commitment to coalition-building is clear. Rivera reopened STAR House (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) which was set up in 2001 to help youth on the street. And in addition to fighting for transgender rights, Sylvia and the people who stayed there also fought for the legalization of medical marijuana for cancer patients and AIDS patients. This is something Anzaldua would probably be proud of, because they are not only fighting for their own well-being, but also that of others. As Gloria Anzaldua writes in La Prieta, “The rational, the patriarchal, and the heterosexual have held sway and legal tender for too long. Third World women, lesbians, feminists, and feminist-oriented men of all colors are banding and bonding together to right that balance. Only together can we be a force. I see us as a network of kindred spirits, a kind of family… Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not have the same ideology, nor do we derive similar solutions. Some of us are leftists, some of us are practitioners of magic. Some of us are both. But these different affinities are not opposed to each other. In El Mundo Zurdo I wish my own affinities and my people with theirs can live together can transform the planet.”
However, Sylvia Rivera and Gloria Anzaldua appear to disagree on the solution to discrimination and oppression. Rivera focuses on directly helping youth who are in trouble, and on making political statements and legislative changes, clearly shown by her involvement with STAR House as well as her work with the Gay Activist Alliance and Gay Liberation Force. And while Anzaldua does want to make noise and ruffle feathers, as she says in reference to why we are all accomplices to oppression, “we are not screaming loud enough in protest,” she also has a more nuanced view of the remedy to our situation. She specifically states that she feels a change in the legal code alone is not enough to ensure equality, writing that “government grants, equal rights opportunity programs, welfare, and food stamps fail to uproot racism, sexism, and homophobia.” She would likely admire Rivera’s objective of equality, but denounce the method of obtaining it through the legal system. Anzaldua seemed to feel that everyone was guilty of passing down the prejudices and attitudes that lead to inequality, even if only passively. “I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world… a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society,” she says.
It seems that Anzaldua advocated a constant awareness of one’s thoughts and belief structures in order to hopefully purge them, as much as possible, of the injustices in which we are taught to believe from childhood. The idea that we all perpetuate oppression, either actively or passively, and that it is easier to continue this than to confront it isn’t something I believe Sylvia Rivera would have disputed. In fact, her writing in 2001 came only just short of saying that when discussing her impression of the attitudes of most gay rights organizations such as the HRC toward the trans community and why transpeople didn’t yet (and don’t yet) have the same rights and level of public acceptance as the gay and lesbian community: “I won’t give the mainstream gay organizations the satisfaction of keeping us down. The reason we… don’t have all the rights as they have is that we allowed them to speak for us for so many damn years, and we bought everything they said to us. ‘Oh, let us pass our bill, then we’ll come for you.'” She said that the mainstream gay organizations were trying to keep her down, and in doing so it seemed implied that while they had risen above internalizing the prejudice against their own community, they still felt superior, on some level, to their counterparts within the trans community. This passage was also extraordinarily similar to Anzaldua’s analysis of why Third World women didn’t go to meetings of the Feminist Writer’s Guild, which she said was because white women put down, ignored and attempted to speak for Third World women.
Even though both Anzaldua and Rivera would probably have agreed on the vital importance of individual awareness of one’s own prejudices in order to eliminate them, they did not agree on the role of the government in the process of obtaining equality. It seems that Sylvia Rivera’s acts of petitioning for equality within the law, while far from the only answer, are complementary to calls by Anzaldua (who admits she is at a loss for how to accomplish her goal) for personal abolition of oppressive tendencies, and are even a partial solution to the social ills that they both describe. While legal equality is not the same as equality in practice, it is often faster to achieve than the genuine personal ethical responsibility being called for, if trying to apply it on a nation-wide or world-wide scale as Anzaldua appears eager to do. Her solution has many prerequisites, just a few of which include: an education system that teaches ethics (calling special attention to issues such as race, gender, poverty and disease) and conflict resolution from a very young age, a social and financial structure that doesn’t pit virtually every individual against every other, role models and time. Were we to replace capitalism with another system, one which strengthens the feeling of kinship within a society and requires everyone to contribute toward helping each other, and restructure our system of education it could take countless generations. Even though this strategy is more thorough and teaches everyone in each new generation, a long time is needed before any results would become apparent.
Rivera’s strategy of helping pass legislation within the existing system is better thought of as a type of shorter-term assistance used for prosecuting those who are caught and found guilty of discrimination while Anzaldua’s long-term resolutions are being put into place (like the education campaigns that attempt to help people understand their oppressive tendencies, get rid of them, then pass on their enlightened views to others or to successive generations). It also helps to direct dialogue in the public sphere toward the issues that need the most attention. So, in fact, Anzaldua’s anti-government approach to attaining equality and justice is not contradictory to Rivera’s legislative approach; they could complement each other quite well.
Sylvia Rivera’s brief autobiography from within the pages of Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, lends support to most of Gloria Anzaldua’s theory of intersectionality, acknowledging the many diverse and overlapping parts of which our identity is composed, how these can lead to discrimination and oppression on many different levels, and how they any create conflict if we much choose between them. But most of what isn’t directly supportive expands and elaborates on Anzaldua’s writings, particularly regarding the labels and identities we give ourselves. While they did not agree on how to bring about the end of inequality and injustice, both of their responses to the problem could be complementary to each other. Their similar pasts and oppressive histories were interesting to note, particularly once extraordinarily similar passages began to come out of both of their texts, including some relating to self-identity, and others relating to building coalitions with other oppressed groups so that everyone can become stronger.