Friday, March 17, 2017

Women Making History: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera (right) at the Christopher Street Liberation Day,
Gay Pride Parade, NYC in 1973.
By Lucy Sharp

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history.

Sylvia Rivera was an activist fighting for racial and gender equality, the rights of transgender people, incarcerated people, and sex workers. While she had a very difficult life, she showed incredible dedication to her communities.

Sylvia Rivera had a difficult childhood. Her birth father abandoned her; her mother’s second husband was a drug dealer who showed little interest in her. When she was three, her mother killed herself with poison, and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill Sylvia along with her.

While she was assigned male at birth, she adopted a feminine gender presentation from a young age. She was subjected to colorism by her Venezuelan grandmother who disliked Sylvia’s dark skin that she inherited from her Puerto Rican father. Sylvia faced repeated verbal, physical and sexual abuse from her family and at school due to a combination of colorism, homophobia, and transphobia. This abuse eventually led her to run away from home and drop out of school. In Sylvia’s words she “basically grew up without love.”

At 10 she began working on the streets as a sex worker, later moving to live on the streets with other queer and transgender sex workers. In addition to abuse from her birth family, she faced racist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination in employment, which kept her having to work as a sex worker. She simply couldn’t find a job that allowed her to express herself. Unfortunately, she was eventually arrested and wound up in jail for 90 days with men, who tried to rape her. As a preteen she attempted suicide and wound up in a mental hospital for two months.

However, during her teen years Sylvia also found meaning in participating in activism including on civil rights, the women’s movement, and protesting war against Vietnam. At 17, Sylvia Rivera claims to have been involved in the Stonewall riots, a rebellion against police and criminalization of queer sexuality which served as a focal point for a significant part of the gay rights movement.

Out of Stonewall formed many gay rights organizations including the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which Sylvia Rivera began attending. She soon found herself in conflict with other activists, however.  As one founding member of GAA described: “the general membership is frightened of Sylvia and thinks she’s a troublemaker. They’re frightened by the street people.” Syliva was also shunned by many lesbians who accused her of “parodying womanhood.” Sylvia once said, “[P]eople I called comrades in the movement, literally beat the shit out of me.”

Following her abuse and silencing by allies, Sylvia attempted suicide and dropped out of the more mainstream gay rights movement. She went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) whose goal was to help kids living on the street by providing food, clothing, and housing at a home known as STAR House. STAR also participated in demonstrations against police abuses. While Sylvia attempted to get other organizations including the GAA to help fund STAR’s efforts, they showed little interest. Instead Sylvia and her friend Marsha P. Johnson funded the project through their sex work. Unfortunately, STAR house was forced to close after an intermediary embezzled months of rent and STAR was evicted.

Sylvia Rivera also worked on a campaign to enact a New York City civil rights law that would protect queer and transgender people. She again faced disappointment when politicians and queer rights activists made a deal to remove the transgender protections from the final law. Sylvia, further disillusioned with the movement dropped out, and spent years being homeless.

Her life temporarily stabilized when she developed stable housing, a catering job and a relationship with her supportive transgender partner, Julia Murray. However, in 1992, when her friend Marsha P. Johnson died, she attempted suicide and returned to drug and alcohol addiction that had plagued her much of her life. She also returned to activism, criticizing the mainstream gay rights movement: “[A]fter all these years the trans community is still at the back of the bus”. In 2002 she died of liver cancer.

There is a tendency to try to oversimplify Sylvia’s story and make it simply about exclusion of the transgender community within the larger queer community. But this approach buries systemic problems of racism, poverty, severe trauma, and mistreatment of incarcerated people and sex workers that plagued her life as well.

Recognizing the tendency to oversimplify, nonetheless, I would offer a brief explanation of why I chose to write about her. There is a tendency in movements for the movement to be accessed and dictated by the most privileged within an oppressed group. Just as LGB people often exclude trans people, white trans-women often exclude or ignore concerns of trans-women of color. Often, the most marginalized or scarred people have their traumas buried and left unseen or unaddressed.

Sylvia’s experiences with drug addiction, suicidality, sex work, and incarceration marginalized her, and would leave her marginalized in many activist spaces today. But in spite of her suffering, she did not let that marginalization be the final word. She struggled with all of her heart to help her community, and those like her. She made it to New York City Hall to advocate for the trans-community, even if according to her, she needed to shoot up heroin in the restroom to get through it. I deeply admire her perseverance in the face of her pain, trauma, and oppression.

On a final note, discussing Sylvia Rivera as part of Woman’s History month might seem a bit odd, to those who know her history. While Sylvia Rivera is commonly labeled as an early transgender woman activist, it’s unclear whether she would feel comfortable with this.

Sylvia Rivera was assigned male at birth, and presented with a feminine gender expression that under many definitions would make her transgender. However, she bristled at being labeled as transgender or a woman. She tried hormone therapy, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. Like many transfeminine people I know, she found the label of “woman” restrictive, as it implied measurement against a cis-woman norm. Or as she put it: “I don’t want to be a woman. Why? That means I can’t f*ck nobody up the ass. Two holes? No, no, no. That ain’t going to get it.” Instead she eschewed labels altogether: “I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I want to be Sylvia Rivera.”

So there is some irony in writing about Sylvia for Women’s History month, when Sylvia rejected the label of “woman” for herself. It is not to undermine or disregard that decision that I chose to do so. It is more that, she spent so much of her life suffering, being scarred by abuse for simply wanting to express herself as who she was, and help others do the same. I feel like that struggle deserves to be honored, even if the label “woman” per se is inaccurate. Maybe at some point in the future Woman’s History month will be relabeled to be more inclusive of more non-binary identities, but I do not wish to wait for that moment to honor Sylvia Rivera’s courage and sacrifice for her community.

Lucy Sharp is Volunteer LGBTQ Legal & Policy Analyst for Legal Voice. Her research focuses on some of the issues that are most pressing for the transgender community, including health care, discrimination, restroom equality, and access to legal documentation accurately reflecting gender identities.

Photo of Sylvia Rivera by Leonard Fink. Featured with permission on

Additional sources:
  • Transgender History (2008), Susan Stryker
  • Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera's Struggle (2007), Jessi Gan. From The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013).

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Latina Equal Pay Day:
Not a Day to Celebrate

By Gabriela Quintana

For the past six years of my life I’ve dedicated my professional life to women’s equity issues. I was an instrumental part of a team that helped develop and eventually pass a paid sick days ordinance inSeattle in 2011. Currently, it’s been all about getting a paid family and medical leave bill passed at the state level.

While having paid sick days and paid family & medical leave are crucial to the economic security of women and their families, having these two benefits is not enough—especially if you are Latina like me. Wages matter and, in the case of Latinas, we continue have a much wider gender wage gap than white women or even African American women.

According to the Economic Opportunity Institute, “Washington women who worked full-time in 2014 were paid $13,000 less than men, diminishing family budgets and undercutting community business prosperity. Women of color face especially large wage disparities. Median pay for White women in Washington is 74% of White men’s, for Black women 68%, and Latinas 48%.

“The wage gap persists at all education levels and across occupations. More women than men between the ages of 25 and 45 hold four-year college degrees in Washington, but women need those degrees to make the same amount of income as men with less formal schooling.”

It’s disheartening. According to other statistics, in Washington State it would take a Latina about three years to catch up to what a white man makes. This means that in 2019, I’ll be making what a white man makes in today’s wages. Yay.

Today is Latina Equal Pay Day, which marks the day that Latina workers finally catch up to what white, non-Hispanic male workers made last year. Yes, you read that right. Nationally, it takes Latinas 22 months to match a white male’s earnings from the prior year, according to recent United States Census data.

Economic security for women means having no wage gap, access to paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave. Show your support by voting yes on I-1433, which will lower the wage gap disparities across the board and ensure that all workers in Washington get paid sick days.

If we can get this done in 2016, then maybe in 2017 we can get paid family and medical leave passed. Just imagine!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unfriendly Skies

By Priya Walia

Trigger warning: violence, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child.

For people with a fear of flying, it is often reassuring to hear that planes are safer than cars. However, there are safety considerations other than crashing to consider. Travelers are exposed to an array of horrors at the hands of many different state and federal agencies—as well as other passengers—while flying.

The treatment of brown folks, like myself, and transgender people by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is atrocious, and I am sure that history will find it legally unsound. The lack of oversight for who is added to the terror watch list (also known as the no-fly list) is problematic at best and akin to government-mandated racial profiling at worst. Then there is the fear I experience at the hands of fellow passengers: Is someone going to report me for looking too suspicious? Too brown? Am I going to be seated next to a sexual predator?

That last concern may come as a bit of a surprise because, as many of us know, acquaintance sexual assault is far more common than the traditional archetype of the lurking stranger in an alleyway waiting to grab his unsuspecting victim. However, people are particularly vulnerable on planes because there is no way out. Add alcohol, jetlag, and sleeping medicine, and perpetrators of these heinous acts have the opportunity to strike with little to no detection.

In one reported incident, a reverend inappropriately touched a sleeping woman—touching that he considered “consensual because she did not reject his touches and he interpreted her silence, because she was asleep, as ‘coyness.’” The victim was not aware of the touching until she awoke with his hand on her thigh. He later admitted to FBI agents that he enjoyed “cozy flights” with women.

In another case, a man switched seats to sit next to a young unaccompanied minor. She was trapped next to him while he repeatedly sexually assaulted her for 30 minutes until a flight attendant saw her crying and caught him in the act. He was removed from his seat and arrested by the FBI upon landing.

While the FBI has jurisdiction over airlines and cases of sexual assault while flying, it does not track the number of sexual assaults on planes; neither does the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) or any other organization. According to Slate, in 2014 Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed a bill that would have compelled the FAA to keep statistics on airplane sexual assault. This legislation never came to fruition. In 2015, the best estimate is that there were 170 assaults aboard domestic flights. But sex crimes are cited as one of the most underreported category of crime, so this estimate could likely misrepresent the problem.

Keeping track of these assaults alone will not solve the problem; we live in a rape-friendly culture that laughs at affirmative consent laws, rejects women from juries for being survivors of sexual assault, treats survivors as suspects, questions survivors for taking years to courageously come forward, and teaches survivors that abuse is their fault. Airlines must take a more proactive role in preventing these attacks and making potential perpetrators fear the consequence of their actions.

Currently, it is rare for airlines to release a statement beyond the pre-written boilerplate they have used in many of these cases. In response to the assault of an unaccompanied minor, American Airlines released a lackluster statement: "American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them. We take these matters very seriously…” Being sexually assaulted is not an unpleasant travel experience—it is criminal, dehumanizing, traumatizing, and utterly unacceptable.

So, what is the solution? As it stands, most flight attendants are trained to alert the pilot when a sexual assault occurs so the pilot can make the choice to land the plane immediately or continue to the final destination. The pilot is also in control of alerting the authorities on the ground or deciding that the behavior was simply rude but not criminal. Victims are left with no direct line to contact outside emergency personnel without filtering her assault through undertrained airline employees. The perpetrators of these acts may walk free as soon as the flight lands, making it difficult for authorities to track them down.

The problem is complex and the solution should be well thought out and intersectional. Rape culture—the environment that entitles men to women’s bodies—is to blame, but if airlines took steps to make their stance known that inappropriate and unwanted touching is not tolerated, maybe perpetrators would not feel so protected.

Perhaps airlines could treat sexual assault with the same seriousness as sitting in an exit row and require verbal consent.

Priya Walia is the Reproductive Justice Fellow for If/When/How serving both Legal Voice and Surge. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Law (’16) and West Virginia University (’13) and a proud dog mom. Tweet at her @PriyaJWalia

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's Time to Call Out the Deceptive Practices of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

By Lara Hengelbrok

Reproductive health care advocates have won some important victories lately, particularly this summer’s Whole Woman’s Health decision, which preserved and strengthened the constitutional protection of the right to choose. But while we’ve been celebrating, advocates have been waging another battle over reproductive health care. In California, lawmakers and advocates are fighting against the deceptive practices of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that exacerbate existing barriers to reproductive health care access.

CPCs are facilities designed to look like medical clinics providing services for unintended pregnancy, but in reality are venues for anti-choice organizations to coerce pregnant people into carrying their pregnancies to term. CPCs lure pregnant people, particularly those who are low-income, with offers of free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. They often conceal the fact that they are not medical facilities and do not provide abortion or contraceptive services, even when directly asked. They then lie to clients about the effects of abortion—that abortion causes breast cancer, likelihood of later miscarriage, infertility, and sterility, in addition to spiritual and emotion trauma, PTSD, and depression.

If a crisis pregnancy center has harmed you in some way, or if you have visited one of these centers and want to share your experience with us, please do so now!

CPCs also try to encourage people to wait, either by misinforming them about the length of their pregnancy or the likelihood of miscarriage, which can result in pregnancies being too far progressed for abortion in some states. These delays also prevent women from receiving prenatal care, which can increase the risk of infant mortality.

And in spite of these dangers, CPCs receive support and direct funding from the federal and state governments. Twelve states directly fund and 20 states directly refer people to CPCs. Not to mention that CPCs are being awarded federal grants to provide abstinence-only sex education in public schools, increasing the rate of unintended teen pregnancy.

California responded to the threat that CPCs pose to reproductive health care by enacting the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act. The Act, which went into effect in January of this year, required CPCs licensed under the California Health and Safety Code to provide notice of available free or low-cost reproductive health services, including contraceptives and abortion, through the Medi-Cal program, along with a phone number to the local county social services office. It also requires unlicensed CPCs to affirmatively disclose to all clients that they are not licensed and do not have a licensed medical provider supervising services.

Naturally, CPCs immediately challenged the Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional on free speech grounds. CPCs argued that their speech is protected non-commercial speech because they don’t charge for their services. This argument obscures the connection between their free services and their ability to secure funding, both from private donors and state governments. It also ignores that their false advertising about pregnancy services prevents consumers from accessing the health services they’re seeking.

Fortunately, the Reproductive FACT Act survived preliminary injunctions in federal district courts. Following the decision, Los Angeles City Attorney recently issued warnings to three CPCs for failing to comply with the law. Failure to comply within 30 days would result in a $500 fine, with subsequent violations costing $1000 per offense.

While this may sound like a rather limited regulation with a minor penalty, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Efforts to curb CPCs’ deceptive practices have been largely unsuccessful; even requiring CPCs to affirmatively disclose that they do not provide emergency contraceptives, abortions, or prenatal care has been considered an infringement on free speech. CPCs have argued that these disclosures would impede their ability to express their disavowal of abortion while simultaneously listing abortion as a pregnancy option on their websites and advertisements.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with organizations pursuing religiously motivated advocacy, and CPCs are certainly well within their rights to denounce abortion. But the government funding of CPCs’ campaign of medical misinformation and false advertising, combined with the ceaseless attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion providers, demonstrate that CPCs are just another example of the ongoing assault on bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health care. It’s a relief to see that California legislators and local officials are responding to those threats to reproductive freedom.

Lara Hengelbrok is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She received a PILA Grant to pursue public interest work and hopes to work towards ensuring access to quality education and curriculum reform. She is also a baking goddess and unapologetic pop-culture junkie.

Photo courtesy of Esparta Palma | Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Get it together, Olympic commentators.

By Kelsey Jones

This headline is a metaphor for the entire world, reads the caption for a photo of a newspaper story about the 2016 Rio Olympics. The headline? “Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly.” Underneath it, in smaller type, sits the sub-headline: “Ledecky sets world record in women’s 800 freestyle.”

Katie Ledecky beat the world record and won the gold and was celebrating in the pool before her competitors even touched the wall. That phenomenal performance was placed beneath—in both newspaper layout and newsworthiness—the silver medal performance of Phelps.

The caption spoke to the rampant sexism at the 2016 Olympics, where fans and viewers are repeatedly left dumbfounded by media and commentator coverage. But also to the way that women’s accomplishments are viewed in the world of sports more generally. According to the UK’s Cambridge University Press, male athletes are three times more likely than female athletes to be mentioned in the context of sports, while women are routinely described with regards to their appearance, marital status, and age.

From the opening day of competition, the media aligned with that study. During the women’s gymnastics team final, an announcer commented that Team USA’s gold-winning Final Five appeared to “just be standing around at the mall” while they were waiting for their turn on the next apparatus. And after Hungarian swimmer Katinka HosszĂș’s gold medal and world record performance in the 400-meter individual medley was immediately attributed to her husband and coach, despite the fact that he most definitely was not the one in the pool. Along that same vein, the Chicago Tribune published an article headlined “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today at Rio Olympics.”

During Ledecky’s performance mentioned in the headline above, she was referred to as a “female Michael Phelps” and was said to “swim like a guy” by fellow USA teammate Ryan Lochte.

The United States has swept up 78 medals so far in Rio. Two of the top three medalists are women: gymnastics star Simone Biles and swimming phenome Katie Ledecky. Yet despite dominating performance after performance, the female athletes have faced blatant sexism in media comments, headlines, and social media commentary.

Of course, the athletes themselves aren't the only ones affected by this gross display of misogyny. Of the millions of people who watch the Olympics, many are undoubtedly young girls who aspire to be like Simone Manual, the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in women’s swimming; or like Katie Ledecky, who appears to be superhuman in the water with her record breaking speed; or like any member of the Final Five, a group that is more diverse and more dominant than any other gymnastics team. Focusing on athletes' appearance or marital status over their accomplishments is unnecessary at best and, at worst, damaging to young girls' perception of their ability to become an Olympic athlete.

The Olympics do not exist in a vacuum. Women’s sports, and women’s accomplishments in general, are much more likely to be belittled or filed under those of a man. In 2016, there is more pushback than ever, but the fact that these instances still occur with shocking regularity is appalling.

Women don’t compete “like a man” when they do well. They perform like the strong, disciplined, talented world class athletes that they are. No comparison necessary.

Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: AgĂȘncia Brasil | Creative Commons