Sylvia Rivera Law Project Celebrates 10th Anniversary
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project celebrates a decade of helping trans people and communities of color with free legal help, policy reform, public education and precedent-setting litigation that improves their lives. In a special celebration in November, they honored LGBT advocates Janet Mock, Lorena Borjas, Stefanie Rivera, Kris Hayashi and Collette Carter, who -- like Sylvia Rivera herself -- share their mission to make life better for trans people of color.
"I never got the chance to know Sylvia Rivera in her life, but to see that her legacy of taking care of her own -- low-income, heavily policed communities of trans and queer folks of color -- is vibrantly living through SRLP is a close, close second, and then to be honored is a blessing that humbles me greatly," transgender activist Janet Mock told EDGE.
From the Stonewall Riots to her death in 2002, Rivera was a force to be reckoned with. She fought for low-income people and LGBT homeless kids living on the piers in New York City. According to some accounts, Rivera was among the original Stonewall rioters, responding to a plea to return to her home with, "I'm not missing any of this; it's the revolution!"
She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, and founded Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries with her friend Marsha Pugh Johnson, and inspired the 2000 founding of Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment a.k.a. FIERCE, a group that works to empower LGBT youth of color.
"You can literally walk around New York City and see the scope of her fight for low-income people of color, pushing for legal representation for trans people caught up in police stings and harassment, and trying to build coalitions between transgender people and LGB people in general," said SLRP’s Membership Director Reina Gossett. "It is inspiring how her legacy is used and held in different places and also how it is carried on."
One of the things for which SLRP’s Director of Grassroots Fundraising Ola Osaze feels lucky is being constantly surrounded by people who were touched by Sylvia’s life. She is currently working on a film about Rivera’s life and her vision of trans acceptance.
"We have been able to take that vision and build on it for the past 10 years," said Gossett. SLRP works with three legal projects to provide access to welfare and social security benefits, and help with name changes and immigration issues. The group partners with other organizations concerning policing and prisons. The organization does the work that STAR was doing by representing people who are incarcerated and taking leadership with those folks through the Prison Advisory Committee; and by looking at how trans people are treated in prisons, mental institutions and homeless shelters.
Gossett counts among SLRP’s major victories the Department of Justice’s 2012 changes to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first time the federal government issued national standards to end sex abuse in prisons, jails and youth detention centers. SLRP worked to create the 2006 Shelter Non-Discrimination Policy, which allows transwomen to go to a women’s intake center and be placed in a women’s shelter.
The group did it all without compromising Rivera’s original vision of maintaining a collective, said Osaze -- and with no hierarchy of leadership.
"That a non-profit organization of our size is still able to maintain our collective structure and consensus through every layer is beautiful, and a rarity for a trans-led organization," she said. "All staff directors run their own programs, and the board is not more powerful than the staff directors."
As did Rivera, the team at SLRP views their mission of providing direct services as a way to bring people into the movement and build leadership. They continue to combine education for day-to-day survival needs with movement building around transphobia, racism and sexism.
The trans activists that SLRP honored at their Nov. 8 event were a logical extension of that work, said Osaze.
Trans Activists Honored at SEUI 1199 Celebration
As part of their 10th anniversary celebrations, SLRP brought the community together at the SEUI 1199 building in Times Square on Nov. 8 to honor activists Janet Mock, Lorena Borjas and Kris Hayashi. The event raised nearly $50,000 for SLRP’s programs and services.
"It was really obvious whom we should honor," said Osaze. "Janet Mock has been very vocal for trans issues and sees the intersections, and Lorena Borjas is a Latina transwoman from Queens who is really near and dear to our heart and has been organizing for 20-plus years on immigrant life, policing and issues, when there were very few transpeople of color working on that."
"At SRLP10, three trans women of color, including myself, were honored. We all got to share our story, our work, our active legacy of resistance," Mock told EDGE. "In my acceptance speech, I bowed to Sylvia and to my fellow honorees for actively resisting, for actively collecting and actively doing the work, and I also vowed to live up to the faith SRLP’s members and clients put in me by giving me this honor. Not only did I get to share space with SRLP, but I also found new sisters in my fellow honorees Lorena Borjas and Stefanie Rivera and board member Katherine Cross, who presented us with our awards."
The location was also serendipitous, said Osaze, noting that Rivera was a sex worker in Times Square 40 years ago who collected signatures every day in the area for Intro 475, a move to include sexual orientation in New York’s Human Rights Law that they wanted then-Mayor John Lindsay to sign.
"Forty years later, we were back there, celebrating her legacy and invoking her name," said Gossett. "The need for an organization like SLRP is really clear; never has it been so important that an organization survive as it is now. Even some traditionally hostile organizations are finally getting the message about the need to respect trans people, because we are organizing, because of our public education and consciousness-raising. There is still violence, but there was a shift where we could finally begin to see that we are a force, and we have a lot of power."
For more info on SLRP or to donate to its efforts, visit http://srlp.org/