Smithsonian Adds Transgender 'Sex Worker' to Civil Rights Exhibit

By Penny Starr | November 17, 2015 | 11:19am EST

( – The taxpayer-funded Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery has added a photo of a transgender sex worker to its “Struggle for Justice” civil rights exhibit.

The photograph depicts Sylvia Rivera--described as having been a “trans woman sex worker”--along with her partner Julie Murray and activist Christina Hayworth. The photograph was taken at a rally prior to the 2000 Gay Pride Parade in New York City.

(This is a screen capture from the National Portrait Gallery website.)

“A forerunner in the fight against gender identity discrimination, Sylvia Rivera worked the dicey Times Square district as a trans woman sex worker after she was cast out by family as a teenager,” says the description of the photo posted in the Gallery. “She was there in 1969 at the turning point of the modern LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) struggle for equal rights, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn violently rebuffed a police raid.

"Politicized by this experience, Rivera campaigned with the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) in urging the city to enact a nondiscrimination ordinance,” the description says. “However, facing racism and discrimination as a Latina transgender by the mainly white male GAA leadership, she began to work with homeless teenagers, co-founding the militant group and shelter STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries).

“In the 1990s Rivera was embraced as one of the fundamental figures of the LGBT movement,” the description says.

The “Struggle for Justice” exhibit also features images of the iconic civil rights leaders the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

The photo of Rivera is part of the exhibit’s presentation of homosexual rights as part of the civil rights movement in the United States.

In a video at the gallery, footage of protests by homosexuals are featured, including a speech by playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, who said homosexual men were being intentionally allowed to die from HIV/AIDS and called it “a genocide."

The online information about the Rivera photograph states that it was acquired in March 2015 and “made possible through the support of the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.”

On Oct. 26, NPG posted a blog about the new photograph entitled "Welcome to the Collection, Sylvia Rivera."

"The three women are shown, hands interlocked, sitting on a stone wall with a sign at their feet that reads 'Respect Trans People/Men!' the blog said. "The photograph captures a somewhat atypical scene for Pride Weekend. 

This plaque at the National Portrait Gallery explains the photo of one-time "trans woman sex worker" Sylvia Rivera. (Photo/Penny Starr)

"Rather than the bustling energy of the parade with crowds and celebration, this captures a moment of tranquil friendship and unity," the blog said. "The three women are shown joined together in the movement to ensure equal protection for the transgender community."

According to Bethany Bentley, spokeswoman for NPG, the decision to include the photograph was made by NPG Director Kim Sajet. The photograph was purchased from photographer Luis Carle, but the gallery does not disclose the cost of its acquisitions, Bentley said.

The photograph was installed in September as part its “paper rotation” protocol where light-sensitive pieces are protected by limited time on exhibit. It will remain on exhibit for six months, according to Bentley.

Rivera, who was stricken with liver cancer, passed away on Feb. 19, 2002, according to her obituary in the New York Times.

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