Frank Kameny & Sylvia Rivera are heroes, but their deaths reveal a sad truth about queer elders

Frank Kameny and Sylvia Rivera
Frank Kameny and Sylvia Rivera Photo: Library of Congress

Among the 50 LGBTQ+ pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes’ names inscribed on the silver hexagons hanging from the rainbow-colored U.S. flag backdrop of the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor — a monument unveiled during New York City’s 2019 World Pride last June — are two in particular: Sylvia Rivera and Frank Kameny, early queer rights activists who, unlike many of their peers, survived anti-queer violence and the HIV epidemic to die in the relative peace of the 21st century.

Rivera died on February 19, 2002 at age 50 of liver cancer in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, and Kameny died nearly a decade later, on October 11, 2011 (National Coming Out Day), at age 86, of a heart attack in the northwest Washington, D.C. home where he’d lived for 49 years. They both laid the foundations for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, but few people outside of activists or academics recognize their names. Even fewer realize they both died in relative poverty, just as many LGBTQ+ elders do to this day.

These things remain unknown both because queer activists don’t make it into public school history textbooks and because these two died 12 and 22 years ago. As such, few details of their final days exist online, and with each passing week, the specifics fade from the minds of those who knew them best. Those who revere them still protectively guard any potentially embarrassing specifics, leaving the rest of us to piece together the truth about our ancestors and their deaths before their contemporaries die out, too.

Kameny & Rivera’s generations fought for queer rights differently

A quick web search of Kameny and Rivera yields more or less the same biographical highlights. Kameny — the so-called “grandfather of the gay rights movement” — was a Harvard grad and WWII army vet who, after being fired from his job as a government astronomer for being gay in 1957, led the first pickets for gay rights in front of the White House in 1965, and pushed the American Psychiatric Association to delist homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. His 1961 petition to the U.S. Supreme Court contesting his firing laid out arguments that would eventually help overturn sodomy laws and win marriage quality decades later. 

In 1968, Kameny coined his trademark phrase “Gay is Good” at a time when simply patronizing a gay bar or wearing cross-gender clothing could get you savagely beaten by cops, thrown in jail, criminally charged as a sexual deviant, fired from your job, and publicly listed as a “pervert” in newspapers. It was a time when taking pride in your sexuality seemed a foreign concept to gay and straight people alike. 

But despite his subversion, Kameny was also an unapologetic assimilationist who believed pickets weren’t occasions for displays of “non-conformity.” He made his male protestors shave and wear suits. Female protestors were told to wear neat dresses that conveyed “good order… and dignity of bearing.”

Rivera, in contrast, was exactly the kind of queen who Kameny would’ve viewed as disruptively counter-productive to his brand of respectability politics. She was intersectionality incarnate: a Latina American trans woman who’d sold sex on New York’s streets since age 12 under the tutelage of her close friend, fellow trans revolutionary Marsha P. Johnson. Both rose to prominence after the 1969 Stonewall riots, and together they co-founded one of the earliest trans rights organizations, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which advocated for homeless, imprisoned, and transgender people of color. 

Even after Johnson drowned under sketchy circumstances on July 6, 1992, Rivera continued advocating for these same communities and pushing for trans inclusion in city and statewide non-discrimination bills up to her final days. Despite the transphobic exclusion she faced from members of “respectable” gay and lesbian political milieus like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies, her outspoken, confrontational style still won her devotees and a prominent speaking spot at the rally for Italy’s 1999 World Pride Celebration.

Rivera died 17 years before trans rights became enshrined into New York state law, but she (like Kameny) lives on in historical photographs and recorded interviews found in a handful of LGBTQ+ documentaries.

Both were honored by numerous awards from local and national LGBTQ+ organizations. The Sylvia Rivera Law Center bears her name, and the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute have archived Kameny’s old picket signs and over 70,000 of his activist documents, giving future generations a slivered view into each of their lives.

Meanwhile, the specifics of their deaths remain somewhat hidden from public view. Here is what little we’ve pieced together from those who were there.

“I guess this is it”: Rivera’s final days among friends & mourners

Seven years before her 2002 death, Rivera moved into Transy House, a five-bedroom, two-bathroom Brooklyn commune located between Park Slope and Green-Wood Cemetery. From 1994 to the mid-2000s, Transy House’s trans woman owner, Rusty Mae Moore, and Moore’s then-girlfriend (and now wife), Chelsea Goodwin, operated it as a temporary residence and social services center for homeless trans women.

At any given time, between five and 10 residents slept in its beds or on its living room couch and floors. Goodwin, who’d long seen Rivera as an important trans historical figure, asked her to move in after New York Police dismantled Rivera’s Christopher Street Pier homeless encampment where she’d lived for the past year.

Rivera’s one-room dwelling on the pier had a floor mattress, a dresser, and a small side table with a candle burning “for the saints.” No heat, electricity, or running water — its walls were made of tarps and linens roped onto concrete slabs, pallets, bookshelves, and discarded doors. Outside was an open-air living room with covered couches and a weather-worn wicker coffee table. In nearby cabinets, Rivera stored jugs filled with fire hydrant water for “whore baths.”

By the time she moved into Transy House, Rivera was drinking at least two quarts of vodka a day, Goodwin says. Though she’d struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for most of her life, Rivera drank more heavily after Johnson’s death.

After entering Transy House however, Rivera curbed her alcoholism, began dating fellow Transy House resident Julia Murray, regularly invited other trans street-dwellers to stay (with Moore and Goodwin often caught unaware), and started attending demonstrations and making speeches at political meetings and trans gatherings. Even today, Goodwin still has possessions Rivera left in Transy House after she died: blankets, Betty Boop tchotchkes, her old television….

During a demonstration at City Hall in the late ‘90s, Rivera met Reverend Pat Bumgardner, senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. Bumgardner invited Rivera to attend despite Rivera’s misgivings with religious queerphobia.

The MCC-NY’s social justice gospel and trans-focused social programs seemed to resonate with her. She began attending and volunteering and by 2000, she worked as director of its food pantry program for a modest salary and benefits. Though the job appealed to her natural compassion for helping those in need, she struggled with sobriety and the administrative record-keeping needed to apply for the pantry’s foundational grants.

In October of 2001, Murray called Bumgardner. Rivera had been vomiting blood while working at the church and needed to go to St. Vincent’s hospital immediately. There, Rivera learned that she had liver cancer, which had metastasized into her pancreas. Her prognosis wasn’t good, and Bumgardner, who had long helped Rivera navigate the city’s social welfare programs, accompanied her to all her subsequent doctor’s appointments until her second and final stay at St. Vincent’s.

Bumgardner and Goodwin believe that Rivera experienced severe pain long before her diagnosis — Goodwin says she found a freshly smoked crack pipe in Rivera’s room around that time, possibly to alleviate her suffering.

Over time, the pain became unmanageable, and during her final two weeks at St. Vincent’s, Rivera’s hospital room was a circus of associates and activists coming to pay their respects. During one visit with Joe Grabarz and Matt Foreman, both former executive directors of the Empire State Pride Agenda, Sylvia told them which transgender leaders to trust and which not to trust.

She was on oxygen and struggled to communicate but was “sharp as a tack,” Foreman says. But near 5 a.m. on the morning of her death, only Murray and Bumgardner were in her hospital room. Murray was panicking, inconsolable. Bumgardner had anointed and prayed with Rivera. 

“I guess this is it,” Rivera told the pastor. “Maybe yeah,” Bumgardner responded, reassuring her, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” Physically agitated, Rivera repeatedly, rapidly got out of bed, knelt on the floor, stood up, and got back into bed.

“[Rivera] seemed a little bit in a fog or a daze,” Bumgardner says. “She didn’t really say much…. Finally, she laid down and she grabbed my arm and dug her fingernails into the underside of my forearm, and that’s how she died.” 

The next day, Bumgardner arranged a viewing of Rivera’s body at the Redden Funeral Home in the West Village for the evening of Friday, February 22, 2002.

“Tons of people crowded the room,” she says. “There was a woman who didn’t think her makeup was done right who wanted to reach into the casket and change [it],” but Bumgardner intervened. As Jim Fouratt, a Stonewall veteran who didn’t always accept trans people, began to speak at the wake, other trans attendees turned their backs on him.

In her casket, Rivera wore a button with a picture of Johnson, and in this small way, these two friends who had promised to “cross the River Jordan together” in death were finally reunited.

Rivera was cremated, and her funeral was held in the sanctuary of MCC-NY on Tuesday, February 26, 2002. Though the sanctuary only fits a maximum of 250 people “very uncomfortably,” Bumgardner says, at least six or seven hundred crowded the stairwell and vestibule, forming a line out the door and onto the sidewalk.

Goodwin says church security forbade Rivera’s trans friends and housemates from accessing their reserved seats, but Bumgardner doesn’t recall any such issues. Goodwin disagrees. “Anyone who was close to Sylvia but not associated with the church was treated like dog crap,” she says, “and there was no excuse for it.”

After the funeral, a horse-drawn carriage carried Murray as she held Rivera’s ashes in a procession from the church to the Stonewall Inn. A giant puppet uncannily rendered in Rivera’s likeness towered over the procession. It was made by Frank Constantino, an artist and longtime lover of Rivera who was overlooked as her significant other. On its way towards the West Village, the procession picked up hundreds of additional marchers on the way until the crowd grew to about 1,500 people, according to gay journalist Andy Humm, one of the attendees.

At the Inn and the Christopher Street piers, mourners sprinkled a spoonful of Rivera’s ashes and laid a funereal wreath in the Hudson River, not far from Rivera’s old encampment and where Johnson’s body was found. They laid green wreath in the river, tied with a ribbon bearing Rivera’s name, and her birth- and death dates.

The rest of her ashes currently sit on Bumgardner’s desk during weekdays and on a pillar in the MCC’s sanctuary on Sundays. Once a year, Bumgardner says, Ms. Murray visits her office to quietly spend time with Rivera’s ashes.

Kameny’s death sparked a battle for control of his legacy

When Kameny died of a heart attack on the afternoon of October 11, 2011, his body was discovered by Timothy Lamont Clark, his 35-year-old heir who had lived continuously in his basement since 2002.

Clark grew to regard him as a grandfather following their first conversations in 1991 on the gay information hotline that Kameny once operated out of his home. Clark was just 15 years old at the time and called to ask about coming out to his religious family — he says he would have likely committed suicide if Kameny hadn’t talked him through his difficulties over many years.

As Kameny’s adult housemate, Clark regularly called Kameny every day at noon and prepared his coffee, breakfasts, Sunday meals, and Healthy Choice microwave dinners. They regularly watched TV in the basement together and went to Clark’s family home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But despite their longstanding association, Clark remained virtually unknown to Kameny’s closest colleagues — something that would cause years of acrimony and lawsuits after he died.

Though many local LGBTQ+ activists revered Kameny as a local god, he didn’t have many close friends, according to Chris Dyer and Bob Witeck, two activists who knew him. 

“Frank didn’t have what you would call a congenial personality,” Witeck says. “He was not warm. He didn’t care to cultivate charm. He was a very annoying man. He was not beloved in that sense, but he wasn’t a politician…. because then he would have had to make nice [and] it wasn’t in his character to be that way.”

“He was such a living God in the community,” Dyer says, “that no one really got a sense of who he was as a person, other than just a crank — a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful crank.”

Kameny didn’t live as a wealthy man either, his associates say. Though he received some money from speaking fees and the sale of his papers to the Smithsonian, no one (not even Clark) knew what Kameny did for money. He wasn’t known to have a romantic partner, didn’t have the best hygiene, refused to apply for social services, and regularly accepted free rides and food from others, always seeming to wear the same two or three suits out in public.

When Marvin Carter, the director of a local charity called Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS), visited Kameny’s home in 2010, he discovered Kameny was a hoarder with papers strewn everywhere and entire parts of his house broken down and nonfunctional, including his bathroom plumbing and water heater. Alarmed, Carter immediately sent out a mass email to local activists — including the then-executive directors of the LGBTQ Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign — saying that Kameny needed serious help.

Later that year, two D.C. police officers and an official with local senior citizen services came to the house to investigate concerns from Kameny’s associates that Clark might be abusing or taking advantage of Kameny. Police found no evidence of either, and Kameny reportedly felt upset by the accusations. Clark says he’d offered financial and cleaning assistance many times over, but Kameny always refused.

Because HOBS had assisted Kameny with many essential needs in the past — including transportation for doctor’s appointments, eyewear repair, the purchase of a mobile phone, and payment of utility bills and property taxes — Clark called Carter after discovering Kameny’s body; he made the call on the phone that HOBS had provided to Kameny. Carter called the police.

The police investigated the scene and had Kameny’s body taken to the morgue. Soon after, three local activists — Witeck, Charles Francis, and Richard Rosendall — entered the house with Carter’s permission and took nearly 20 boxes filled with Kameny’s papers and personal belongings, worried they might get lost or discarded in the hubbub following his death.

At the time they didn’t realize that Kameny’s will had bequeathed all his papers to the Library of Congress and his house (valued at $730,880) and other belongings to Clark. Clark sued the men to return the items and says Kameny’s associates weren’t happy about the will. In March 2012, Clark said someone dropped an anonymous letter in the house’s mail slot, which allegedly read, “The [n-word] got everything.”

To pay for the nearly $8,500 in funeral costs, HOBS publicly solicited donations. Kameny’s body was “laid in state” for public viewing at the Carnegie Library on November 3, 2011. Dyer got 46 LGBTQ+ and other community organizations to sign on as co-hosts of the Carnegie viewing — that same day, the Smithsonian Museum displayed some of Kameny’s picket signs in a temporary display.

Twelve days later, Kameny was memorialized in the Cannon Caucus Room of the House of Representatives — gay congressmembers Tammy Baldwin and Barney Frank spoke among a few others. Witeck and Dyer recall both occasions as family reunions among local activists, but some of these activists would battle Kameny’s sole heir for the following four years over Kameny’s memorial and final resting place.

Kameny’s house was designated as a D.C. Historic Landmark in 2009, but Clark quickly sold it after his death because it had too many memories and didn’t feel like a home to him anymore. Initially, Clark agreed to let half of Kameny’s ashes be buried at a March 3, 2012 interment ceremony in the city’s Congressional Cemetery: HOBS had purchased a burial plot, was planning a headstone, and Kameny’s activist colleagues were organizing a public ceremony.

But Clark postponed the event, sued and then dropped the lawsuits against the activists who took Kameny’s property from the house, and then, on February 2014, revealed through his lawyer that he’d interred the ashes elsewhere in an undisclosed location. Clark continued to refuse a public memorial for Kameny, even four years after his death, until the estate officially approved the headstone and HOBS signed over the cemetery plot.

Finally, on the morning of November 11, 2015, Kameny’s colleagues unveiled Kameny’s white marble headstone in the Congressional Cemetery. It rested just behind Leonard Matlovich’s iconic gravestone, which reads, “A Gay Vietnam Veteran: When I Was In the Military They Gave Me A Medal for Killing Two Men and A Discharge for Loving One.”

About 1,500 people attended Kameny’s commemoration service. Several gay military members spoke and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. sang “Make Them Hear You” from the musical Ragtime. Its lyrics go: “Your sword could be a sermon / Or the power of the pen / Teach every child to raise his voice / And then my brothers, then / will justice be demanded by ten million righteous men / Make them hear you … / When they hear you, I’ll be near you / again.”

Dying a second time: Keeping memories of queer elders alive

Though they lived in relative poverty, Kameny and Rivera’s notoriety at least ensured that the larger community cared for and memorialized them in their final days. But the same can’t be said of countless LGBTQ+ elders whose lives laid the foundation for our receding civil rights.

The organization Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) says that of the over three million LGBTQ+ seniors currently alive — all of whom lived through the HIV epidemic — 34% live alone, more than half struggle with depression, are twice as likely than heterosexuals to live in poverty, and 39% have seriously considered suicide. 

The statistics aren’t shocking so much as dispiriting: to think that a lifetime of proud activism could end in solitary depression and poverty, ignored by the larger community. The blame lays almost entirely at the feet of an American governance that is economically corrupt and inhumanely neglectful.

But the LGBTQ+ community kills these heroes a second time when we let their stories fade, and we leave our seniors in the dark when we fail to recollect what the final days looked like for some of the best among us.

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

This Vietnam veteran broke the internet’s heart when he came out in his obituary

Previous article

Sarah McBride will soon make history as the out first transgender congresswoman

Next article