Tea with Mariah, meeting Marsha and the rebirth of STARR
A candid conversation with the Executive Director of the Transgender organization founded by
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson during the
by Ariah Lester
Born in NYC and raised in foster care after her mom
died of AIDS, Mariah Lopez is one of the most legally
accomplished and respected activists of her generation,
with three landmark cases for Trans or LGBTQ rights
under her belt, and countless policies and programs
across NYC inspired or started by her, Mariah is a true
force of millennial social justice reform and power.
True to STARRs roots, today, Mariah remains of the
front lines of contemporary social justice movements,
like Sex Workers rights, ending AIDS, police reform
and systemic homelessness, especially for HIV Negative
With the release of the documentary "The Death and
Life of Marsha P Johnson" on NETFLIX, and the
controversy surrounding allegations impropriety and
ethics violations by the film's creator, STARR has been
thrust back into the spotlight.
Mariah continues her work leading both a movement-
the Trans Rights movement, as head oc STARR- as
well as working bridge the gap between intersecting
movements and struggles.
You’re the protege/daughter of the legendary Sylvia Rivera,
what was your first experience meeting her?
In order to properly understand how surreal meeting Sylvia for
the first time was, you have to understand the circumstances
leading up to our meeting; and why I even met her, or needed
to meet her.
I had been sent away to a juvenile lockup after getting arrested for prostitution at 13/14 yrs old ( sent by a great judge, who would actually
go on to order the City to pay for my SRS,Judge Sheldon Rand). I had learned to do sex work in order to literally survive, just as Sylvia had,
starting on 42nd Street/Time Square and around the Port Authority, after running away from an abusive foster care placement.
Becoming who I am today (transitioning young), was a matter of life and death to me. There were absolutely no legal safe options for a
Trans youth who wanted to Transition here in NYC at the time. Hormones, clothes, make-up, all needed to be bought with money gained
from prostitution (in my case). I eventually found the Pier and the West Village ‘culture’. Older Trans women of color, many still in their
teens and early twenties, took me in and showed me the ropes. After I was arrested for prostitution several times, I was sent to ‘juvie’,
where I was abused mercilessly by staff because I was Trans. While at the institution I was forced to go to school, which wasn’t nearly as
bad as the residential aspect of the place. The first assignment I received in Writing class was a assignment/project where we had to
choose an historic event which changed America. We then had to read an approved book on the event, and, over the course of several
weeks, create a mural type presentation about the event (along with a written piece of course). I chose Stonewall, out of rebellion. I wanted
so badly to maintain my identity and individuality within that awful place. Jennie Casciano, and Alexia Lewnes, both mentors and friends
of mine, began to send me all the material on Stonewall that they could; books, articles, pictures, clippings. I devoured the books and
other materials I was sent, and this is when I first encountered someone like myself (in fact two individuals) at the center of the most
important event in GLBTQ history. Sylvia and Marsha’s story seemed both unreal, yet oh so familiar. I was thrilled. I assumed both Sylvia
and Marsha had both died. Nothing I had access to (circa 2000, no internet access) revealed what happened to either of them. I began to
envision a new ‘STAR’, and wrote my ideas and plans to restart ‘STAR’ down. Those notes still exist.
When I was released from the juvenile facility I was sent back to ACS custody. As a result of the first lawsuit I ever filed (Joel A), ACS had
opened (or would open) new group homes for queer youth in foster care. I was sent to the first of these new homes at 306 Rodney Street,
in Brooklyn. This new program however well intended was not yet properly run, and staff and I came into conflict. This meant I was set to
be sent back upstate; into torture and child abuse.
Jennie Casciano had been sort of a mom to be, and was there every step of my incarceration (court dates in Family court, making sure I
wasn’t ‘alone’ and that my legal advocates had access to and the support of the actual GBLTQ community). So, when my return to a life of
lock-up seemed eminent, all because there were not enough beds for queer kids, Jennie made a call. She got on her phone, playing with
a sticky note she took from her computer screen. When she was done, she handed me another sticky note with an address on 16th street
in Park Slope Brooklyn on it , and said “Go to this address, I just spoke to Chelsea and Rusty. Sylvia Rivera is there, waiting. For you” I
was stunned. “What Sylvia Rivera?!” “The”...’Sylvia’, was alive, and waiting for me?! The plan at the time seemed to be keep me from
going back upstate no matter what. Hide me, adopt me, whatever it took. Apparently Jennie had told Sylvia, Rusty and Chelsea about me.
And they had taken a liking to me, and wanted to help.
When I got to the address I found Transy House, a row house in Park Slope with lots of character, In many ways STAR(R)’s new
headquarters; in many ways an unofficial ‘underground’ shelter, off the grid. No outside funding or publicity. Just a humble two story
house, keeping people safe and fed, out of the pocket of STAR members. Hodge podge furniture, foster and permanent pets everywhere.
I was thrilled. “Sylvia is alive….Sylvia is alive..” I kept thinking. When I got there, Sylvia wasn't there yet. When she came in, she
looked at me, hugged me briefly, and immediately dove into the issue at hand: “how to keep me outta juvi’”.
Several minutes into the conversation, I referred to her as ‘Sylvia’, and she looked at me, not upset but, also not asking for a response of
any kind, and said “Ma. You call me Ma. I'm your mother now, okay? No more Sylvia, Ma”. That's the first time I met Sylvia, and how it came
about, my running STAR and how she became my Trans mother.
How would you describe the state of the transgender community during that time?
Small, and limited. There was virtually no cohesive Trans political or civil rights movement. There was work being done, and there was
community, because Trans people have always been here. But, at the time I met Sylvia, Trans people were far less gelled than they are
today. Plus, social media didn't exist.
Many in the LGBT community are unaware of STAR(R), the organization founded by Sylvia & Marsha. Can you give us a little history?
STAR(R) was started by Sylvia and Marsha shortly after Stonewall. Although, if you think about it, STAR(R) was actually founded during the
riots, technically. We celebrate Pride as our anniversary. STAR(R) was the first and only organization to come out of Stonewall to focus on
Trans issues (not called Trans-issues pers se), and LGBTQ youth issues, including GLBTQ youth homelessness. STAR(R) was also the
first organization to specifically use the momentum of Stonewall and the new found Gay Rights movement to bring attention to queer
prisoner rights issues, as well as widespread queer homelessness, poverty, and survival Sex Work. As sex workers themselves, Sex
Workers rights, as well as poverty and abuse at the hands of the police and while incarcerated, were all issues raw a relevant to Sylvia
STAR(R) went dormant for years, when Sylvia moved to Westchester after
Marsha died. After she returned and was taken in by Rusty and Chelsea,
she got back on her feet, and, was introduced to a new generation of queer
youth activists and advocates, who were fighting to combat the gentrification
of the West Village in NYC, blocks from Stonewall. These young people and
their work to save the Pier (culturally), really galvanized Ma.
When a Trans woman named Amanda Milam was killed in NYC, this drove
Sylvia to officially restart STAR(R) (mere months after I had imagined
reopening STAR; not knowing Sylvia was still around). Sylvia passed away
shortly after restarting the organization, right before I won my second lawsuit,
yet first case for Trans rights, Jean Doe v Bell. The attention bot Sylvia and
I received at the time helped STAR(R) solidify our reemergence.
STAR(R) never really went dormant again after 2001/2002. Membership
continued to grow by referral or invitation. I did, however, make changes to
the name to reflect the 21st century. Lol. I renamed STAR the ‘Strategic
Trans Alliance for Radical Reform’. Keeping the original gritty spirit in our
name by including Radical, yet emphasizing our organizational reach, as
a network of allies for reform. I even played with words “Are they Trans allies,
for allies FOR Trans…?!”, was/is the questioned which I intended the new
name to cause one to ponder.
The plan was to expand STARR’s membership coast to coast, strata by
strata. Meanwhile, I continued to build STARR’s network of members and
supporters, and continued to spread the word that STARR was back. This
was by word of mouth, before social media was as ubiquitous for use in
community organizing as it is today.
Shortly after my first SRS procedure in 2009, I began to seriously work on
identifying issues STARR would focus on. I kept finding Trans Murder at the
top of the list. With our founder Marsha’s 1992 murder being unsolved, and
there still being a need to carry on Sylvia’s work in the West Village and on
the Pier, I had an idea: There needed to be e project to bring the entire
community together. There also needed to be memorials established for
Marsha, Sylvia, and the Trans rights movement. So, I wrote a plan to erect
permanent memorials on the Pier. This kicked off STARR’s work around
Trans memorials, as well as Trans cold case murders. With the help and
voice of notable STARR members such as yourself (ARYAH LESTER) and
Ts Madison, STARR’s work around cold cases and Trans murders, including
working with law enforcement to prevent and solve cases of violence and Mariah Lopez
murder is becoming more well known. I Believe that STARR’s presence across the southern United States is notable and important,
even if by name recognition alone. Anti Trans violence seems particularly insidious for our Trans brethren down south. It's important that
STARR and other well Trans voices and organizations linked to Stonewall and other examples of queer victories, give hope to Trans folk
young and old. Sylvia and Marsha did not die without leaving behind a legacy of survival and resilience. Hope and history give people the
strength to fight.
STARR still exists today under your helm. How has it evolved, especially in the climate of current affairs?
STARR has responded to and evolved with the times. And, since Trans issues have become mainstream conversation, STARR is a
reflection of this. The issues and need of the most vulnerable of Trans people, and the political state of the Nation, are what drove Sylvia
and Marsha in 1969, and the same is true for STARR today. Now, it's not the Draft, but a military ban against Trans soldiers that STARR
fights against. During the 1970’s STAR(R) fought so that the truth of what happened at Stonewall was not forgotten. Today STARR fights
for a monument to forever mark the events of that night and the struggles to follow. In the 1980’s and 90’s, STAR(R) fought the
mainstream queer community, who was ignoring the most marginalized of the GLBTQ community (the poor, academically
disenfranchised, and the homeless) during the AIDS crisis. STARR demanded more beds and more money to help the homeless, and
less white gay corporate dominance of so-called community spaces and resources. Today, STARR’s work around fighting the
dominance of PREP over PEP, meds over beds, as well as corporate domination and special interest lobbying of public HIV/AIDS
funding, is eerily reminiscent and complimentary to the work started by our founders. I am proud of STARR, our work and our numerous
platforms, and I think Sylvia and Marsha would be too.
You’ve done a lot of work in the Justice system. Can you describe some of your accomplishments?
I have been quite lucky in my ability to bring about change within the criminal and juvenile justice system without much actual litigation.
Starting with youth specific Department Of Juvenile Justice and Office of Childrens and Family Services, which ‘lock up’ youth here in New
York, myself and other advocates from Lawyers For Children and the Legal Aid society have basically created the entire policy that exists
today for queer kids: acknowledging that there are queer youth, and that they have special rights and needs. DJJ and OCFS are night and
day compared to how they once were in terms of how queer youth are treated. I have been arrested many times unjustly by the NYPD, and
my trips to Rikers and the abuses I suffered at the hands of cops or corrections officers has lead to my aggressive advocacy around
police and jail/prison reform here in New York City. I work closely with everyone; lawnmakers, community, ex prisoners, allies within the
system. Even law enforcement and prosecutors, to advocate for fairness and to provide insight on individual cases, or policies where
expert opinions from Trans individuals is needed. This is especially true when it comes to search policies (NYPD/DOC) or domestic
violence cross complaint-victim advocacy. As a result, the NYPD has taken measurable steps to eliminate abuses against Trans victims
of crimes and Trans detainees. And Rikers has even opens an entire housing unit for Trans inmates. I worked closely with the NYC DOC
to come up with the policy which created that housing unit.
I have filed three landmark lawsuits against ACS here in NYC. The first Joel A v Giuliani was on behalf of all queer kids in foster care; the
second, Jean Doe v Bell was historic because a Supreme Court in NYC held that Trans folk were protected under the New York State
Human Rights Law; and the third case Lopez v Mattingly rocked the nation when a family court judge ordered the City of New York to pay
for my gender affirming surgery as a part of my medical treatment. This case is how Medicaid was forced to cover all gender-affirming
related procedures here in New York State.
You’ve reopened many closed-cases of transgender murders,
including Marsha’s. What is the importance in reopening these
Well, as the many Detectives I know always say “murder cases
are never closed unless they’re solved”. So, what STARR is
actually doing is getting cases re-examined, or, replaced near
the top of the stack, so to speak. The importance of what STARR
does is two fold. First, every single Trans person murdered
deserves justice, Period. No matter how old the case is, now
matter how bleak the chances of finding the killer, every Trans
person is someone's child, parent, sibling, lover or friend.
STARR is committed to Justice, for Justice’ sake. The second
reason, yet maybe more important reason we focus on colder
cases is for public and community safety. Crimes are deterred
when justice is doled out, no matter how long it takes. And, in
some cases of Trans murder, the killer may still be targeting
and killing not only Trans folk, but possibly other groups or
individuals. Clearing up the backlog of cold cases Trans
murders serves many purposes and ultimately makes us all
safer as a society.
Life as a transgender woman of color is beset with hurdles
and closed doors. How have you navigated systems?
I’ve done just that: I’ve ‘Navigated’ lol. Sometimes at my own peril.
What I have learned throughout everything though, is something
I like to think Sylvia, Marsha, and even Dr King and Malcolm X
kept in the front of their minds. “Look how far we’ve come. There’s
always a way. Never give up.
What is something about Sylvia and her legacy you would like
people to know about?
She was incredibly tender, as well as maternal. Her main
priorities were always the voiceless, sick, the young, incarcerated,
and homeless. I feel to honor Sylvia and Marsha, we all must look
at the movement and issues like a mother's shopping or to-do
list. There is so much crossed of, yetm so much left to do, left to
acquire. She would, as a matter of both strategy and symbolism,
want the movement to function like it was still 1969 when
planning whats next. Start from the top, reflect on what actually
happened and who needs help. Leave no one behind. Respect
history, is what I think Ma would ask of folk. Lest we forget, and
are doomed to repeat it.
STARR has active chapters and members throughout the Marsha P. Johnson
country. What work are you currently engaged in?
Each chapter basically decides for itself which issues it will focus on, since that's what grassroots organizing looks like. Many of the
chapters are focused on Trans cold cases, others on newer murders or spats of anti trans violence. Like the name suggests, we are are
network of allies more than anything else. Activists, students, doctors, lawyers, clergy, press. I know in Louisiana Syria Jackson focuses
mainly on economic empowerment and does a lot of work around HIV/STI screening. Florida (ARYAH LESTER) focuses at the
moment on advising law enforcement and serving as a beacon of awareness and expertise around Trans issues all around.
With Trump in office, and almost every American under attack, I find it important that STARR chapters be free to do as much or little
around Trans issues specifically as is practical. Medicaid is under attack by congress, and Medicaid failure or defunding would place the
lives of thousands of STARR members, allies and their loved ones at risk. STARR members and chapters have been active in fighting
attempts to dismantle medicaid and to keep Trans narratives linked to this fight. Sometimes just sharing a post until it's trending, and
calling congressional offices throughout the day, is what is necessary from day to day.
Trumps presidency and his attacks on Trans service folk have been disturbing, but, the nation was stunned (as was I) at the number of
Trans service folk currently serving. I hope that many of these service men and women will join up with STARR chapters in the very near
What would you say to the LGBT communities about passing the torch from the leaders of the Stonewall Riots?
I would say that, you never really Have The Torch, unless you understand What it is You’re holding: do your homework, know your history!
This way, everything makes sense. Choosing next steps, and the right path is made easier, once you’re not afraid of doing a little
Can you give us some inspiration for the next generation in the fight for transgender rights?
(wasn't all that enough Inspiration guuurrrlll????!!!!:))))))))
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