Sylvester James (1947-1988) was in some ways an unlikely star: an androgynous, cross-dressing, openly gay, African American, falsetto-singing, unapologetically flaming man-diva influenced primarily by church women, black blues singers, drag queens, hippies, and homosexuals. In the 1970s and 80s, Sylvester rode his marginality right into the mainstream--a star not despite the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality he crossed but because of them--becoming an international disco sensation and an enduring icon of queer self-determination.
Sylvester rode to stardom on the wave of liberation movements that shared with him a taste for the strange, the over-the-top, the fantastical, and that aimed, like him, for pleasure, self- determination, shamelessness, and the ecstasy of blurred boundaries. He embodied a simple set of diva-driven inspirational imperatives that have continued to inspire: be free; be fabulous; be real. The San Francisco-based singer’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” became the soundtrack of sexual and gender liberation movements largely because it articulated a revolution you could dance to.