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.

Sylvester Celebrates. This video, courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society, includes live performances by Sylvester, including his performance at his 40th birthday celebration and at the 1985 Cable Car Awards.

"Oh God, don't ask me how I got started or how old I am or about The Cockettes. Let's just say that I came from an upper-middle class black bourgeois family in Los Angeles, and that I left a boring nine-to-five job to move to San Francisco. Better yet, let's say I was the first test tube baby."

— Sylvester


40 years of memorial, survivorship and stories of AIDS

The National AIDS Memorial brings 40 years of stories from the pandemic – the lives lost, the heroes, the survivors.  Each week we will share new stories that provide a glimpse into the many faces of AIDS from then to now.

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