Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.
Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.
Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)
Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.
Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside the Gay Liberation Front — and with their next iteration, the Gay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.
In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.
She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”
Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.
After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village
There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!
Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.