Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 in New York to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother.
After her father abandoned her family when she was still a baby, Sylvia sadly lived in a very turbulent environment. For example, Rivera’s stepfather threatened to kill her and her mother when Rivera was just three years old.
A Difficult Early Life
Shortly afterwards, Rivera’s mother sadly killed herself. Leaving a three-year-old Sylvia as an orphan. She went to her life at her grandmother’s, who was very strict and didn’t like Sylvia’s “Effeminate” behaviour. The last straw for her grandmother is when she found out that Sylvia would go to Fourth Grade with makeup on.
As a result, in 1961, at ten years old, Rivera ran away and was on her own in Times Square, just shy of her 11th birthday, when she was forced to work as a sex worker. It was an unbelievably dangerous existence, not only because of the drugs and violence on the streets but because of the continual threat of police brutality. Rivera once threw herself out of a moving police car to evade arrest.
Meeting Marsha P. Johnson
She was later taken in by a local community of drag queens, who actually named her ‘Sylvia’. Before this time she was going by her birth name.
It was during this time when, in 1963, she met who would become her oldest, best friend, Marsha P. Johnson. She was at a Halloween party with her drag queen friends and Rivera later wrote, “This one queen named Louisa snatched Marsha’s wig. Well, Marsha wasn’t going to have it. When she caught up to Louisa up on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue she beat the living daylights out of her.”
Later, Johnson introduced herself to Rivera and took her out to eat. Johnson was six years older than Rivera and already accustomed to life on the streets. She was happy to share her resources and show the younger queens how to survive. This sort of generosity was common for Johnson, who always looked out for her sisters and other people living on the streets.
Rivera said, “Marsha would give the blouse off her back if you asked for it. She would give you her last dollar. She would take off her shoes. I’ve seen her do all these things.”Johnson’s generosity made her well-known in Greenwich Village.
So, skipping forwards a little in the timeline, after her older friend, Marsha P. Johnson was being praised for being involved in the Stonewall rebellion, Rivera claimed that she was also present there.
Stonewall historian David Carter, however, questioned Rivera’s claims of even being at the riots that night, based on contradictory statements that she made and on testimony related to him by early gay rights activists such as Johnson, who denied that Rivera had been there.
At different times in her life, Rivera battled substance abuse and lived on the streets, largely in the gay homeless community at the Christopher Street docks. Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, were left behind by the mainstream society and the assimilationist sectors of the gay community.
(Assimilationist, is the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a society’s majority group or assume the values, behaviours, and beliefs of another group whether fully or partially).
Rivera fought partly for herself for those reasons but most importantly for the rights of people of colour and low-income LGBT people. As someone who suffered from systematic poverty and racism, she used her voice for unity, sharing her stories, pain, and struggles, to show her community that they are not alone. She amplified the voices of the most vulnerable members of the gay community: drag queens, homeless youth, gay inmates in prison and jail, and transgender people.
STAR and Gay Liberation
Johnson was Rivera often worked together politically (despite what may or may not have happened at Stonewall). Their discussions led to activism and in 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The goal of STAR was revolution. Their method was projects of mutual support for trans people living on the streets and in prisons. Rivera and Johnson created STAR House, a community by and for their sisters. They also raised money to provide bail and legal support to imprisoned trans people. Together, they articulated a vision of liberation that challenged racism, transmisogyny, capitalism, and ableism.
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in New York City, Rivera, representing STAR, gave a brief speech from the main stage in which she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community. Rivera spoke for what could be seen as a third gender perspective, saying that LGBT prisoners seeking help “do not write women. They do not write men. They write to STAR.”
At the same event, Rivera and fellow queen Lee Brewster jumped onstage during feminist activist Jean O’Leary’s speech and shouts at the crowd during her “Y’all Better Quiet Down” speech, stating, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
Rivera’s commitment to her causes knew no bounds. One time, when the New York City Council was debating a gay rights bill behind closed doors, Rivera was arrested for trying to climb in a window – in a dress and high heels.
But as the gay rights struggle progressed, Rivera was increasingly left out of a movement that was concentrating on going mainstream. Still, she rallied, protested, caucused, and got arrested in the name of what she believed in, earning her the title of “The Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement.”
In one video that encapsulates Rivera’s contentious relationship with the larger gay community, she takes the stage at a rally in Washington Square Park in 1973 to a chorus of boos. She reprimanded the crowd for not caring about the rights of others. “I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail!” she shouts. “I lost my job, I lost my apartment for gay liberation… and you all treat me this way?” By the end of her tirade, she is leading the crowd in a chant of “Gay Power!”
This is all part of the complicated persona that was Sylvia Rivera.
“Sylvia was a very difficult person. She had a lot of anger, for many understandable reasons,” said Rich Wandel, a historian and archivist at New York City’s LGBT Community Center who knew Rivera. “Back in 1970, 1971, there was some appreciation for drag queens, but not for what we know as transgender people today. The gay community was not willing to embrace her, and neither was the women’s liberation movement. It was a different time.”
Gay Power is Trans History
In May 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River. That year she also appeared in the Arthur Dong documentary episode “Out Rage ’69”, part of the PBS series The Question of Equality, and gave an extensive interview to gay journalist Randy Wicker in which she discussed her suicide attempts, Johnson’s life and death, and her advocacy for poor and working-class gay people made homeless by the AIDS crisis.
Although being seen as this big Trans Activist, Rivera’s actual gender identity was complex and varied throughout her life. In 1971, she spoke of herself as a “half-sister”.
In her essay “Transvestites: Your Half Sisters and Half Brothers of the Revolution”, she specifically claims her use of transvestite as applying to only the gay community: “Transvestites are homosexual men and women who dress in clothes of the opposite sex.”
In interviews and writings in her later years, notably her 1995 interview with Randy Wicker and her 2002 essay, “Queens In Exile, The Forgotten Ones,” she expressed a fluid take on gender and sexuality, referring to herself alternately as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen/street queen, and again as a gay man.
She embodied all of these experiences and saw none of these identities as excluding the others. Rivera writes of having considered gender reassignment surgery much earlier in life, but of ultimately choosing to reject it, taking hormones only near the end of her life.
In the last five years of her life, Rivera renewed her political activity, giving many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and the necessity for transgender people, including drag queens and butch dykes, to fight for their legacy at the forefront of the LGBT movement. She travelled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000, where she was acclaimed as the “mother of all gay people”.
In early 2001, after a service at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, she decided to resurrect STAR as an active political organisation, although by now the name had been changed to Star Transgender Action Revolutionaries which was seen as a more politically correct term.
STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. STAR also sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman murdered in 2000. Rivera attacked Human Rights Campaign and Empire State Pride Agenda as organisations that were standing in the way of transgender rights.
Sadly, Rivera died in the early hours of 19th February 2002, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, of complications from a long battle with liver cancer aged 50 years old.
But her legacy lives on
Named in her honour (and established in 2002), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated “to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence”.
In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed “Sylvia Rivera Way” in her honour. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighbourhood in New York City where Rivera started organising and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
In January 2007, a new musical based upon Rivera’s life, Sylvia So Far, premiered in New York at La Mama.
In 2014, The Social Justice Hub at The New School’s newly opened University Center was named the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center after activists James Baldwin, Sylvia Rivera, and Grace Lee Boggs.
In 2015, a portrait of Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery, making Rivera the first transgender activist to be featured in the gallery.
In 2016, Rivera was inducted into the Legacy Walk.
In 2018, Happy Birthday, Marsha! a short film about Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, set in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, was released.
In May 2019, it was announced that LGBT rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera would be commemorated with a monument in New York’s Greenwich Village, near the epicentre of the historic Stonewall riots. The monument was publicly announced on May 30, in honour of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and just in time for Pride month.
In June 2019, the Italian city of Livorno dedicated a green area to Rivera, called Parco Sylvia Rivera.
And finally: in June 2019, Rivera was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
We will finish this story of Sylvia Rivera with this quote by her:
“I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The early 60’s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did. Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I didn’t really come out as a drag queen until the late 60s when drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was. I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn’t even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me. People now want to call me a lesbian because I’m with Julia, and I say, “No. I’m just me. I’m not a lesbian.” I’m tired of being labelled. I don’t even like the label transgender. I’m tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
So that is the story of Sylvia Rivera.
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