Sylvia Rivera was born July 2, 1951 and passed on February 19, 2002. She was an American gay liberation and transgender rights activist who was also a noted community worker in New York. Rivera, who identified as a drag queen, participated in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front.
With close friend Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, gay youth, and trans women.
Rivera’s activism began in 1970 after she joined the Gay Activists Alliance at 18 years old, where she fought for not only the rights of gay people but also for the inclusion of drag queens like herself in the movement. Rivera sometimes exaggerated her importance, purporting to have been active during the civil rights movement and through the movement against the Vietnam war and second-wave feminist movements, but she could not prove her claims. After her older friend, Marsha P. Johnson, was being praised for being involved in the Stonewall riots, 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 relayed to him by early gay rights activists such as Johnson, who denied that Rivera had been there.
In 1973, Rivera famously spoke at a gay rights rally after she and Johnson had been reportedly banned for making other gay activists “look bad”. Afterwards, she told anyone who would listen that she had been involved in the Stonewall riots to which Johnson replied, “Sylvia, you know you weren’t there”. Then Rivera was silent. When the Stonewall riots occurred, Rivera was only 17 years old, and according to Bob Kohler, who was there on the two nights of the riots, she “always hung out uptown at Bryant Park” and never came downtown. Johnson told the gay rights historian Eric Marcus in 1987 that in the hours prior to her arriving downtown to join the other protesters at the riots, she had a party uptown and mentioned that “Rivera and them were over in the [Bryant] park having a cocktail.”
Kohler told Carter that although Rivera had not been at the uprising, he hoped that Carter would still portray her as having been there. Another Stonewall veteran, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, claimed that he wanted to add her “so that young Puerto Rican transgender people on the street would have a role model.” Kohler and Rivera had a discussion over what to include in the book and denied Rivera’s requests to be portrayed as being the one to throw the first Molotov cocktail, throwing the first brick, and having thrown the first bottle. That allowed Rivera to be portrayed as someone who had “thrown a bottle”, as opposed to being “the first”.
Randy Wicker, who was part of the Mattachine Society and an early critic of the violent militant tactics used by Johnson and other Stonewall veterans, said that Johnson had told him that Sylvia had not been at Stonewall “as she was asleep after taking heroin uptown”. Rivera would also claim to have been involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.
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. Rivera fought partly for herself for those reasons but most importantly for the rights of people of color 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 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.
Johnson was Rivera’s close friend, and the two often worked together politically. Their discussions led to activism and in 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR offered services and advocacy for homeless queer youth, and fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. SONDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights.
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 espoused 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 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!”
In early July 1992, shortly after the New York City Pride March, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. Police promptly ruled Johnson’s death a suicide, despite the presence of a head wound. Johnson’s friends and supporters, Rivera included, insisted Johnson had not been suicidal, and a people’s postering campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found. 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.
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 traveled 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 referring to the Star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus, she decided to resurrect STAR as an active political organization (now changing “Transvestite” to the more recently coined term “Transgender,” which at that time was understood to include all gender-nonconforming people). 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 organizations that were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her deathbed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of ESPA to negotiate transgender inclusion in its political structure and agenda.
Rivera was angered by her perception that the significance of drag queens and drag culture was being minimized by the ostensibly assimilationist gay rights agenda, particularly by new would-be “gay leaders” who were focusing on military service (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) and marriage equality. Rivera’s conflicts with these newer LGBT groups were emblematic of the mainstream LGBT movement’s strained relationship to the radical politics of many earlier gay liberation activists. After Rivera’s death, Michael Bronski recalled her anger when she felt that she was being marginalized within the community:
After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag — it just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA — which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office — even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, “straight-appearing” leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: “When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more'”. But, she added, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”.
According to Bronski, Rivera was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for several years in the mid-1990s, because, on a cold winter’s night, she aggressively demanded that the Center take care of poor and homeless queer youth. A short time before her death, Bronski reports that she said:
One of our main goals now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because 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.
Rivera’s struggles did not relate exclusively to gay and trans people, as they intersected with issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of color, which caused friction in the GAA as it was mainly made up of white middle-class gay people. The transgender person-of-color activist and scholar Jessi Gan discusses how mainstream LGBT groups have routinely dismissed or not paid sufficient attention to Rivera’s Latina identity, while Puerto Rican and Latino groups have often not fully acknowledged Rivera’s contribution to their struggles for civil rights. Tim Retzloff has discussed this issue with respect to the omission of discussions about race and ethnicity in mainstream U.S. LGBT history, particularly with regard to Rivera’s legacy.
Resources on Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! by Joy Michael Ellison
“Someday girls like us will be able to wear whatever we want. People will call us by the names we choose. They’ll respect that we are women. The cops will leave us alone and no one will go hungry.”
Sylvia and Marsha are closer than sisters. They are kind and brave and not afraid to speak their truth, even when it makes other people angry.
This illustrated book introduces children to the story of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the two transgender women of colour who helped kickstart the Stonewall Riots and dedicated their lives to fighting for LGBTQ+ equality. It introduces children to issues surrounding gender identity and diversity, accompanied by a reading guide and teaching materials to further the conversation.
Introduction to Transgender Studies by Ardel Haefele-Thomas
This is the first introductory textbook intended for transgender/trans studies at the undergraduate level. The book can also be used for related courses in LGBTQ, queer, and gender/feminist studies.
It encompasses and connects global contexts, intersecting identities, historic and contemporary issues, literature, history, politics, art, and culture. Ardel Haefele-Thomas embraces the richness of intersecting identities―how race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, nation, religion, and ability have cross-influenced to shape the transgender experience and trans culture across and beyond the binary. Written by an accomplished teacher with experience in a wide variety of higher learning institutions, this new text inspires readers to explore not only contemporary transgender issues and experiences but also the global history of gender diversity through the ages.
Out of the Shadows, Into the Light: Poems of Hope for the Hurting by Sylvia Rivera
These poems, written during the author’s personal painful journey and wonderful healing, are a source of comfort, encouragement, and hope for all those dealing with what has broken their hearts.