Sylvia Rivera was a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan Bisexual Transgender Activist who participated in the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Sylvia was born on July 2nd, 1951 in New York City and died on February 19th, 2002. During her childhood she began living on the streets because her grandmother who raised her did not agree with her effeminate behavior, which resulted in Sylvia leaving her home. Sylvia identified as a drag queen and lived on the streets of New York with other young drag queens until she was 18 years old.
Sylvia was very active during the Civil Rights Movement and became a co-founder of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. Ms. Rivera did end up leaving both organizations when the discussion of gay rights in New York quickly left out the rights of Transgender people. Together with Marsha P. Johnson, another Trans Activist, they founded S.T.A.R.; Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, which was dedicated to helping young homeless street drag queens and trans women in surviving on the streets and getting the services they needed.
Sylvia was at the Stonewall Inn when the riots took place between LGBTQ people and the police on June 28th, 1969. Police were raiding the bars, arresting and beating people especially Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color. After years of oppression Sylvia with others stood up and fought back. Sylvia and Marsha organized in the Lower East Side at 213 East 2nd Street in order to get shelter for homeless drag queens and Transgender Women.
When the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican revolutionary rights group came to New York, Sylvia joined them in protests and rallies representing S.T.A.R. She became the first drag queen to be a member of the Young Lords Party and the first Young Lords Party member to be a part of S.T.A.R. The connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement was not that different at all. Sylvia was connected to Huey Newton, Black Panther Party Leader, and met with him for the first time at the People’s Revolutionary Convention in Philadelphia in 1971. At that point it was clear that they were all part of this revolution together!
Sylvia Rivera was one of the key leaders in fighting for the Gay Rights Bill (passed in 1986) in New York City and became known for climbing the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to get into a meeting about the bill that was closed doors. Along with S.T.A.R. she fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill (passed in April 2002) which she unfortunately did not get to live through and witness.
Because of the work and legacy of Sylvia Rivera the program dedicated to helping LGBTQ Youth at Metropolitan Community Church of New York was named after her. Organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are dedicated to supporting Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People in the name of Sylvia. In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets were named “Rivera Way” in her honor, only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
During this month of LGBT History I remember Sylvia Rivera.