Who is Sylvia Rivera?
Sylvia Rivera was a Latina LGBT activist and drag queen who is credited as a pioneer of the civil rights movement. Rivera was also the co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which she led alongside Marsha P. Johnson. She also was a fixture of demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front.
Sylvia Rivera leading an ACT UP march in 1994. (Image Source: AP Photo/Justin Sutcliffe)
Sylvia Rivera in 1970. (Image Source: New York Public Library/Kay Tobin)
Rivera was originally born in New York City on July 2nd, 1951. Rivera's birth father abandoned her as an infant. She began living with her grandmother at the age of three years old after being orphaned when her mother committed suicide. However, her grandmother rejected Rivera's effeminate behavior, forcing her to work on the streets as a child prostitute at 11 years old.
Rivera never firmly confirmed her gender identity, referring to herself as a gay man, gay girl, and drag queen. In her 2002 essay, "Queens In Exile, The Forgotten Ones," Rivera states:
"I'm tired of being labeled. I don't even like the label transgender. I'm tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am."
In 1970, Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) organization, which sought to provide housing and other assistance to gay and trans sex workers and homeless youth in New York City, alongside Marsha P. Johnson.
Rivera spent much of her life advocating for the inclusion of transgender individuals and drag queens in the LGBT community, as well as for racial equality and greater support for impoverished gay youth. This caused a large amount of tension within the predominantly white and middle-class organizations that influenced LGBT activism in New York.
Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson representing S.T.A.R. at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Gay Pride Parade in 1973. (Image Source: LGBT Community Center National History Archive/Leonard Fink)
Rivera worked tirelessly to include transgender people in the LGBT community (Image Source: Valerie Shaff)
Death and Legacy
After briefly ressurecting STAR (this time changing "Transvestite" to "Transgender"), Sylvia Rivera died on February 12, 2002 from liver cancer.
Rivera is credited with being at the forefront of the LGBT civil rights movement. She played a pivotal role in providing a space within the broader LGBT community for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals and drag queens, paving the way for the work that has been done in the decades since her passing.