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Sylvia Rivera

Updated: Jan 18


Who was Sylvia Rivera?

Sylvia Rivera leading an ACT UP march in 1994. (Image Source: AP Photo/Justin Sutcliffe)
Sylvia Rivera leading an ACT UP march in 1994. (Image Source: AP Photo/Justin Sutcliffe)

Sylvia Rivera was a Latina LGBTQ+ activist, drag queen, and trans activist during the Civil Rights Movement.


Rivera is most known for her involvement in the Stonewall Riots and being 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.



Early Life


Rivera was born to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents in New York City on July 2, 1951. Rivera's birth father abandoned her as an infant. She began living with her grandmother at the age of three years 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. With their support, she started identifying as a drag queen and calling herself “Sylvia.”


Sylvia Rivera in 1970. (Image Source: New York Public Library/Kay Tobin)
Sylvia Rivera in 1970. (Image Source: New York Public Library/Kay Tobin)

Exploring Identity


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."

Stonewall Riots and S.T.A.R.


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 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)

In 1969, at 17 years old, Rivera was at the Stonewall Riots, where she’s said to have thrown a molotov cocktail.


Alongside Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization in 1970. STAR sought to provide housing and other assistance to gay and trans sex workers and homeless youth in New York City.



Transgender Inclusivity


It was often difficult for Rivera to receive support from other activists in the LGBTQ+ community. Many gay and lesbian activists were cisgender, white, middle-class individuals who didn’t understand the struggles she and many other transgender youth had gone through. This became most clear with the Gay Rights Bill; backroom deals were made between lawmakers and queer activists to exclude transgender rights specifically. This betrayal led Rivera to disappear from her activism for 20 years until she returned in the mid-1990s to continue fighting for transgender rights.


Death and Legacy


Rivera worked tirelessly to include transgender people in the LGBT community (Image Source: Valerie Shaff)
Rivera worked tirelessly to include transgender people in the LGBT community (Image Source: Valerie Shaff)

After briefly resurrecting 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 LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. She is currently the only transgender person in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded shortly after her death to support transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. She played a pivotal role in providing a space within the broader LGBTQ+ 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.


 

References


Rothberg, E. (n.d.). Sylvia Rivera. National Women's History Museum. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sylvia-rivera.


Goodman, E., Americo, L., Riedel, S., Tran, C., & Reign, E. (2019, March 26). Sylvia Rivera changed queer and Trans Activism Forever. them. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.them.us/story/sylvia-rivera.


Pak, E. (2020, January 7). Sylvia Rivera. Biography.com. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.biography.com/activist/sylvia-rivera.


Nestle, J., Howell, C., Wilchins, R. A., & Rivera, S. (2002). Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones. In Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the sexual binary (pp. 70–88). essay, Alyson Books.


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Barbara Morrigan
Barbara Morrigan
Oct 28, 2023

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