Sylvia Rae Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002) 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 transgender women.
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Rivera was born in New York City in 1951 to a father from Puerto Rico and a mother from Venezuela. Rivera had a difficult childhood: her father was absent and her mother died by suicide when Rivera was three years old. Rivera was raised by her grandmother, who would often beat her for her effeminacy. She shaved her eyebrows and wore makeup to school beginning in fourth grade, and by the time she was 10 years old left home and began life as a sex worker, hustling near Times Square. In a community she had found of street queens — as poor transgender youth, some of whom performed sex work and/or were homeless, then identified themselves — she gave herself the name "Sylvia Rivera" in a ceremony attended by some fifty of her friends and peers. She also referred to herself as a drag queen, and later in life as transgender.
It was, by all accounts, an arduous life: Rivera and her peers were regularly beaten up by cops, or even each other. Rivera would eventually serve 90 days on Riker's Island, sent to a cellblock kept for perpetrators of "gay crimes".
Rivera's activism began in 1970 after she participated in actions with the Gay Liberation Front's Drag Queen Caucus and later 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, the movement against the Vietnam war, second-wave feminist movements, as well as Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers but she could not prove her claims.
Rivera was said to have been actively involved in the Stonewall Inn uprising on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn—a gay bar in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan—rebuffed a police raid and set a new tone for the gay rights movement. Rivera said in an interview in 2001 that while she did not throw the first Molotov cocktail at the police, she did throw the second.
Rivera supposedly resisted arrest and subsequently led a series of protests against the raid. However, Rivera was only 17 years old when the Stonewall riots occurred, and according to Bob Kohler, who was there on the first two nights of the riots, Rivera "always hung out uptown at Bryant Park" and never came downtown. In 1987, Marsha P. Johnson told gay rights historian Eric Marcus that in the hours prior to Johnson arriving downtown to join the riots, she had attended a party uptown and that "Sylvia Rivera and them were over in [Bryant] park having a cocktail." There are several other statements Johnson made to highly credible witnesses — namely, Randy Wicker, Bob Kohler, and Doric Wilson, all with deep and enduring ties to the LGBTQIA+ rights movement — about Rivera not having been at the uprising.
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." When Kohler and Rivera had a discussion over whether Kohler would back Rivera's claims to Carter for the book, Rivera asked Kohler to say that Rivera threw a Molotov cocktail. Kohler responded, "Sylvia, you didn't throw a Molotov cocktail!" Rivera continued to bargain with him, asking if he'd say she threw the first brick. He replied, "Sylvia, you didn't throw a brick." Eventually, Kohler agreed to lie and say Rivera had been there and had at some point thrown a bottle.
The Stonewall riots were also a turning point in the visibility of the gay rights movement. The first pride parades started in 1970, but Rivera and other transgender people were discriminated against and discouraged from participating. In 1973, Rivera participated in the Gay Pride Parade but was not allowed to speak, despite the amount of work and advocacy she had done. She grabbed the microphone anyway, telling the spectators and other marchers, "If it wasn't for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We're the front-liners." She was booed off the stage.
Throughout the 1970s, she frequently tangled with gay rights leaders who were hesitant to include transgender people in their advocacy work. The Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), which formed in response to Stonewall, frequently rejected the role transgender people—the majority of whom were people of color—had played in the uprising. Rivera also fought against the exclusion of transgender people from the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. The final bill passed in 2002 and prevents discrimination "on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights."
Along with Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) around 1971. The group became a space to organize and discuss issues facing the transgender community in New York City and they also had a building, STAR House, that provided lodgings for those who needed it. Rivera explained in 1998 that she and Johnson "decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids. We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent." Although only 19, Rivera became a mother to many of the residents of STAR House. While short-lived, STAR House was an important space for those who needed it.
Rivera's 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. Male transvestites dress and live as women. Half sisters like myself are women with the minds of women trapped in male bodies."
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", and a drag queen/street queen, embodying all of these experiences and seeing none of these identities as excluding the others. Rivera writes of having considered gender confirmation surgery much earlier in life, but of ultimately choosing to reject it, taking hormones only near the end of her life.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project continues her legacy, working to guarantee "all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence." The intersection of Christopher and Hudson streets in Greenwich Village, two blocks from The Stonewall Inn, was renamed "Sylvia Rivera Way." In 2015, a portrait of Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., making her the first transgender activist to be included in the gallery. In 2021, New York City will unveil a monument to Rivera and Johnson. It is the city's—and according to New York City, the world's—first monument dedicated to transgender individuals.
- Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter
- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix
- "Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots" from Drunk History