Sylvia Rivera is often most known for being just one of many that were present at the Stonewall Inn Riots in June of 1969 but her life and work encompasses so much more than that night. Rivera, now an icon for many LGBTQ+ folks, was born in the Bronx in 1951 as Ray Rivera and had a turbulent childhood. At just eleven years old, Rivera was on her own, homeless, and hustling on the streets trying to survive. Despite all the hardships she faced for her gender and presentation (as the 1960s/70s were very unforgiving towards gender nonconformity in any sense), Rivera was often very open about being transgender/a drag queen and was a long-time activist for LGBTQ+ rights.
Rivera regularly advocated for gay rights and liberation in a time where gender nonconformity wasn’t accepted by many, including many other prominent gay and women’s rights activists. She was there at the Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969, helped to occupy NYU’s Weinstein Hall after the university shut down two LGBTQ+ dances in 1971, and had also been an early part of groups like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, although she often had a contentious relationship with the gay community at large. She was a trans Latina who was, sadly, frequently homeless. All of these factors in the 1970s meant that she didn’t quite fit in with the white middle class gay activists of mainstream gay liberation groups.
One moment that helps to define her relationship with the larger gay community during this time was at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day parade, in which she stormed the stage and criticizes the booing crowd for not caring for the rights for others. She yelled into the microphone that she had been beaten, jailed, and had lost her job and apartment for gay liberation and yet, the crowd was treating her so terribly. You can actually watch a video of that moment here. And when she found out that other gay activists had cut language from a gay rights bill that would have protected drag queens, trans people, and other gender variant folks, she responded by saying “hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”.
In addition to advocating for gay rights, Rivera opened the STAR House (STAR standing for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend and fellow trans woman Marsha P Johnson in the early 1970s as a way to help homeless transgender youth. This house was unfortunately short lived but Rivera’s last home before her death [the Transy House] was actually patterned on the STAR House.
Rivera had long supported the gay rights movement and community but never really had the same support returned. She was honored at the 25th anniversary march of Stonewall in 1994 but still spent most of her life struggling with homelessness and addiction. She eventually found a home at the now closed Transy House in New York City and passed away in 2002 with her partner Julia Murray by her side. She was 51 years old.
NOTE: terminology and labels have changed in the last few decades. While labels like ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’ are more common today, gender nonconforming/variant folks in the 1960s and 1970s often used terms like ‘drag queen’, ‘transvestites’, and ‘queen’ when talking about gender identity. If you want to read more about how Sylvia labeled and defined herself, I recommend reading through this pamphlet of essays and speeches from Sylvia herself.
To learn more about Sylvia and her life:
- A Forgotten Latina Trailblazer: LGBT Activist Sylvia Rivera – Raul A. Reyes, NBC News
- An Army of Lovers Cannot Lose: The Occupation of NYU’s Weinstein Hall – Maggie Schreiner, Greenwich Village History
- Episode 1: Sylvia Rivera – Eric Marcus, Making Gay History
- “Hell Hath No Fury like a Drag Queen Scorned”: Sylvia Rivera’s Activism, Resistance, and Resilience – Anna Klebine, OutHistory
- In Revolution, The Trans Terms Sylvia Rivera Used – Autumn Sandeen, TransAdvocate
- Sylvia Goes to College & STAR Takes Over NYU – thespiritwas.tumblr.com
- Sylvia Rivera, 50, Figure in Birth of the Gay Liberation Movement – David W. Dunlap, The New York Times
- Who was Sylvia Rivera? – Sylvia Rivera Law Project