All photos by Val Shaff
Drag queen, queer, brown, sex worker, poor. The magnetic personality of Sylvia Rivera embodied multiple marginalized identities. Rivera was one of America’s first transgender activists who worked tirelessly for justice and civil rights—and became a driving force in the mainstream gay liberation movement of the 1960s.
Ray Rivera, who would later take the name Sylvia, was born on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York. Her Puerto Rican father left the family after her birth and she became an orphan when her Venezuelan mother committed suicide when she was 3 years old. Rivera’s grandmother adopted her but disapproved of the behavior of her effeminate grandson.
Sylvia was bullied at home and at school, causing her to run away at the age of 10. On the streets, specifically 42nd Street in New York, she found an eclectic tribe of sex workers, drag queens, and members of the gay community. At the time, bars such as the Mafia-run gay bar The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, were the only safe spaces where queer people could come together and form their own de facto community.
Even though gay bars were not illegal, spaces frequented by the community were still regularly raided—patrons were subjected to police brutality, and Drag queens and transgender folks were often arrested for the clothing they wore.
On June 28th, 1969, The Stonewall Inn was raided. At the time of the incident, Rivera was there with her close friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson. Rivera and Johnson capitalized on what they say was the ultimate opportunity for resistance, and it has been said that Sylvia had thrown one of the first bottles at the police.
Now considered an important catalyst of the American Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement, the incident resulted in five days of rioting. Known as the Stonewall riots, patrons of the bar, the greater gay community, homeless youth, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans protested…and won. The protests contained: hurled barricades, broken windows, firebombs, cries of “occupy—take over, take over,” ”Fag power,” and “Liberate the bar!”
In an interview with transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, Rivera stated that she had told her comrades as the riots began, “I’m not missing a minute of this.” “It’s the revolution!” She emphasized this fact in other interviews. “We were the frontliners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody […] We had nothing to lose.”
Rivera stood out wherever she went. She was magnetic, loud, and demanding. In the 1960s most gay organizations were made up of white middle-class gays in groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA). Historian and biographer Martin Duberman notes on the friction that Rivera’s presence brought in the mainstream gay movement: “A Hispanic street queen’s transgressive being produced automatic alarm: Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, from the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes—managing single-handedly and simultaneously to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of Otherness.”
Rivera didn’t care about labels and definitions, throughout her life she referred to herself as a ‘half sister,’ a ‘drag queen,’ or a ‘transvestite.’ Her attitude on her fluid identity further strengthened her position as a radical activist in the mainstream gay movement.
In 1970 Rivera wanted to help homeless youth and trans children who were hustling on the streets. Together with Marsha P. Johnson she co-founded the activist organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and later a home called STAR House. At the same time, Rivera also showed solidarity with the Puerto Rican Young Lords movement and started a Gay and Lesbian Caucus that collaborated with the organization.
Despite their exclusion, both Rivera and Johnson worked hard for the inclusion of queer people of color (and gender-nonconforming) in the mainstream civil rights movement. Quite often the activists could front various protests but were pushed aside for more acceptable leaders in front of the media.
In 1973, during the fourth annual Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in Washington Square Park, Rivera challenged the community. After all, her exclusion was not only at the hands of middle class white gay men, but she was also pushed to the margins by lesbian feminists. She took the stage amidst a chorus of boos. In her well-known speech, “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” she shouts at the crowd that they don’t care about the rights of others:
“You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs.
I will no longer put up with this shit.
I have been beaten.
I have had my nose broken.
I have been thrown in jail.
I have lost my job.
I have lost my apartment.
For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?
What the fuck’s wrong with you all?
Think about that!”
After the rally, Rivera broke down, disbanded STAR, and left activism for two decades. Sadly, she still continued to struggle with homelessness and drug addiction. But her impact was not in vain, and her lifelong activism ensured that the “T” was placed in the LGBTQ rights movement.
In the 1990s she slowly came back in the public eye, after there had been shift within the movement to include the LGBTQ community in social institutions such as the military, the legal and criminal justice system, and marriage. She felt that this change of direction further excluded queer people of color, poor and homeless youths, transgender and gender-nonconforming people who continue to struggle under the weight of these social institutions.
Rivera fought for inclusion till the very end, and passed away after fighting cancer in February of 2002.
According to a 2015 report of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the lives of transgender Americans are still filled with violence, severe economic hardship, and physical and mental health issues due to discrimination and lack of access to necessary resources. Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization that “works to guarantee all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income and race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence” continues Sylvia’s fight for inclusion.