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A Forgotten Latina Trailblazer: LGBT Activist Sylvia Rivera

Before Harvey Milk, she was a seminal figure in the LGBT rights movement. Before Caitlyn Jenner, she was one of the country’s first transgender activi
Sylvia Rivera in front of fountain in 1970.
Sylvia Rivera in front of fountain in 1970.Kay Lahusen

NEW YORK, NY -- Before Harvey Milk, she was a seminal figure in the LGBT rights movement. Before Caitlyn Jenner, she was one of the country’s first transgender activists who worked tirelessly for justice and civil rights.

And most people do not know her name.

She was Sylvia Rivera, who occupies a unique place in LGBT history. Rivera helped lead the charge on the night of the Stonewall riots in New York City, considered the beginning of the LGBT rights movement. As drag queens fought back against a police raid at a gay bar on June 28, 1969, the New York Times reported, Rivera shouted out, “I’m not missing a moment of this – it’s the revolution!”

While Rivera’s presence at this landmark event has been disputed, there is no denying that she was an LGBT civil rights pioneer. Yet she remains little known, even within the LGBT community. The recent movie Stonewall, based on the events of that fateful night, drew protests for “whitewashing” Rivera out of the story in favor of a fictional white character.

Sylvia Rivera and friend in 1970.Kay Lahusen

Rivera lived a turbulent life. She was born in 1951 in New York to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother. Rivera’s stepfather threatened to kill her and her mother when Rivera was three. Shortly afterwards, Rivera’s mother killed herself. At ten years old, Rivera was on her own in Times Square, eking out a living as a sex worker. It was an unbelievably dangerous existence, not only because of the drugs and violence on the streets, but because of the continual threat of police brutality. Rivera once threw herself out of a moving police car to evade arrest.

Rivera was forced to live life on the margins because she refused to conform to the gender norms of her time. Decades ago, the term “transgender” was not in common usage; people who did not fit conventional norms were known as drag queens, transsexuals, transvestites, or “queers.” While many men and women chose to hide “in the closet,” Rivera was not among them; she was wearing makeup to school in 4th grade.

Some have called Rivera the "Rosa Parks" of the modern transgender movement, and her activism helped put the "t" in LGBT activism.

"Try to imagine being an eleven year old kid and being kicked out onto the streets of New York, “ said author and activist Riki Wilchins. “It must have been brutal. Growing up like this made Sylvia both hard as nails and extremely vulnerable.”

Yet living on the street also gave Rivera great empathy for others in the same situation. After the Stonewall riots, she became part of the nascent gay rights movement – at a time when transgender people were not necessarily welcomed.

Sylvia Ray Rivera (front) and Arthur Bell at gay liberation demonstration, New York University, 1970.Diana Davies

“I think Sylvia’s role in gay history was that she was one of the first people to highlight that our movement needed to be more inclusive of people who did not fit in the mainstream,” said Carrie Davis, Chief Programs and Policy Officer at New York City’s LGBT Community Center. “Sylvia was drawn to helping the poor, the homeless, people of color, gender non-conformists. She used her outsider status to help make change.”

“She (Rivera) was willing to go to difficult lengths to make her point about these issues,” Davis added. “She was willing to get arrested. Now, jail is not a hospitable place for anyone, but especially not for a transgender woman of color. That was the courage she bought to our movement.”

With her friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and opened a shelter for homeless transgender youth. She was also an early member of groups like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, which were the forerunners of today’s LGBT advocacy organizations.

Rivera’s commitment to her causes knew no bounds. One time, when a the New York City Council was debating a gay rights bill behind closed doors, Rivera was arrested for trying to climb in a window – in a dress and high heels.

But as the gay rights struggle progressed, Rivera was increasingly left out of a movement that was concentrating on going mainstream. Still, she rallied, protested, caucused, and got arrested in the name of what she believed in, earning her the title of “The Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement.”

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In one video that encapsulates Rivera’s contentious relationship with the larger gay community, she takes the stage at a rally in Washington Square Park in 1973 to a chorus of boos. She castigates the crowd for not caring about the rights of others. “I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail!” she shouts. “I lost my job, I lost my apartment for gay liberation… and you all treat me this way?” By the end of her tirade, she is leading the crowd in a chant of “Gay Power!”

This is all part of the complicated persona that was Sylvia Rivera.

“Sylvia was a very difficult person. She had a lot of anger, for many understandable reasons,” said Rich Wandel, a historian and archivist at New York City’s LGBT Community Center who knew Rivera. “Back in 1970, 1971, there was some appreciation for drag queens, but not for what we know as transgender people today. The gay community was not willing to embrace her, and neither was the women’s liberation movement. It was a different time.”

“The gay rights movement was not founded by the gays hanging out at Fire Island. It was started by people like Sylvia Rivera - it came from low-income people of color outward," says author and activist Riki Wilchins.

Wandel points out that there were likely class issues involved as well. Rivera lived on and off the streets for much of her life, and struggled with addiction.

“I think the younger LGBT community is largely unaware of our history, such as Sylvia Rivera, because there are very, very few opportunities to learn about it,” Wandel said. “LGBT history is only beginning to appear in college textbooks and school curriculums, and then only in big cities.”

Rivera’s lifelong activism helped put the “T” in the LGBT rights movement. In 1994, she was honored at the march marking the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Gay rights activists Sylvia Ray Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming, Kady Vandeurs, and Carol Grosberg at City Hall rally for gay rights.Diana Davies

Rivera passed away in 2002 from liver cancer. She was 50. Since then, she has been recognized with a street bearing her name in New York City, and tributes from LGBT community organizations. New York is also home to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, (SRLP), an organization that works to secure the rights of gender non-conforming people.

Still, it may be her personal connections to at-risk youth that are her greatest legacy.

“She was nurturing, she was someone who was a crusader, and she made sure no one was left behind,” said Stefanie Rivera (no relation) of the SRLP.

“She advocated for me when I fell on some hard times when I was younger,” Rivera said. “She did not have it easy. She couldn’t count on support from the gay community or the straight community, but she looked out for others.”

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Riki Wilchins noted that it is not unusual for those that started a movement to be somewhat erased from history. “The gay rights movement was not founded by the gays hanging out at Fire Island. It was started by people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, it came from low-income people of color outward. And they may not be the face that the modern gay rights movement wants to show the world.”

“The movement may not want to recall that it was started by gender non-conforming street people of color,” she said. “But we should not forget our roots, or turn away from them.”

“Even today, there are people like Sylvia – young, Hispanic, effeminate – being pushed out of their families and rejected,” Wilchins said. “Sylvia was not a one-off, she was and is one of many. If she was a one-off at all, it was in her courage to fight back.”

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