Sylvia Rivera was a Trans activist and LGBTQ icon who is most famous for her role on the frontlines at the Stonewall Riots. She worked on behalf of marginalized members of the Gay community, especially those facing poverty, racism, and transphobia.
Rivera was born Ray José Christian Rivera Mendoza on July 2, 1951 in New York City to Hispanic American parents of Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Mexican heritage. Her father left the family early in life and her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three years old. She was raised by her grandmother (who disapproved of her effeminate behavior and makeup) and began living on the streets when she was eleven years old. “When I was young,” she said, “I never thought I was going to be a part of gay history — I didn’t even expect that gay history would be in existence.” She left for Times Square, dropped the name “Ray,” and took the name “Sylvia.”
Rivera became active in a number of progressive social movements, protesting the Vietnam War and civil rights in general (particularly Gay and women’s rights), and working with groups such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. On June 28, 1969, She and other members of the crowd threw bottles, rocks, and bricks at the police who had raided the Stonewall Inn. They were also reported throwing coins, with Rivera yelling, “You already got the payoff, but here’s some more!” in reference to the bribes the police regularly demanded from the Inn. Realizing the importance of that moment in history, she is quoted as telling her lover during the Stonewall Uprising, “I’m not missing a minute of this, it’s the revolution!”
After Stonewall, Rivera worked to pass a Gay rights bill in New York City as a member of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance. When drag rights were dropped by pragmatists trying to make the bill acceptable to the city, Rivera and her drag mother Marsha P. (“Pay it no mind”) Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which operated a shelter for homeless drag queens and transwomen called STAR House.
Renewed Sense of Purpose
In 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide in the Hudson River. Following the unsuccessful attempt, she became even more politically active, calling for passage of the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and to ensure that the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act would include protections for gender variant identities. Rivera also organized street protests, pressured other leaders in the movement to be more economically and racially inclusive, and encouraged transpeople to reassume their centrality to the LGBTQ movement.
Throughout her life, Rivera was an advocate for homeless Queer youth, a passion that was informed by her own bouts of homelessness and her firsthand experience of discrimination, both within and outside of the LGBTQ movement. She was active in Soul Force (Gay Christian activist group), the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, Latino advocacy, and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), where she served as Coordinator of the Food Pantry.
Rivera died of liver cancer at the age of 50 on February 19, 2002. Hours before she died, she met with movement leaders to push for the inclusion of gender identity protections in the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. Although it passed without those protections in 2002, legislation to protect gender identity and expression was introduced the following year.
Mother of All Gay People, Sylvia’s Place, and the SRLP
Rivera received awards from the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, the Puerto Rican Gay and Lesbian Association of New York, and the Neutral Zone Youth Organization of New York. In 2000, she was declared Mother of all Gay People at the Millennium March in Italy.
Honoring a promise that Reverend Pat Bumgardner made to Rivera on her deathbed, the MCC’s emergency night shelter for Queer youth was named “Sylvia’s Place” in honor of her advocacy for them, especially those who are marginalized by their poverty, ethnicity, or gender non-conformity. The shelter provides bed, bathroom, toiletries, and breakfast for Queer and questioning youth between the ages of 16 and 23 under the auspices of the MCC’s Homeless Youth Services.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) was founded in 2002 to fight discrimination against gender non-conforming people, with the understanding that racial, economic, social, and gender-based justice are all intertwined. The SRLP runs free legal clinics, does impact litigation and policy work, and offers representation to low-income, trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming people of color in the Bronx and Queens.
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Plume, 1994.
Gan, Jessi. “Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle,” Centro Journal no. 1 (2007): 124-139.
Glisson, Susan M. The Human Condition in the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
Wilchins, Riki. “A Woman For Her Time,” The Village Voice, February 26, 2002.