Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002)
Stage Name: Rivera with the Remix
With Pride Month wrapping up and the anniversary of the Stonewall riots approaching, it’s a perfect time to revisit one of the oft-overlooked icons of that era: Sylvia Rivera. A fellow drag queen and friend of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia became an outspoken gay and transgender activist in the 1960s and ’70s. She advocated tirelessly to make the “T” an essential part of “LGBT.” (“‘T’ as in Troy?” “No, Gabriella, ‘T’ as in trans rights matter, too”). And while every Pride parade now encapsulates anyone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA community, Pride parades used to look a little different, and they didn’t always have room for members of the community like Sylvia.
For some listening with your learning, Sylvia recommends pressing play to hear these bops:
Born in the Bronx to parents of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent on July 2, 1951, Sylvia entered into a tough world. Her father abandoned the family shortly after she was born, and her mother committed suicide not long after. She was passed along to her grandmother’s home, but she didn’t receive much parental love and support there, either. Beaten and ostracized for her effeminate behavior, Sylvia ran away from her grandmother’s home when she was 11 and found work as a child prostitute in Times Square. It was here that she finally found community and companionship (and likely several costumed Elmo characters if it weren’t the 1960s), becoming friends with several drag queens. At last finding acceptance, she felt comfortable to become the woman she wanted to be and adopted the name Sylvia.
Just as this decade that we’ve just entered is shaping up to be turbulent and an era of massive change, so was the 1960s. Activist movements began to take shape during this decade — such as women’s rights, Civil Rights and LGBT rights — culminating in several pivotal events, such as the Stonewall riots, in 1969. Sylvia was 17 in the summer of ’69, and she was ripe for rebellion. In the wee hours of June 28, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village that was known for being a popular hang-out spot for the LGBT community. The riots that ensued for six days following the raid served as a catalyst and sounded the alarm for LGBT rights across the country and around the world. And Sylvia, right there when it all started, was one of the first people to throw a “Molotov cocktail” in protest to the police raid.
Now, we’d like to quickly diverge to discuss what a Molotov cocktail is and how it got its name. Here’s how a Molotov cocktail works: let’s say you have a glass bottle of beer in your hand and the police come knockin’ down the door of the bar at which you were happily sipping said beer. You grab a rag from the bar, soak that in the alcohol from your beverage and then secure it to the mouth of the bottle. Then you cap the bottle, strike a match to the rag and fling that bad boy across the bar. The bottle goes down and shatters, the rag goes up in flames. And where did the name come from? Why, it came from the Finns, of course! The name is in reference to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who crafted a pact in 1939 with Nazi Germany that promised the Soviet Union wouldn’t enter World War II. Molotov then proceeded to bomb missions over Finland and claim on the radio that they were not in fact bombs but rather sweet care packages full of food for their starving Finnish neighbors. So sweet! The Finns, ever humorous, dubbed the overhead bombs “Molotov bread baskets,” and later called the hand-held fire bombs that attacked tanks the “Molotov cocktail” — or a delicious drink to go with the gracious food packages.
OK, back to Sylvia. So, she’s in Manhattan, throwing Molotov cocktails, fighting for LGBT rights and becoming a powerful figure in the movement. But Sylvia wasn’t just a trans woman fighting for the right to be true to herself: she was also poor, Latinx, and a former sex worker who’d spent time living on the streets and living in a prison cell. So she wasn’t just fighting for LGBT rights, she was fighting economic, racial and criminal justice issues as well. Because she didn’t identify as solely a member of the LGBT community, she was often excluded from the legislative aspects of this movement. White gay men and white lesbian women spearheaded legislation such as the Gay Rights Bill, which woefully left out members of the trans community like Sylvia.
In 1970, Sylvia teamed up with friend Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson to co-found S.T.A.R. which stands for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. This organization supported homeless, queer youth and sex workers — all of whom lived a life Sylvia was very familiar with at one point in her own life. She and Marsha opened the doors of an East Village apartment and turned it into a safe space for young people to seek refuge and find a place to sleep, eat and live somewhere other than the streets. They were the mothers of what came to be called the STAR House. However, this only lasted for about a year. All residents were evicted in 1971 after Sylvia and Marsha could not pay rent. They opened another STAR House shortly thereafter; however, that tenancy did not last long either for the same reason.
Sylvia continued her fight to challenge her fellow LGBT community members to advocate for more than gay rights. At the 1973 Pride March she took the stage and was harshly boo’d. No stranger to opposition, Sylvia told everyone to shut up for her show was about to begin. Jk, she said, “Y’all better quiet down” and called on everyone in the crowd to empathize with members of the LGBT community who were different than themselves: to think outside the white, middle-class gay men and lesbian white women who were around them. She wanted the movement to expand to include those who were transgender individuals, including people of color, the homeless and the incarcerated. By the end of her time on stage, Sylvia had their attention and led the audience with a chant of “GAY POWER.”
She was with them, but the majority of those leading the gay rights movement were not with her yet. She was a woman ahead of her time. Sylvia went to great lengths to work with the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front to ensure trans rights would be protected and included in any legislation. She went so far as to scale a building in attempt to climb through the window that led to the office where the New York City Council was meeting about a proposed gay rights bill. Sylvia was arrested for this in full fashion of dress and heels. Advocacy for equality was Sylvia’s runway and she did not shy away from any of it for many years. Sylvia eventually stopped working with the Gay Activists Alliance after they decided to eliminate transgender issues from their agenda. After putting her heart and soul into this push for transgender equality within the gay rights movement, Sylvia burnt herself out, attempted suicide and left New York City.
When the Gay Rights Bill was passed in New York in 1986, it had no language that protected the rights of those who were trans, drag queens or gender-fluid. This bill banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations. Manhattan was the 51st city in the U.S. to pass this legislation. This was a massive step forward and finally a response to the cry for equality and respect led by members of the LGBT community, like Sylvia, who were at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.
When the bill was passed, Sylvia was living in New Jersey, working for the food service industry, and participating in activism for LGBT rights at the local level. Even though her good fight for the trans community went unrecognized during her time, she’d be thrilled to know that almost 35 years later, all members of the LBGTQ community are now protected from workplace discrimination. Her fight was never finished, it was just passed along to the next groups of activists.
Sylvia returned to the New York City scene in the ’90s after Marsha’s death. Sylvia and Marsha were best pals, and Sylvia credits Marsha for saving her life because she was like the mother she never really had. The New York she returned to wasn’t the New York she lived in all her life with Marsha. For much of the ’90s, Sylvia struggled with addiction and created a home for herself in the homeless community by the pier near where Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River.
In 1994, Rivera was finally given the recognition she deserved. She was honored at the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots for her rebellious and outspoken spirit in fearlessly advocating for the rights of all members of the LGBTQ community. She wasn’t boo’d this time. Instead, she was embraced. Sylvia fought for inclusion of queer people of color, homeless youth, transgender and gender-nonconforming people until the very end. She became sober again, yet sadly passed away in 2002 due to liver cancer at the age of 50.
Sylvia’s legacy lives on. She will soon have her own monument alongside a monument of Marsha P. Johnson in Greenwich Village. They’ll be back in Manhattan, together, standing side by side in stone near the Stonewall Inn. Though she died young and struggled with addiction and homelessness for most of her life, Sylvia fought the good fight in demanding people within her community and without to see the importance of representing every person in the fight for equality.