Sylvia Rivera was an American trans activist, born in New York City in 1951. She is perhaps most famous for her role on the frontline of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Rivera was born to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents, but became an orphan at the age of 3. She was raised by her grandmother who disapproved of her effeminate behaviour, leading her to begin living on the streets at the age of 11.
Her activism began during the Vietnam War, and she involved herself in many civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements. Rivera was a founding members of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance, some of the first groups formed after the Stonewall Riots. With Marsha P. Johnson, she helped to found STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) a group dedicated to helping young homeless drag queens and transgender women.
Rivera was an activist for all those who she felt had been marginalised or abandoned when the gay rights movement became more mainstream. She was a loud and persistent voice for the rights of people of colour, and low-income queers and trans people.
Rivera’s activism was instrumental to ensuring that the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act would include protections for gender variant identity. She also organized street protests, pressured other leaders in the movement to be more economically and racially inclusive, and encouraged trans people to reassume their centrality to the LGBTQ movement.
"When I was young, 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 said, when interviewed in the New York Times in 1997. “So there’s a lot of joy in my heart to see the 30th anniversary of Stonewall. But I do get depressed when this time of year comes around. For 30 years I’ve been struggling and fighting, and I still feel like an outcast in the gay community. “
She died 11 years ago today, on 19 February 2002, of complications due to liver cancer. Since her death, her legacy lives on. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project has been set up in her name in New York City, providing legal assistance and advocacy to low income trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people.
Check out more trans history on Gendered Intelligence’s ‘Trans History’ tag.
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