Monday, July 02, 2018

Born Today in 1951, Transgender Activist Sylvia Rivera


Sylvia Ray Rivera was born today, July 2, in 1951.  She was an American gay liberation and transgender activist and self-identified drag queen. She was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. With her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of color.

Rivera was born and raised in New York City and lived most of her life in or near the city; she was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was 3 years old. Rivera was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of Rivera's effeminate behavior, particularly after Rivera began to wear makeup in fourth grade. As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of 11 and worked as a prostitute. She was taken in by the local community of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia.


Rivera's activism began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through the antiwar movement during the Vietnam war (mid-1960s) and second-wave feminist movements (mid-1960's). Rivera said she was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn and was present during the Stonewall Riots in 1969, when gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, drag queens, street people and trans people rose up against what started as a routine raid by the police. Rivera also became involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and Black Panthers.

At different times in her life, Rivera battled substance abuse and lived on the streets, largely in the gay homeless community at the Christopher Street docks. Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, mainstream society and the assimilationist sectors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities were leaving behind. For these reasons Rivera projected her voice to give her community power. She fought for herself but most importantly for the rights of people of color and low-income queers and trans people. As someone who suffered from systematic poverty and racism, Rivera used her voice for unity, sharing her stories, pain, and struggles to show her community they are not alone. She amplified the voices of the most vulnerable members of the gay community: drag queens, homeless youth, gay inmates in prison and jail, and transgender people.

Marsha P. Johnson was Rivera’s friend and ally. Their discussions led to activism and in 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR offered services and advocacy for homeless queer youth, and fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) in New York. SONDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights.

At a 1973 gay liberation rally in New York City, Rivera, representing STAR, gave a brief speech from the main stage in which she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community. Rivera espoused what could be seen as a third gender perspective, saying that LGBT prisoners seeking help "do not write women. They do not write men. They write to STAR." At the same event, Rivera and fellow queen Lee Brewster jumped onstage during feminist activist Jean O'Leary's speech and shouted "You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!"

In the last 5 years of her life Rivera renewed her political activity, giving many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and the necessity for transgender people, including drag queens and butch dykes, to fight for their legacy as people in the forefront of the LGBT movement. She traveled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000, where she was acclaimed as the "mother of all gay people." In early 2001, after a church service at the MCC of New York referring to the star in the sky that announced the birth of Jesus, she decided to resurrect STAR as an active political organization (now changing "Transvestite" to the more recently coined term "Transgender," which at that time was understood to include all gender-nonconforming people). 

STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. STAR also sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman murdered in 2000. Rivera attacked the Human Rights Campaign and Empire State Pride Agenda as organizations that were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her deathbed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of Empire State Pride Agenda to negotiate transgender inclusion in ESPA's political structure and agenda.

Rivera was angered by her perception that the significance of drag queens and drag culture was being minimized by the ostensibly assimilationist gay rights agenda, particularly by new would-be "gay leaders" who were focusing on military service and marriage equality. Rivera's conflicts with these newer LGBT groups were emblematic of the mainstream LGBT movement's strained relationship to the radical politics of many earlier gay liberation activists.

Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002, at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital, of complications from liver cancer. Activist Riki Wilchins noted, "In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall."

"We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there."

As an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, Rivera ministered through the Church's food pantry, which provides food to hungry people. Recalling her life as a child on the streets, she remained a passionate advocate for queer youth, and MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place in her honour.

In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed "Sylvia Rivera Way" in her honour. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where Rivera started organizing, and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.

Named in her honor (and established in 2002), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated "to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence."

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