Co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries
"Sylvia Ray Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002) 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 three 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 eleven 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 anti-war movement during the Vietnam war (mid-1960s) and second-wave feminist movements (mid-1960's). Rivera stated she was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn and that she 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. At least one Stonewall historian, David Carter, has questioned Rivera's links with the Stonewall Inn and the protests based on contradictory statements she made as well as testimony relayed to him by early gay rights activists, including Marsha P. Johnson who denied Rivera was present at the riots. 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… Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolution, STAR. Johnson was Rivera’s friend and ally who like many in their community discussed their political and material realities with each other. These discussions led to activism and in 1970, Rivera and Johnson launched STAR… STAR fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. This law, SONDA, prohibits discrimination on the bases 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 it she called out the heterosexual males who were preying on vulnerable members of the community…
In early July 1992, shortly after the 1992 New York City Pride March, Rivera's close friend Marsha P. Johnson was found dead floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. Police promptly ruled Johnson's death a suicide, despite the presence of a head wound on the body. Johnson's friends and supporters, Rivera included, insisted Johnson had not been suicidal, and a people's postering campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found…
In the last five years of her life Rivera renewed her political activity, giving many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and the necessity for unity among transgender people - including drag queens and butch dykes - to fight for their historic 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 Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries 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…
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 politicos and radical politics of many earlier gay liberation activists.
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.
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".
In 2002, actor/comedian Jade Esteban Estrada portrays Rivera in the well-received solo musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1(directed by Aliza Washabaugh-Durand and produced by Aliza Washabaugh-Durand and Christopher Durand) winning Rivera renewed national attention.
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.
In January 2007, a new musical based upon Rivera's life, Sylvia So Far, premiered in New York at La Mama in a production starring Bianca Leigh as Rivera and Peter Proctor as Marsha P. Johnson. The composer and lyricist is Timothy Mathis (Wallflowers, Our Story Too, The Conjuring), a friend of Rivera's in real life. The show moved off-Broadway in the winter of 2007/2008.
The Spring 2007 issue of CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which was dedicated to "Puerto Rican Queer Sexualities" and published at Hunter College, included a special dossier on Sylvia Rivera, including a transcription of a talk by Rivera from 2001 as well as two academic essays exploring the intersections of Rivera's trans and Latina identities. The articles in this journal issue complement other essays by Puerto Rican scholars who have also emphasized Rivera's pioneering role.
In 2014, The Social Justice Hub at The New School's newly opened University Center was named the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center after activists James Baldwin, Sylvia Rivera, and Grace Lee Boggs.
In 2015 a portrait of Sylvia Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2016 Sylvia Rivera was inducted into the Legacy Walk." (1)