Ahead of Her Time: The Incredible Life of Sylvia Rivera
You may not remember her name or face, but you will remember her extraordinary story and the legacy she has left behind for marginalized members of the gay community. Orphaned at three and homeless by ten, Sylvia Rivera likely never anticipated that she would one day become an icon for the LGBTQ community. No, at the age of ten Sylvia was simply trying to survive on the tough and unrelenting streets of New York in the 1960s. This is the story of a life rooted in activism–whether she knew it all along or not–the story of one woman simply trying to live her life authentically. This is the incredible life story of LGBTQ icon Sylvia Rivera.
The Early Years
Born Ray Rivera Mendosa in the Bronx, New York, on July 2nd, 1951, Sylvia was abandoned by her father at birth; her mother committed suicide when Sylvia was three. This left her grandmother to raise her, despite abuela’s disapproval of her darker skin tone and feminine behavior.
Going Against the Grain
Sylvia was forced into the margins of society because of her refusal to conform to gender norms. At the time, the term “transgender” wasn’t commonly known–people choosing to shun conventional gender norms were simply referred to as drag queens, transvestites, transsexuals, or simply “queers.” Still, Sylvia refused to hide and openly wore makeup in the 4th grade, leaving her to be bullied both in school and at home. At the age of ten, Sylvia had had enough and chose to run away from home.
Life on the Streets
She made her home on 42nd street, taking on the role of a sex work in order to survive and getting taken in by a family of trans women who taught her how to get by. Life was difficult–to say the least–for a queer gender-nonconforming person of color, especially one still a child. Her time on 42nd street would later influence her activism for the marginalized members of the gay community.
Then one day something happened that would change Sylvia’s life forever. She was simply trying to drum up some business when she spotted Marsha P. Johnson–a gorgeous older Black trans woman who took Sylvia out for dinner, showed her how to apply her makeup and gave her tips for getting by on the streets. The two quickly became friends and remained so for the rest of their lives.
Riot in the Streets
On June 28th, 1969, violent confrontations broke out between police and gay rights activists outside of the Stonewall Inn–a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The police had been in the process of raiding when patrons started to fight back, giving rise to an international gay rights movement.
The Beginning of What’s to Come
Where does Sylvia fit into the Stonewall Riots? It is rumored that she threw the first brick. Just seventeen years old at the time, Sylvia was with Marsha when the riots started and is credited with one of the most famous quotes from the event: “I’m not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!”
What Happens Next
After Stonewall, Sylvia became part of the emerging gay rights movement–albeit at a time when transgender people were not particularly welcomed. Her role in gay history eventually resulted in her being one of the first people to highlight that the movement itself needed to be more inclusive.
To Boldly Go
Despite the adversity Sylvia would repeatedly face, she continued to get involved however she could, using her outsider status to help make a change. She was bold and brave, willing to go to great lengths to ensure her message was received–including being willing to get arrested even though she was a transgender woman of color and would face unimaginable difficulties in prison.
A Daring Escapade
At one point when New York City Council was debating a gay rights bill, Sylvia tried to climb into a window (in a dress and heels) to have her say. She was subsequently arrested yet still earned the title of “the Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement” for all of her efforts.
Activism and Adversity
Sylvia was also an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), however, these groups were largely made up of gay white males who, seeking wider acceptance, started to distance themselves from important transgender issues Sylvia wanted to address.
Sylvia began to feel shunned in the gay liberation circles. Her multiple marginalized identities created a sense of Otherness that made the community see her as dangerous.
The Sit-In that Started it All
In 1970 the GAA was using Weinstein Hall at NYU to host “Dance-a-Fair” fundraisers for services in the gay community. There was much controversy from the NYU administration which eventually led to a sit-in for five days and ended with New York City’s Tactical Police Squad ordering the occupiers out. Sylvia refused and had to be carried out by police.
A STAR is Born
As a result Sylvia, with the help of Marsha P. Johnson, founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and opened a shelter for homeless transgender youth.
A Spark of Hope
Shortly after forming STAR, Sylvia heard of an uprising being led by the Young Lords–a revolutionary Puerto Rican group–against police brutality. Sylvia, along with other members of STAR, marched alongside the Young Lords in Spanish Harlem. Sylvia was happily surprised by the respect they were shown by the Young Lords and was quick to join them in solidarity, starting a Gay and Lesbian Caucus that worked within the group.
STAR House, unfortunately, received no help from the gay community, forcing Sylvia to work the streets in order to keep the youth under her wing off of them. Despite her best efforts to provide a home for marginalized transgender youth, Sylvia was evicted from the derelict building that was STAR House.
One Last Hurrah
Once more Sylvia found herself fighting against gay activists in order to be heard. She forced her audience to listen as she described the abuse her people endured whilst simultaneously chastising the activists for their abandonment. Sadly, this would be the last of her involvement for decades as she slipped away into a quiet life in Tarrytown.
In 1984, despite past feelings of antipathy from the GAA and the GLF, Sylvia was “rediscovered” and awarded a place of honor in the New York City gay pride march to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. She reported feeling like she’d been taken off the shelf and dusted, but nevertheless, she was seen by those she’d spent her life fighting for.
The End of an Era
In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson passed away, causing Sylvia’s life to go off the rails. Once again without a roof over her head, Sylvia lived near Greenwich Village on an abandoned pier. Eventually, she quit drinking and rejoined the movement, even trying to restart STAR in 2001. Unfortunately, though, Sylvia died of liver cancer a year later at the age of 50, continuing to advocate even from her deathbed.
Her Legacy Lives On
Sylvia died much in the way that she lived–fighting for what she believed in. Her memory lives on through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that “works 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.”
A Life to Remember
Long before Harvey Milk and Caitlyn Jenner made headlines for LGBTQ rights movements and transgender activism, there was Sylvia Rivera, occupying a unique place in LGBTQ history and working tirelessly for justice and civil rights. Her courage will never be forgotten.
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