Sylvia Rivera was an outlier, an original, and a dissident. She wore make-up in the fourth grade and was ostracised for who she chose to be.

And she was an unsung heroine until recently.

We should utter “Sylvia Rivera” in gratitude as we celebrate Pride.

Before gay rights icon Harvey Milk came onto the scene, Rivera was synonymous with the birth of the LGBTQ+ revolution and the clarion call that became Pride. 

Young, Latina, and effeminate, Rivera put the T in LGBTQ+. She has been called the Rosa Parks of today’s transgender movement. 

Casting the first stone

History remembered Sylvia Rivera as difficult and angry, and she was. She was angry at a movement led by white gay men and lesbian feminists that didn’t accept her. 

The fact is that Rivera lived a difficult life. She refused to be what others wanted her to be and demanded inclusivity.

There are questions about her story. For example, did she or did she not lead the Stonewall riots in New York City? 

Many claim that it was precisely Sylvia Rivera who threw the first stone in the pitched battle that gave birth to Pride Month.

Some remember that she shouted: “I’m not missing a moment of this. It’s the revolution!”

And boy, was it revolutionary.

Although her presence at the event has been questioned, no one can dispute that Sylvia Rivera was a precursor in the fight against discrimination due to gender identity.

A life of struggle and pain

Born in 1951 to a Puerto Rican father (absent in her life) and a Venezuelan mother, Rivera’s life was tragic and made her tough. 

When she was three, her stepfather threatened to kill her and her mother. Soon afterward, Rivera’s mother committed suicide, and she had to go live with her Abuela, who beat Rivera up when she dressed in girls’ clothes. 

At ten, her family kicked her out of the house, and she had to make a living as a sex worker in the squalid streets of NYC’s Time Square. She survived drugs, violence, and police brutality — once launching herself out of a squad car to avoid arrest. 

Local drag queens took her under their wing, and that’s how she met fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson, who became Rivera’s best friend and protector.

And on that hot and sultry night in 1969, when drag queens were fighting off police that raided the gay bar Stonewall Inn, Rivera was there, at the forefront.

Despite being a pioneer, history had forgotten Sylvia Rivera until recently 

After the riots, she became part of the nascent gay movement. Then, in 1970, she cofounded the youth shelter STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) along with Johnson to care for vulnerable trans teenagers who were homeless like herself.

In 1973, she took over the stage at a gay rights rally in NYC. Ignoring the boos, she lambasted the crowd for denying trans people their rights.

“I have been beaten, had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail!” she shouts. “I lost my job, I lost my apartment for gay liberation… and you all treat me this way?” she said. “Gay Power!”

In 1975, pop artist Andy Warhol immortalized Rivera in his Polaroid painting, depicting gender-fluid drag queens, “Ladies, and Gentlemen.

Rivera passed away from liver cancer at 50 in 2002.

Today, there is a monument to Rivera in NYC, a street with her name, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, working to ensure the rights of gender-fluid people.

But the greatest tribute to Sylvia Rivera would be to yell out her name during Pride, loud, so she knows we haven’t forgotten her.