On this day in 1951, one of the pioneers of the modern day
LGBT rights movement, veteran of the Stonewall Riots, and bisexual transgender
icon, Sylvia Rivera, was born in the Bronx. On what would have been her 66th
birthday, we take a look back at Sylvia’s life and legacy.
In 2015, Sylvia Rivera became the first transgender American to have her portrait in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (x).
Sylvia was born on July 2, 1951 to a Venezuelan mother and
Puerto Rican father. She only met her father once in her life and her mother
tragically committed suicide when Sylvia was only 3 years old, leaving her to be
raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother highly disapproved of her feminine
behavior and eventually kicked Sylvia out of her home after she began wearing
makeup to school in the fourth grade. In a 1998 interview with Leslie Feinberg,
Sylvia recalls, “I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The
early 60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that
wore makeup like we did.” While working as a prostitute on the streets of New
York, she was taken in by a supportive group of drag queens; with her new
found family of street queens she began going by her iconic name, “Sylvia.”
It was Mafia-controlled bars like the Stonewall Inn where
many LGBT sex workers found refuge and community, and so it was where Sylvia
and her best friend Marsha P. Johnson found themselves hanging out on the night
of June 28, 1969 – the night that would burn both women’s names into the
history books. When police raided the bar expecting the usual crack down and
round up that was so common of gay bars in the 1960s, Sylvia, Marsha, and the
other patrons of Stonewall fought back, culminating in a series of violent
riots that became the beginning of a fierce, new civil rights movement for LGBT
Americans. Many sources even claim that it was Sylvia who threw the first brick
that spurred on the riots.
Marsha P. Johnson (far left) and Sylvia Rivera (far right) march together in a post-Stonewall demonstration (x).
After Stonewall, Sylvia began attending meetings of the Gay
Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), but was shunned by
the other white middle class member of the both the GLF and GAA. After
repeatedly experiencing discrimination from within the white, cis-oriented LGBT
community, Sylvia and Marsha took the bull by the horns themselves and opened Street
Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that focused on
activism and care for homeless trans people in New York City. STAR remained
active throughout the early 1970s, but eventually “died out” according to
Sylvia. With STAR no longer providing her with a community and facing hatred
from both the general public and the majority of those in the LGBT rights
movement, Sylvia attempted suicide in 1974. She would try again in 1994 after the
death of her best friend Marsha in 1992 left her grief-stricken.
Sylvia re-opened STAR in response to the heartbreaking murder of a trans woman
named Amanda Milan and also began working for trans inclusion in the Empire
State Pride Agenda. Tragically, Sylvia suffered from liver cancer and she
passed away on February 19, 2002 at the age of 51. In one of her last fiery
declarations, Sylvia is remembered as saying, “Before I die, I will see our
community given the respect we deserve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to my grave
without having the respect this community deserves. I want to go to wherever I
go with that in my soul and peacefully say I’ve finally overcome"