July 2, 1951– Sylvia Rivera:
“I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist…I am glad I was in the Stonewall Riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!’“
Everyone who flies a rainbow flag owes her a debt of gratitude. It is because of her relentless fight to be seen and heard that we have the freedoms and privileges that we have.
Rivera was a Latinx-American drag queen who was a Gay Rights and Transgender activist in the 1960s and 1970s. She was there at the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Born in the Bronx, Rivera had a tough childhood. Of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, she was abandoned by her father shortly after she was born and orphaned as a toddler when her mother committed suicide.
Raised by her grandmother, Rivera was rejected and beaten for her effeminate behavior. 11-year-old Rivera ran away from home and became a child prostitute, working Times Square. While living on the streets, Rivera met drag queens who welcomed her into their family, and it was with their support, she became “Sylvia”. She considered herself transgender, although she claimed to dislike labels.
With the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, Rivera found her activism. In 1969, at age 17, she took part in the famous Stonewall Riots by allegedly throwing the second molotov cocktail in protest to a police raid of the gay bar in Manhattan. The event was one of the major catalysts of the Gay Liberation movement and to push the agenda ever forward, Rivera co-founded the group, the Gay Liberation Front.
“We were the frontliners. We didn’t take no shit from nobody. We had nothing to lose.”
In 1970, Rivera joined with friend Marsha P. Johnson to co-found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to help support and empower queer, gay, trangender, and gender-fluid youth.
Resisting being pigeonholed, Rivera confounded the mainstream Gay Rights movement because of her diverse and complex background: She was poor, transgender, a drag queen, a person of color, a former sex worker, and someone who experienced drug addiction, incarceration and homelessness. For these reasons, Rivera fought for racial, economic and criminal justice issues.
Initially in public support of the Gay Rights Bill, Rivera felt betrayed when the bill, which took 17 years to become New York law in 1986, excluded the rights of the transgender community. Rivera:
“They have a little backroom deal without inviting Miss Sylvia and some of the other trans activists to this backroom deal with these politicians. The deal was, ‘You take them out, we’ll pass the bill‘.”
Those “backroom deals” were led by gay middle-class white men and lesbian feminists who just didn’t get or share her passion for marginalized groups within the gay community. Rivera delivered a fierce speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in Washington Square Park in 1973. The crown booed and jeered as she told them:
“You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!“
Feeling betrayed by the very movement she had fought so long and hard for, Rivera left STAR and disappeared from activism for the next 20 years. She returned to fight for transgender issues in the mid-1990s along other cultural conversations about Marriage Equality and the LGBTQ citizens serving in the military.
In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, Rivera marched in New York City’s Pride Parade. At the time, she stated:
“The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off. Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, ‘Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did’. After that, I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own.”
Rivera was taken by liver cancer in 2002.
She helped put the “T” in LGBTQ. She is the only transgender person included in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)was founded in the year of her death. A legal aid organization: “SRLP works to guarantee all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income and race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence by giving gay, transgender and gender-fluid individuals access to legal services, as well as teaching leadership and advocacy skills.”
Postscript. A good friend messaged me after this was published and said:
“Thank you for honoring Sylvia but so much of what you wrote is revisionist stories from the last 15 years. I knew Sylvia. I was there in 1973 and that is not what the fight was about. Sylvia wasn’t at Stonewall that night and neither was Marsha. Marsha and Sylvia conformed that in an interview. There were no Molotov cocktails.
This is a lovely story, but none of it is true. I’d be glad to give you a play by play of the 1973 rally, which had most of us cheering.
Repeating this story, nice as it is, damages the legitimate heroes of the story. I can see that their work is about to disappear and this is what history will tell everybody.“