In honor of New York’s upcoming Pride parade this weekend, I wanted to highlight a real badass woman whose tireless work has often been pushed to the side in queer and activist history: Sylvia Rivera. Rivera was a transgender activist and founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, as well as the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. She was also the woman who once climbed the walls of New York City Hall, in a dress and heels, to crash the city council meeting on one of the first pieces of gay rights legislation proposed by GAA. She was no joke and was not about to take things quietly.
Born biologically male in New York City in 1951 to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents, Rivera was destined to never be a stranger to hard knocks. Her father had quickly skirted out after her birth, and her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three. Her Venezuelan grandmother raised her after this tragedy, a relationship that proved to be tense as the years would go on. The young Rivera began to show signs of “effeminate” behavior and expressed a desire to be a woman. She began wearing makeup at the age of nine, something Rivera’s grandmother was fundamentally opposed to. As a result of this constant clashing, Rivera ran away from home at the age of eleven and joined a community of drag queens, where she was first exposed to the gender-queer people that would become such a large part of her life. It would also expose her to a life of substance abuse, homelessness, prostitution, police violence, and depression, all issues she would also fight passionately against in her community activism. She would later say that finding shelter, food, and a safe place for gender-queer kids was her calling, as they were society’s most vulnerable citizens, too invisible to be seen, too on the outskirts for anyone to want to claim.
She became famously involved with the Stonewall riots in 1969 as an 18 year old. She would be quoted as saying that she started the entire damn thing, as she was the first person to throw a beer bottle at a cop. The Stonewall incident would become the catalyst that ignited the gay liberation movement. “I’m not missing a minute of this, it’s the revolution. You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-huh. Now it’s our turn!” Rivera later said regarding Stonewall.
It was her first foray into activism and only a sample of what she was to become involved in. She and her partner at the time, Marsha P. Johnson, along with other community members, founded the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front. Both organizations had broad political platforms and demanded an end to oppression against gay communities; they also took anti-capitalist stances and ran anti-racism campaigns, often aligning themselves with other organizations, such as the Black Panthers and Third World Struggle. However, in this broad scheme of political activism, transgender and transsexual issues were often put off to the side, an issue that Rivera began to bear more and more the brunt of.
Rivera worked tirelessly for GAA, devoting all her time to organizing the many facets of the group and creating a broad gay rights bill that would be legally inclusive to all LGBT people. However, when it became evident to GAA that the bill would possibly not pass due to its passages of protection for transgendered peoples, GAA quickly changed up the wording so that it exclusively protected only lesbian and gay persons. Shortly afterwards, GAA dropped all drag, gender queer, transvestite and transgendered statutes, concerns, and discussions from their civic agenda. Rivera was, to put it mildly, pissed. “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned,” Sylvia told Michael Musto, a reporter for the Village Voice when she became aware of the measures GAA had taken behind her back.
Marscha and Rivera, feeling isolated from the LGBT movement, went on to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, an organization working with gender-queer and trans people in every realm, from sit-ins to setting up emergency shelters to gaining legal protection. But the pressure and workload had taken a toll on Rivera, who had over the years struggled with substance abuse. She had been in conflict with mainstream gay and lesbian advocacy groups over the years because of their unwillingness to address trans people. Though there was never “official” proof, Rivera was said to have been banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for years after demanding they take in homeless queer and trans youth, as well as taking the center and other prominent LGBT groups to task for dismissing not only LGBT people who were poor, but of color and trans identity. STAR began to suffer due to the lack of support, and the organization was scaled back. This caused Rivera to relapse into heavy drug use, and she disappeared back into the streets for a while, becoming homeless again. In 1995, she attempted to commit suicide by walking into the East River:
… People have to understand that people are people. We just want to be ourselves. When I was young, I never thought I was going to be a part of gay history – I didn’t even expect that gay history would be in existence. So there’s a lot of joy in my heart to see the 30th anniversary of Stonewall. You know what was beautiful about that night? To see the brothers and sisters stand as a unified people. But I do get depressed when this time of year comes around: for 30 years I’ve been struggling and fighting, and I still feel like an outcast in the gay community.
The event seemed to shake her and wake her up. Shortly after, she got clean and got herself together again, reinstated STAR, and renewed her political involvement tenfold, working aggressively towards equal treatment for transgendered people. STAR fought tooth and nail for the New York’s Transgender Rights Bill as well as a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. She helped STAR sponsor a street-pressure-based justice campaign for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000, making sure that trans violence would not stay invisible. She also fearlessly called out many organizations for their lack of inclusiveness, including The Empire State Pride Agenda and the Human Rights Commission.
She died in February of 2002 from complications of liver cancer. She had been in the hospital for many months and was finally, and sadly, fading. However, this would not stop her from what she believed in the most, as community leaders from Empire State Pride stopped by one last time to seek her advice as she lay dying in ICU. Instead of playing it safe and keeping the conversation to niceties, she gave community leaders Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of ESPA absolute hell for not being inclusive enough towards transgendered peoples, poor people, and people of color. They discussed ways to bring in all people who were affected by these identities and social issues into ESPA’s structure and political agenda. She died hours after this meeting at the age of 50.
Sylvia Rivera was indeed a force of nature, a woman who stood for trans rights even when members of her community, the same ones she stood side by side with to fight for their rights, would turn their backs to her. She fought endlessly for justice and for making sure that trans-identified people would have access to better quality of life, to more protection, to simple things like shelter and food:
I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist. I was proud to make the road and help change laws and what-not. I was very proud of doing that and proud of what I’m still doing, no matter what it takes. Today, we have to fight back against the government. We have to fight them back. They’re cutting back Medicaid, cutting back on medicine for people with AIDS. They want to take away from women on welfare and put them into that little work program. They’re going to cut SSI. Now they’re taking away food stamps. These people who want the cuts – these people are making millions and millions and millions of dollars as CEOs. Why is the government going to take it away from us? What they’re doing is cutting us back. Why can’t we have a break?
So I lift my big glass in honor of Sylvia Rivera today, to one of the most badass leaders of the LGBT movement and to a woman who believed in justice, no matter what form it took. To Rivera, wherever you are in the universe, thank you for all that you tirelessly and pure-heartedly did. You have done so, so much. But there is still so much left to do. Here’s to everything that will be dedicated in your name.