Sylvia Rae Rivera is possibly one of the best-known transgender women of all time. A co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), she dedicated her entire life to help empower homeless trans and queer youth while advocating for the rights of trans people in New York City and throughout the country.
Born on July 2, 1951 to a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother in New York City, Sylvia knew first hand the plight that many homeless LGBTQ youth faced. Orphaned at the age of 3 when her mother committed suicide, she was initially raised by her maternal grandmother. However, at the age of 10, Sylvia ran away from home to escape a grandmother who did not accept her for her gender variance. On the street, Sylvia learned to survive, along with other homeless trans and queer youth by hustling.
Sylvia is probably best-known for having participated in the queer uprising at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. She is often credited with having thrown the first Molotov cocktail at police that fateful night.
“I remember someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. I don’t know who the person was, but I mean I saw that and I just said to myself in Spanish, I said. oh my God, the revolution is finally here! And I just like started screaming “Freedom! We’re free at last!” You know. It felt really good.” – Sylvia Rivera, 1989
However, unlike other Stonewall veterans who predominantly focused on gay activism, Sylvia was a revolutionary who chose to fight all forms of oppression and thus became involved in various community groups and movements, having organized with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Black Panthers, in addition to the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Yet despite the immense contributions that she and other trans women of color — such as her friend and STAR co-founder Marsha P. Johnson — made to the burgeoning LGBTQ Rights Movement, in the 1970s Sylvia witnessed the omission of trans people from a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. Even without trans people included, the proposed initiative failed. Additionally, Sylvia (along with other trans women in attendance) was once refused entry into a queer political rally under the transphobic excuse that trans women were offensive to lesbians. It is shortly after that Sylvia took a hiatus from political work.
After more than a decade outside New York City and political activism, Sylvia returned to the Big Apple in the 1990s. However, having lost her job, she once again found herself homeless. Yet despite the difficulties she faced, Sylvia resumed where she left-off: fiercely advocating for homeless people, poor queer people, and trans youth. In 2001, she restarted STAR (now renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) to help push for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
Sylvia spent her final years at the Transy House, a communal home where many formerly homeless trans youth and adults lived. There she met her partner, Julia Murray, with whom she shared the remaining years of her life until her death on February 19, 2002
Sylvia’s struggles for justice did not fall exclusively on issues of gender identity. A woman at the intersections, she understood that oppression was multifaceted and for those reasons she advocated for the poor and people of color. As with many people living at the borders of various identities, mainstream LGBTQ groups often ignore Sylvia’s Latina identity and Latin@ groups often do not acknowledge the contributions Sylvia made to Latin@ equality. We, as LGBTQ Latin@s owe so much to this brave woman. We at xQsí honor her legacy and will continue to fight and keep her memory alive.
Photos: New York Public Library Digital Gallery & online sources