History has continuously revealed the many challenges the LGBTQ community has faced. This is something Sylvia Rivera personally experienced in her time. She witnessed plenty injustices that were forced upon the community, in particular to the transgender community, and decided she wasn’t going to stand on the sidelines to watch. Her fight for justice was relentless and seemingly never ending. That same passion later took her to be recognized as one of the most influential activists the LGBTQ community has ever had.
The late Sylvia Rivera, who was also known as “The Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement,” was queer, Latinx, and transgender; a triple minority threat who wasn’t afraid to defy the status quo. She fought against the lack of inclusivity from the up and coming Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights movement, which was typically composed of white middle-class gay men and lesbian feminists. As the gay rights movement became more mainstream, Rivera’s rage grew. The “‘T” wasn’t even part of the gay rights initialism we currently have (LGBTQ). But, this only furthered fueled her interest to keep pushing the limits. She knew that trans and gender nonconforming people deserved to be part of this civil rights movement.
Prior to her avid advocacy for trans rights, Rivera endured quite a difficult upbringing. She was born on July 2nd, 1951 in the Bronx, New York to a Venezuelan mother and a Puerto Rican father. The name given to her by her parents was originally Ray Rivera, but later on in life that became her dead name. Sadly, she didn’t get to spend much time with her parents when she was growing up. Her father left almost immediately after she was born and her mother committed suicide when she was just three years old. After that tragedy, Rivera went to live with her extremely strict grandmother. Things didn’t get easier from there, either. She struggled to hide her identity, which greatly displeased her grandmother. The older she became, the more her effeminate nature would become more apparent. She even started wearing make-up to school in fourth grade and embracing the identity that provided her with self-comfort. This was a big deal back then. Remember, it was still the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, her grandmother kicked her out at the age of ten because of her ignorant views.
Having nowhere to go, Rivera was left at the mercy of the drug-infested streets of Time Square. In order to survive, she became a sex worker and hoped for the best. She eventually found some support from some drag queens who decided to help her. In fact, they were the ones that coined her with the name Sylvia — the name she kept for the remainder of her life.
Throughout all of these events, she found solace in activism. She first started by fighting against the Vietnam War and then went on to join the activist groups, Young Lord and the Black Panthers. Of course, her most notable activism was her participation at the Stonewall uprising and towards trans rights within the gay rights movement.
After the uprising, Rivera decided it was important to directly help the queer and gender noncorforming youth. That’s when STAR was born.
She co-founded, STAR or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, alongside with her longtime friend and well-known transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson in 1970. STAR was a political organization that provided shelter and other support for homeless queer and gender nonconforming youth as well as for sex workers in Manhattan.
Her fight continued for many years after. She constantly expressed her disapproval through speeches and essays about the exclusion that was created by the gay rights movement. This made her unlikeable among the people of the movement.
In 1973, during Christopher Street Liberation Rally in Washington Square Park, she took the stage to present the now famous speech, “Y’all Better Quiet Down.”
“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 f**k’s wrong with you all?
Think about that!”
The crowd booed Rivera throughout her speech, but she kept going. She wanted them to know how she felt and the injustices they were causing.
This moment must’ve shaken Rivera a lot because she ended STAR. She even stopped partaking in activism for two decades after this speech. However, she did make a comeback in the 1990’s after the gay rights movement shifted their views to focus on the rights of the LGBTQ community within social institutions such as the military. She was worried this new shift would further the exclusion of the transgender community and other marginalized groups like queer homeless youth.
She used her voice to protest against the suppression of any kind towards the trans and gender nonconforming community all her life. Lamentably, her influence was cut short. She passed away in February of 2002 after being defeated by liver cancer.
Nowadays, you can find remnants of her impact throughout the United States. Many LGBTQ organizations have paid tribute to her after her death. But, the most important tribute to her is perhaps the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization based off in New York that protects the rights of trans and gender nonconforming people.
Truly, we owe a lot to Sylvia Rivera. Thanks to her and her undying advocacy, the “T” is part of LGBTQ.