Rivera, c. 2000
July 2, 1951|
New York City
|Died||February 19, 2002(aged 50)|
|Known for||Transgender activist|
Sylvia Rae Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002) was an American bisexual transgender activist and trans woman. She was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and helped found Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young street drag queens and trans women, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson.
Life and activism
Rivera was born and raised in New York City and lived most of her life in or near the city. She was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three years old. Rivera was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of Rivera's effeminate behavior, particularly after Rivera began to wear makeup in fourth grade. As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of eleven, where she joined a community of drag queens.
Rivera's activism began during the civil rights (mid-1950's to 1960's), Protests against the Vietnam War (mid-1960s), and feminist movements (mid-1960's) and fully bloomed around the time of the Stonewall Riots (1969). She often spoke of her presence within the Stonewall Inn the night of the riots. She also became involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and Black Panthers.
At different times in her life, she battled substance abuse issues and lived on the streets. Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, the mainline community (and often the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)/queer community) were leaving behind. In July 1992, Marsha P. Johnson, was found dead floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers shortly after the 1992 New York City Pride March. Police ruled the death a suicide. Johnson's friends and supporters, Rivera included, insisted she was not suicidal, and a people's postering campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found.
In May 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River. That year she also appeared in the Arthur Dong documentary episode "Out Rage '69", part of the PBS series The Question of Equality. Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital, of complications from liver cancer. Activist Riki Wilchins noted, "In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall".
In the last five years of her life Sylvia renewed her political activity, giving many speeches concerning the Stonewall Riots and the necessity for unity among transgender people to fight for their historic legacy as people in the forefront of the LGBT movement. She traveled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000 where she was acclaimed as the 'Mother of all gay people'. In early 2001, after a church service at the MCC of New York referring to the Star announcing the birth of Jesus she decided to reinstate Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries as an active political organization. STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. Also STAR sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000. Sylvia also attacked the Human Rights Commission and the Empire State Pride Agenda as organizations which were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her death bed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of the Empire State Pride Agenda in order to negotiate trans inclusion in ESPA's political structure and agenda.
Rivera refused to have drag culture erased from the gay rights agenda by assimilationist gay leaders who were seeking to make the community look more attractive to the heterosexual majority. Rivera's conflicts with mainstream gay and lesbian advocacy groups were emblematic of the mainstream gay rights movement's strained relationship to transgender issues. After her death, Michael Bronski recalled her anger when she felt that she was being marginalized within the community:
After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York's primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it just wasn't possible to pass it with such "extreme" elements included. As it turned out, it wasn't possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA—which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office—even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to "front" possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, "straight-appearing" leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: "When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, 'We don't need you no more'". But, she added, "Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned".
According to Bronski, Rivera was banned from New York's Gay & Lesbian Community Center for several years in the mid-nineties, because, on a cold winter's night, she aggressively demanded that the Center take care of poor and homeless queer youth. A short time before her death, Bronski reports that she said:
One of our main goals now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because I'm tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It's not even the back of the bus anymore—it's the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.
Rivera's struggles did not relate exclusively to trans people, as they intersected with issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of color. The transgender-of-color activist and scholar Jessi Gan discusses how mainstream LGBT groups have routinely dismissed or not paid sufficient attention to Rivera's Latina identity, while Puerto Rican and Latino groups often have not fully acknowledged Rivera's contribution to their struggles for civil rights. Tim Retzloff has discussed this issue with respect to the omission of discussions about race and ethnicity in mainstream U.S. LGBT history, particularly with regard to Rivera's legacy.
An active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, Rivera ministered through the Church's food pantry, which provides food to hungry people. Recalling her life as a child on the streets, she remained a passionate advocate for queer youth, and MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place in her honour.
Named in her honor (and established in 2002), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated "to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence".
In 2002, actor/comedian Jade Esteban Estrada portrays Rivera in the well-received solo musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1 winning her renewed national attention.
In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed "Rivera Way" in her honour. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where Rivera started organizing, and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
In January 2007, a new musical based upon Rivera's life, Sylvia So Far, premiered in New York at La Mama in a production starring Bianca Leigh as Rivera and Peter Proctor as Marsha P. Johnson. The composer and lyricist is Timothy Mathis (Wallflowers, Our Story Too, The Conjuring), a friend of Rivera's in real life. The show is scheduled to move off-Broadway in the winter of 2007/2008.
The Spring 2007 issue of CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which was dedicated to "Puerto Rican Queer Sexualities" and published at Hunter College, included a special dossier on Sylvia Rivera, including a transcription of a talk by Rivera from 2001 as well as two academic essays exploring the intersections of Rivera's trans and Latina identities. The articles in this journal issue complement other essays by Puerto Rican scholars who have also emphasized Rivera's pioneering role.
- Gan, Jessi. "'Still at the Back of the Bus': Sylvia Rivera's Struggle". CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 19.1 (Spring 2007): 124-139.
- Scarpinato, Bebe and Rusty Moore. Transitions: Sylvia Rivera. Transgender Tapestry #098, Summer 2002
- Rivera, Sylvia. "Sylvia Rivera's Talk at LGMNY, June 2001, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City". CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 19.1 (Spring 2007): 116-123.
- Staff report (May 24, 1995). About New York; Still Here: Sylvia, Who Survived Stonewall, Time and the River. New York Times
- Goodman, Walter (November 4, 1995). Television Review: The Gay Search for Equality. New York Times
- Dunlap, David W. (February 20, 2002). Sylvia Rivera, 50, Figure in Birth of the Gay Liberation Movement. New York Times
- Wilchins, Riki (February 27, 2002). A Woman for Her Time: In Memory of Stonewall Warrior Sylvia Rivera. Village Voice
- Bronski, Michael (April 2002). Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002. Z Magazine
- Retzloff, Tim. "Eliding Trans Latino/a Queer Experience in U.S. LGBT History: José Sarria and Sylvia Rivera Reexamined". CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 19.1 (Spring 2007): 140-161.
- Sylvia Rivera's obituary via MCCNY
- Withers, James (November 25, 2005). Remembering Sylvia Rivera: Though a divisive figure, trans activist and Stonewall rioter gets honored with street sign. New York Blade
- Aponte-Parés, Luis. "Outside/In: Crossing Queer and Latino Boundaries". In Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York, eds. Agustín Laó-Montes and Arlene Dávila, 363-85. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-231-11274-2
- La Fountain-Stokes, Lawrence. "1898 and the History of a Queer Puerto Rican Century: Imperialism, Diaspora, and Social Transformation". CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 11. 1 (Fall 1999): 91-110. First published in Chicano/Latino Homoerotic Identities, ed. David William Foster, 197-215. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8153-3228-9