Sylvia Rivera was an Afro-Puerto Rican and Venezuelan pioneer of the modern-day LGBT movement. Along with longtime friend and mentor Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera was one of the individuals leading the charge the night the Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969 (though her presence on the first night is still heavily disputed, her contributions to liberating transgender persons cannot be argued against).
Sylvia’s early beginnings were surrounded by tragedy, as her step-father tried to kill Rivera and her mother at age three, following her mother’s suicide years later, and her dealing with abuse from her maternal grandmother because of her darker skin tone and effeminate nature. Rivera left home around age 10 and began doing sex work in Times Square, adopted the name Sylvia and became immersed in queer black and brown culture. Throughout this time, Sylvia’s awareness and dedication towards homelessness, poverty, people of color and trans/gender non-conforming persons was cultivated.
Rivera was known as an agitator, someone who disrupted queer spaces and illustrated how the Gay Rights Movement was exclusionary to individuals who did not fit the gender binary. She also was a reminder of the true pioneers of the LGBT movement, as opposed to the white-washed, respectable queers that were being heralded as the face of the movement. The Women’s liberation movement nor the gay liberation movement were accepting of her presence, focusing more on assimilation into the mainstream American culture rather than upending systems of oppression for all marginalized persons. Her activeness in the two, visible gay political groups, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) were moments where she experienced racism, and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF) from people who wanted to silence her. However, she always made it known to amplify her voice, and the issues of the most vulnerable communities amongst the odds.
In the seventies, Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson founded S.T.A.R (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that advocated on behalf of homeless trans and gender non-conforming people by providing food and shelter to them. Lack of funding and access to maintaining occupancy for the building disallowed them from continuing their revolutionary efforts.
Rivera left New York for a long time, but came back in the 90s and revived the S.T.A.R home and continued trans organizing and mobilization. She died of cancer in 2002.