People Profile: Sylvia Rivera

Y’all better quiet down! In today’s people profile we look at the life of Sylvia Rivera, one of the first transgender advocates.

Though she is known for being at the center of the Stonewall riots there is actually debate that she may not have even been there on the actual day when it all started. But what she did from that moment on is what really mattered as it would pave the way for the transgender movement.

Sylvia Rivera was born as Ray Rivera on July 2, 1951 in the Bronx, New York. Her mother was Venezuelan and her father was Puerto Rican. Her father left shortly after her birth and her mother committed suicide when she was 3 years old. Rivera’s grandmother took care of her and her sister for sometime after, but she disapproved of Rivera’s mixed race and her effeminate ways. Eventually her birth father came back into the picture just to take her sister away from her and quickly left again. Bullied in school for her feminine ways Rivera left home at the age of 11 and lived on the streets of Manhattan, New York.

In Manhattan Rivera engaged in sex work and this is where she met the drag queen scene. This is also where she started using the name Sylvia. This was the time when she started to frequent the Stonewall Inn, where she could be herself. Though rumors range from her throwing the first brick to being passed out on heroin in a park the night of the riots on June 28th 1969, Sylvia used the moment to spark a wave of change in the aftermath of what many call the start of gay rights movement.

“HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A DRAG QUEEN SCORNED!” – SYLVIA RIVERA

Along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia started engaging with activist groups while pushing to have them include people of all gender variations. She was involved with the first gay rights bill trying to include drag culture and transgender people. When the law passed in 1986, the portion of the bill protecting the drag and transgender groups was left out. Sylvia’s response was famously quoted “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned!“. Sylvia along with her friend Marsha founded an organization called S.T.A.R that helped homeless LGBT youth. After the organization disbanded in 1974 and being fed up with the gay rights movement Rivera attempted suicide. She would later attempt suicide again in 1995 by walking into the Hudson River where her friend Martha was found dead in 1992.

Though Sylvia Rivera did not like to be labeled she would later in life identify as transgender. She even took hormones to transition towards the end of her life. Until the time of her death she still fought to have the transgender community included in gay rights groups. She died on February 19, 2002 at the age of 50. Sylvia was known for being in your face and sometimes even vulgar. She was the voice of dissent and played a crucial role in bringing the inclusion of the transgender community to the gay rights movement.

“SYLVIA WAS UNAPOLOGETIC FOR WHO SHE WAS WITH AN IN YOUR FACE APPROACH. SHE FOUGHT HARD FOR OUR CAUSE AND WAS A TRUE PIONEER. THE TRANSGENDER ROSA PARKS AS SOME SAY.” – MILA MADISON

Regardless of what may have actually taken place during the Stonewall riots it provided an opportunity for a movement. Sylvia was at the heart of this movement and one of the pioneers who are the reason there is a “T” in LGBT today.

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