Sylvia Rivera: A True Drag Queen
Sylvia Rivera was one of the most active and prominent trans activists during the 1960s and 70s. She frequently spoke out on behalf of transgender and nonbinary people, as well as sex workers, people of color, poor people, and addicts, as she was all of these things during her life.
“We were the frontlines. We didn’t take no sh*t from nobody… We had nothing to lose.”
Sylvia was born in the Bronx in New York City on July 2nd, 1951. She was orphaned at a young age–her father abandoned her, and her mother committed suicide when she was 3. She faced abuse from her grandmother and her peers through her young childhood due to her effeminate nature. Just before her 11th birthday, she ran away from home and began working as a prostitute in the Times Square area. It was around this time that she was taken in by the local drag community, and was given the name “Sylvia.”
An Activist At Heart
As she became more ingrained in the street world of New York, she also began to delve into activism. It’s said that she was one of the instigators of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, alongside her longtime friend Marsha P. Johnson, although this particular fact has been debated over throughout the decades. She was a co-founder of the Street Transvestite (later Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which was designed to help transgender youths find a safe space. She was also an active member of multiple gay activist groups, such as the New York branch of Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
Sylvia Rivera felt passionately about providing for and representing the Transgender community, but there was tension among the greater LGBTQ+ community. In 1986, the state of New York passed their first Gay Rights bill, but it did not include protections for trans people. Sylvia believed that there were “backroom deals” going on with white, cisgendered, middle-class gay men and lesbian women who showed less interest in the trans community. This type of tension existed long before the bill was passed–in 1973, Sylvia gave a ranting speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, which is now famously known as the “Ya’ll Better Quiet Down” speech. She spoke about how she and STAR were doing the work to support not just trans youth, but gays and lesbians as well. She was booed off the stage and disappeared from the activist scene for nearly twenty years.
The fight continues today…
The issues among trans people versus the rest of the LGBTQ+ community have never been completely resolved since the days of Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. There are still people who refuse to acknowledge the T in our name for various reasons (that are usually irrelevant and incorrect).
The transgender community–especially trans people of color–is currently being subjected to just as much discrimination and violence in America as they ever have. Murder, suicide, sexual assault, and harrassment rates are high. A late 2020 article by NBC News recounted at least 30 murders of transgender individuals, the most per year since 2013, as reported by the Human Rights Campaign. These are just the known deaths–even more of these crimes go mis- or unreported. There’s also been much debate in society and the media for many years, regarding public bathrooms, respecting people’s pronouns, and assuming a person’s gender upon first meeting. There is real suffering surrounding the trans community, and it’s imperative that the other letters in the LGBTQ+ community provide support and defense for our trans brothers, sisters, and nonbinary siblings.
Sylvia Rivera fought tooth-and-nail in favor of this ideology, but after the 1973 march, she felt betrayed and hurt by the movement. She moved to Westchester, New York and continued to do drag, where she felt in some ways like she was continuing her work. “I feel that I have liberated a lot of people just by living here in the suburbs, just by being myself,” she said of this time, in the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. After Marsha’s death in 1992, Sylvia returned to New York City to mourn her friend. She even marched in the NYC Pride Parade for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994.
Sylvia Rivera died of liver cancer on February 19, 2002. That same year, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was formed to provide legal aid to LGBTQ+ youth. The SRLP is still active and based in New York City. Click here to travel to their website and learn more about the organization and how they are continuing Sylvia’s work.
The LGBTQ+ community has come a long way and still has a long way to go. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Even our own community has had internal conflicts and struggles. (Check out my article on Jeanne Córdova to read about another historical conflict.) It’s good to keep these issues in our minds, to remind us how important it is to work through them as we go forward. The most important thing is to stay true to what the LGBTQ+ community is about: love, acceptance, and unity. We are our best selves when we work together.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix_