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Sylvia Rivera: A Controversial But Powerful and Enduring Activist for LGBTQ+ Rights

Sylvia Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002, She/Her) was a trailblazing advocate for the rights of transgender individuals and LGBTQ+ communities. A vocal opponent of racism and transphobia within the 1970-80s Gay Liberation Movement, Rivera was controversial (to say the least) during her time. While delivering her infamous speech, “Y’all Better Quiet Down!” at the 1973 Gay Pride Rally in Washington Square Park, she was audibly booed and heckled off the stage. Nevertheless, she persisted in her effort to achieve social justice for transgendered individuals of color, co-founding the S.T.A.R. house with Marsha P. Johnson in 1971 and establishing Transy House in 1997. Sylvia Rivera spent her life making physical space in our neighborhoods for her brothers and sisters, and her legacy has come to seen as one who, like so many before her, opened doors, and battled injustice. 

Rivera was assigned male upon her birth in 1951, the child of a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother. Her mother died when Rivera was young, and she was sent to live with her grandmother. At age 11, Rivera ran away from home after being beaten and attacked for presenting as female, leading her to become a sex worker on 42nd Street and later settling in the Greenwich Village’s queer enclave around Christopher Street. Rivera was active in the Black Liberation Movement, and, in 1963, met Marsha P. Johnson, a self-identified African American drag queen and activist for gay rights. In 1969, the Stonewall Riots catalyzed Rivera’s participation in the Gay Liberation Movement. She is famously quoted from that night as saying that “while I did not throw the first Molotov cocktail of that night, I did throw the second.” Rivera became a nominal figure of the riots —despite a long, heated discussion of whether or not she was at Stonewall that first night— and, for six consecutive days afterward, she resisted arrest and led protests against the police raid.

However, not everyone embraced Rivera’s fiery spirit. During the 1973 Gay Pride Parade in Washington Square Park on August 25th, she was allowed to march but denied a speaking role. Infuriated, she stormed the stage and grabbed the microphone, accosting the crowd for their complicit discrimination against queer people of color, incarcerated individuals, and transgender people. Her infamous speech, named “Y’all Better Quiet Down!,” called out the young movement for marginalizing its BIPOC and trans members. In the following years, Rivera actively called out the Gay Activists Alliance for downplaying the role of transgender individuals, many of whom were people of color, during the Stonewall Riots, and she fought against the exclusion of Transgender people in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act of 2002.

Her greatest achievement came from co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) House with Marsha P. Johnson in 1971. S.T.A.R. House was America’s first youth shelter for trans youth, and it was located on East 2nd Street in the East Village. Although short-lived, Rivera and Johnson’s S.T.A.R. House fed and clothed homeless, queer youth, sheltered them from substance abuse, and gave them a chosen family of support. Read more about S.T.A.R. House in our other Off the Grid blog post, “Revolutionaries on East 2nd Street.” Later in 1997, Rivera went on to found Transy House in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to honor Johnson’s memory after her death in 1992. In the 1990s, Rivera reconciled with the Gay Rights Movement, and she was given a place of honor in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall Inn March in 1994. For the rest of her life, Rivera lived happily with her life partner, Julia Murray, and their chosen family in Transy House. Rivera died in 2002 from complications related to liver cancer. She was only 51 years old.

Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project continues her legacy to guarantee “all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.” The intersection of Christopher and Hudson Streets in Greenwich Village was renamed Sylvia Rivera Way. And, in 2015, Rivera became the first Transgender activist to have her picture hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

The text above was adapted from information written by Emma Rothberg of the National Women’s History Museum. Photographs are provided courtesy of Val Shaff and the National Parks Service.

Further Learning:

● “Sylvia Rivera” by Emma Rothberg of the National Women’s History Museum

● “The Crusade of Transgender Activist Sylvia Rivera” by Giselle Defares of Bese

● “Why We Owe LGBTQ+ Victories to an Early Trans Activist” by Eric Cervini of Time

● Season 1, Episode 1 and Season 3, Episode 1 of the Making Gay History podcast

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