Communicator of the Month: Sylvia Rivera — Transgender Champion

Sylvia Rivera designed graphic

Our Communicator of the Month series showcases individuals whose voices have made a lasting impact on our country. In 2019, we highlight courageous women whose dedication to social justice reform has made our world more equal and inclusive.

“We were all involved in different struggles, including myself and many other transgender people. But in these struggles, in the civil rights movement, in the war movement, in the women’s movement, we were still outcasts.” — Sylvia Rivera

July 2, 1951 — February 19, 2002

After being constantly bullied for having feminine characteristics by family members and peers, at the age of 10, Ray Rivera ran away from home in the Bronx to Manhattan and became Sylvia.

In the 1960s, 42nd Street was home to drag queens, sex workers and other members of the gay community. Rivera made it her home as well and was quickly adopted by the individuals who inspired her life as an activist — people she called her “chosen family.”

One of America’s first transgender advocates, Rivera wanted to give transgender and gender nonconforming individuals a voice within the mainstream gay rights movement. Considered radical in the gay community at that time for having a fluid gender identity, she used her platform as a community organizer to advocate for the civil rights, equality and inclusion of those who were marginalized by society — especially those like her who were homeless, poor and a person of color.

In 1969, a violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar and place of refuge in New York City’s Greenwich Village, resulted in nearly a week of rioting where the LGBTQ community protested against law enforcement’s brutal and discriminatory treatment of the bar’s patrons and employees. The Stonewall Riots, as they came to be known, served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement. Having been at the bar with her friend and African American transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera recognized the opportunity for sustained resistance against discrimination and advocacy for the transgender community.

After the rebellion, Johnson encouraged Rivera to attend meetings of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). However, Rivera felt excluded by the members of these organizations — often white, middle class gay men and lesbian feminists who had different agendas from her own. To help the homeless drag queens and transgender youth of color who were earning money as sex workers, Rivera and Johnson created the activist organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and a shelter called STAR House.

Three years later, Rivera was invited to speak at a rally in Washington Square Park. She was stopped when attempting to take the stage by a radical lesbian feminist and GAA member who incited physical violence and accused her of mocking women. Despite this, she managed to give a passionate speech that shined a light on the effects of white privilege in the gay rights movement that left the rights of gender nonconforming and gay people of color in the shadows.

Rivera disappeared from the activist community for two decades after the incident. In 1993, she rejoined the movement, hoping for a new chance to incite change in a society that was now more accepting.

Rivera’s work on the front lines and dedication to fighting for equality and inclusion inspired action and resilience and is recognized today. After her death in 2002, the Metropolitan Community Church of New York renamed their food pantry The Sylvia Rivera Memorial Food Pantry and opened Sylvia’s Place, a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth.