Sylvia Rivera was a civil rights activist, a transvestite and sex worker.
Known as the New York Drag queen of color, Silvia was fierce and tireless in her advocacy, in defense of those who were marginalized and excluded as the “gay rights” movement mainstreamed in the United States in the early 1970’s.
In a well-known speech on Christopher Street Day in 1973, Sylvia, shouted through a crowd of LGBT community members:
“You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs.
I will no longer put up with this shit.
I have been beaten.
I have had my nose broken.
I have been thrown in jail.
I have lost my job.
I have lost my apartment.
For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?
What the fuck’s wrong with you all?
Think about that!”
In 1969, at age 17, Silvia took part in the iconic Stonewall Riots by allegedly throwing the second Molotov cocktail to protest the police raid of the gay bar in Manhattan. She continued to be a central figure in the uprisings that followed, organizing rallies and fighting back police brutality.
In 1970, Sylvia worked together with Marsha P. Johnson to establish Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a political collective and organisation that would set up projects of mutual support for trans people living on the streets, those struggling with drug addiction and in prisons and in particular for trans people of color and those living in poverty.
Defiant of labels, Silvia lived life in a way that challenged people in the gay liberation movement to think differently. She said:
“I left home at age 10 in 1961. I hustled on 42nd Street. The early 60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did. Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I didn't really come out as a drag queen until the late 60s. when drag queens were arrested, what degradation there was. I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn't even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me. People now want to call me a lesbian because I'm with Julia, and I say, "No. I'm just me. I'm not a lesbian." I'm tired of being labeled. I don't even like the label transgender. I'm tired of living with labels. I just want to be who I am. I am Sylvia Rivera.
Through her activism and courage, Sylvia offered a mirror that reflected all that was wrong within society, but also the possibility of transformation. Sylvia was born in 1951 and passed away in 2002.