In light of the release of the film, Stonewall, I want to introduce or re-introduce you to one of the greatest heroines of our community, Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia Rae Rivera was born on July 2, 1951 (as Ray Rivera Mendoza), in New York City. She was Puerto Rican and Venezuelan. Her father, José Rivera, left when she was very young. Her mother committed suicide when Sylvia was only three years old. Her Venezuelan grandmother then raised her.
Her grandmother was a more conservative, traditional person, who greatly disapproved of Ray acting effeminate behavior, and wearing make-up. At the age of ten, Rivera left home and lived on the streets. There, she became a drag queen, a prostitute, and Ray became Sylvia.
Rivera remembered the time by saying, “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.
“We always felt that the police were the real enemy. We expected nothing better than to be treated like we were animals-and we were.
“We were stuck in a bullpen like a bunch of freaks. We were disrespected. A lot of us were beaten up and raped.
“When I ended up going to jail, to do 90 days, they tried to rape me. I very nicely bit the shit out of a man.”
Her years on the streets as a drag queen made her become a regular at the Stonewall Inn. She was known to perform there as well as patronize it. On the night of the Stonewall Raid, she was outside of the bar, watching the events unfold. Bold and brazen, she has been quoted as saying, “I’m not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!” A revolution needs a revolutionary, and Rivera was more than happy to oblige by being the first – or one of the first – person/people to throw a bottle aimed towards the police. Thus the riots began.
Though the riots died down after a few days, Sylvia Rivera was just getting started.
She was a founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). There, she worked to pass the New York City Gay Rights Bill.
She was also a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front.
In 1970, she and Marsha P. Johnson, another Stonewall hero, founded STAR: the Street Transvestite Revolutionaries. This organization was dedicated to helping and supporting homeless LGBT youth, especially the young LGBTs of color.
Through STAR, she not only marched, she helped to set up “crash pads” as an alternative to the streets. Due to her own experiences, it was of the utmost importance to Sylvia River that LGBT youth be able to have food and shelter.
She dedicated her entire life to shatter the barriers and bigotry that the LGBT community faced – especially LGBT youth, and LGBTs of color. Not only was she a political combatant, she challenged stereotypes and labels by never really defining herself as gay or lesbian, or even transgender. She was a woman who was far ahead of her time.
In 2000, she traveled to Italy to attend the Millennium March. There she was titled, “The Mother of all gay people.”
On February 19, 2002, at only fifty years old, Sylvia Rivera passed away due to complications from liver cancer.
Later that year, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded and named in her honor. This is an organization that is focused on creating and achieving true equality, acceptance, and works to help marginalized and poverty-stricken people.
Three years later, in 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in New York City’s Greenwich Village was renamed “Sylvia Rivera Way.”
Sylvia once said, “I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist. I was proud to make the road and help change laws and what-not. I was very proud of doing that and proud of what I’m still doing, no matter what it takes.
“I’m glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I always believed that we would have a fight back. I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn’t know it would be that night.
“I am proud of myself as being there that night. If I had lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people.
“Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.”
Live life in your own special way,