Sylvia Rivera, the trans activist who was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement was born July 2, 1951. Rivera was born to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother in the New York City borough of the Bronx.
Rivera was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and later the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. She became a staunch advocate for the rights of queer people, also representing people of color in the U.S. left movement.
Rivera along with Marsha P. Johnson played an instrumental role in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. According to witnesses, Rivera threw one of the first bottles at police during the clashes between the police and the mostly trans people of color at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan. According to Titus Montalvo, nearly 70 percent of the crowd was comprised of African American and Puerto Rican trans men and women.
“We were the front liners," Rivera said. “We didn’t take no shit from nobody,” she explained. “We had nothing to lose.” In the 1970s Johnson and Rivera also co-founded STAR.
She also showed her support for the Puerto Rican movement, starting a Gay and Lesbian Caucus that worked with the Women’s Caucus within the Young Lords. “I became one of them,” she said. “It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself — being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen.”
Many radical movements at the time showed their solidarity with the gay liberation movement. In 1970, during the national convention of revolutionary organizations in Washington D.C., Huey P. Newton of Black Panthers Party said that homophobia and misogyny are rooted in fear.
“We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual, and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with," Newton said.
But alliances and solidarity with the radical gay liberation groups were short-lived. Between 1970 and 1972, after just a few years of acceptance, Rivera lost her allies and like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords were targeted by COINTELPRO.
Remembering the Stonewall Uprising
Rivera castigated the burgeoning mainstream gay liberation movement as they outrightly abandoned her community. She started giving lectures and speeches at universities and advocated for trans and queer homeless kids.
Rivera cycled through addiction, homelessness, and suicide attempts and finally succumbed to death at 50 from advanced liver cancer.
Rivera, the bony, loud, beautiful and demanding drag queen was revered. Her heroic acts of courage and resistance formed the pillar of transgender activism to this day.