LGBT Heros – Sylvia Rivera
This is the second of my gay hero’s I’ve chosen to write about. This history brings us much closer to the present than my last.
Sylvia Riviera was born and raised in New York. She was born of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parentage. Her father abandoned the family when Sylvia was young. Her mother committed suicide when she was three years old. Her grandmother raised her. From an early age she displayed effeminate behaviours and dressed in woman’s clothes and wore make up.
In a later interview she explained that she left home one day after her grandmother came home crying because the neighbours were calling Sylvia ‘pato’ which meant ‘faggot’. Sylvia respected his grandmother and didn’t want her to suffer. So she left home and went out alone on the streets of New York, at the age of 10. She was forced into child prostitution but then a group of drag queens in the area took she under their wing and brought her up. They called her Sylvia and so she was ‘born’.
Sylvia grew up troubled by the way people in her society were treated, and at the age of 18 in 1970 she joined the Gay Activists Alliance where she fought for the rights of gay people and also for the inclusion of drag queens in the Alliance. Her cause had until that point been outside the core of gay white men and lesbian feminists.
She later shocked the militant group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) by bringing an African American trans activist with her, therefore bringing people of colour in. Her friend was called Martha P Johnson who was an activist in her own right. STAR aimed to provide vulnerable and homeless trans teenagers with food and clothing.
Sylvia is perhaps best known for her involvement in the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The Stonewall Inn was a well known spot in the Greenwich Village near Manhattan. It had a LBGT clientele. Gay Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s faced an anti-gay legal system and met in pubs and clubs which were LBG friendly. The Inn was regularly raided by the police, who in turn for turning a blind eye received regular pay-offs from the bar.
A police raid began in the early hours of 28 June 1969. It turned violent on this occasion and the patrons of the Inn and other lesbian and gay bars in the village and other neighbourhood street people fought back when violence was shown towards them. The riots are widely thought to be one of the most important events in the LBG fight for recognition leading to the formation of the Gay Liberation Movement, and the 20th century fight for gay rights in the US.
Sylvia has always been a controversial figure. There are accounts of her being at the forefront of the riots and some record her throwing the second molotov cocktail at the Police. Other accounts, however, do not put her there and claim that she put herself there in later interviews about the raid in order to promote her cause.
Whether, there or not, she took the opportunity to stand up for transgender rights. Theses were not included in the cause ‘gay rights’ umbrella at the time. Such was her intervention, however, that the trans cause was added to the LBGT framework when ‘T’ was added to the LBG acronym to become LBGT for the first time.
She will therefore be best remembered as an American gay liberation and transgender rights activist who was also a noted community worker in New York. And as a drag queen she participated in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front.
Sylvia died on 19 February 2002 from cancer of the liver.