Every Pride it seems we’re getting better and better at acknowledging the Stonewall riots’ roll in the gay liberation movement, and how we literally would not have a Pride march today without it. Marriage equality, same-sex adoption and the acknowledgement of trans people have all come about because of people like Marsha P. Johnson who forced their way into people’s eyelines and didn’t shut up about freedom. Yet there’s a name that often goes unforgotten: Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia Rivera, born on July 2nd 1951, was an activist and trusted friend of Marsha P. Johnson who was instrumental in starting the Stonewall riots. She was homeless by the age of 11 after her grandmother chastised her for her femininity. Rivera was forced into starting her career in sex work. After being taken in by local drag queens in Manhattan, Sylvia was born.
Alongside Johnson, she founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970, whose main job was providing housing for sex workers and homeless queer youth in the Lower Manhattan area. Rivera said in an interview that “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time.”
Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. [We] decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.
Even in the 70’s, there was this understanding that safe spaces were important for the queer community. Rivera and Johnson acted as the “mothers” for the individuals who stayed at STAR House, paying for the rent through the money they made doing sex work. They wanted to make sure no one else had to do it.
STAR continued up until 1973, according to Rivera. The Christopher Street Liberation Parade also took place that year. During that parade, gender non-conforming individuals and specifically, drag queens, were asked to stay at the back of the parade alongside queer people of colour. Leading it was middle-class white men. During the parade, Rivera stormed the stage and basically slammed the first two contingents for not acknowledging the work she and her fellow trans activists had been doing. In a bone-chilling speech, she described how she’d been “beaten, had [my] nose broken,” all for the cause, yet she’d been pushed to the back of the parade to make room for the group she called “assimilationists,” the people who wanted to be included in the norm, rather than destroy the norm and make a better one.
As she grew older, she became involved in Puerto Rican and African-American youth activism alongside the Black Panthers. Throughout her work, she showed a deep understanding of intersectionality and a remarkable strength that buoys the gay liberation movement to this day. She threw herself into her work, not for selfish gain, but because she saw her community in need and believed the suffering to be wrong. On February 19th, 2002 she passed away, just two years after she went to Italy to speak at an event. Thousands of people turned up, and she said, “I didn’t know I had so many children here.”
She was the mother of the LGBT+ community alongside Marsha; a title they both took gladly. A truly intersectional hero, Sylvia Rivera is not a name we should be quick to forget, and because of her tireless, lifelong efforts, the LGBT+ community continues to thrive.
Written by Rochelle Asquith
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