Unsung Heroines: Sylvia Rivera

“Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”, whilst drags queens like Ru Paul are only just barely being accepted in our media today, this would not have been possible without the pioneering role of Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman who has been fondly named “the mother of gay people”. Sylvia Rivera was a trans woman whose role in the LGBTQ+ community was a catalyst to the forever evolving fight for equal civil rights of trans people. Not only was her determination and sacrifice when alive as a trans woman, street queen and sex worker crucial to the movement but also the legacy she left behind as reflected through the work of STAR, an organisation cofounded by Sylvia to help shelter LGBTQ+ homeless youth. To say the least Sylvia Rivera was an incredible woman who deserves more recognition.

Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 in Puerto Rico and was a self-identified drag queen. Throughout her life Sylvia experienced the backlash for being a minority figure which she overcame to become one of the most influential figures in the LGBTQ+ community.

From a young age Rivera has had a drive to make eradicate discrimination of race, social standing, sexuality and gender. This was shown by her involvement in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. This proactive approach is also reflected in her later work where she co-founded the gay libertarian front and the gay activist alliance as well as STAR. This early activism was a brave and bold move from Sylvia as this was a time where LGBTQ+ people faced severe prejudice every day which was a problem Sylvia had to tackle throughout her career.

An example of a challenge caused by discrimination Sylvia didn’t let stop her fight for her cause was the death of her close friend Marsha P. Johnson who was a fellow drag queen. In early July 1992 after the New York pride march, Marsha was found dead floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. Due to the marginalisation of drag queens at the time the police promptly ruled Johnson’s death a suicide even though a clear head wound was located on the body.  The police automatically assumed Johnson was suicidal due to the fact she was a drag queen so would not look further in to the case despite the campaigning from Sylvia and other community members. Johnson was found to have been harassed earlier that day in a nearby location, and therefore the death was not a suicide. This event in Sylvia life had a huge effect on Sylvia who in 1995 tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River. However, Sylvia survived and kept on fighting for the LGBTQ+ community after that low moment in her life.

Sylvia also experience living on the streets due to the lack of uptake of drag queens in employment and housing. Later on, Sylvia was affected by substance abuse. These experiences sparked her focus on helping those marginalised by big movement who were being left behind. It also led on to her creation of STAR which aims to help homeless young LGBTQ+ people.

Sylvia Rivera was also a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall uprising. Rivera would visit the Stonewall Inn regularly which was a common meeting ground for the LGBTQ+ community. In the riots it is said that Sylvia threw the first brick which instigated the battle against the authorities.

A topic Sylvia was particularly passionate about within the movement was how the mainstreaming of what she had been fighting for meant that the true message of helping those who needed the most help. She also found that the people she had initially been fighting for were now becoming marginalised by the new movement of mainstream activism. This was shown in the Non-Discrimination Act in New York where Sylvia’s project centralises the struggles of members of the LGBTQ+ community within problems of systemic poverty and racism.

Sylvia found that her work was often not appreciated and in order for other movements to grow she was pushed aside in order to appeal to a wider audience. Sylvia would be urged to lead big events and play a key role in the process and then be replaced by people who were seemingly straighter and of a higher social standing. She felt the movements had used her activism for their own gain but not appreciated the sacrifices she had made to produce the outcomes which benefited their progress. She saw the gradual stance that drag queens were not of importance or priority grow, but instead gay rights agendas would focus on things like military services and marriage equality. So yet again Sylvia saw that minorities were being left behind. This is still a pressing problem as in a recent speech by Laverne Cox she stated “where are we as an LGBT community over 45 years after the Stonewall Rebellion? …. Sylvia Rivera warned us about becoming a movement that was only for white, middle class people. And forty-five years later, the most marginalized of our communities are still struggling”. On her death bed Rivera met with two men to negotiate transgender inclusion in the Empire State Pride Agenda’s political structure and agenda.

In order to tackle the marginalisation of minority group within the LGBTQ+ community Sylvia created STAR with Marsha P. Johnson. This stands for ‘Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries’ and aims to help homeless, young, trans and drag queens who are also women of colour. The organisation helps house these young women in order to prevent homelessness, which is even more dangerous as a trans woman or a drag queen. STAR was also used as a political organisation to question acts and organisations which were not inclusive of homeless young trans women and drag queens. In the organisation they fought to make the New York City Transgender Right Bill to be created and for the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act to be trans inclusive. Within STAR Rivera focussed on how heterosexual males would prey on members of the trans community as they were vulnerable, which she alerted in her speeches. Furthermore, STAR demanded justice for Amanda Milan who was a trans prostitute who was murdered in New York which brought attention to the situation as well as criminalising the two men who killed her. STAR provided a third gender perspective and Rivera said that LGBT prisoners “do not write women. They do not write men. They write to STAR.”

Sylvia sadly passed away on the 19th of February 2002 but left a legacy behind her which was so unique and inspiring that she is truly an unsung hero. Before she died Rivera gave speeches about the Stonewall uprising and pressed on how there needed to be an inclusive and unite force from the transgender community to make a change in how they are regarded and treated in the world as well as maintaining their legacies in history.

Whilst there is still an extensively long way to go world-wide in the trans movement, after Rivera’s legacy was made the first trans official was hired in the white house, Ru Pauls drag race has reached a 9th season and Laverne Cox has received an Emmy award. So, progress is slowly being made to incorporate people of different sexual orientations and genders in the public media and in positions of power. This progress was catalysed by Sylvia, and therefore she is truly an unsung hero and role model in history.