On this Spirit Day, I would like to remember a hero of the LGBTQ+ community who fought for our rights back when being an activist meant to physically have to fight the oppressing hegemony.
Sylvia Rivera was a radical queer Latinx and trans-woman who dedicated her life to activism. Sylvia was born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother. In her early childhood, Sylvia lived with her grandmother who was very disapproving of young Sylvia’s, then called Ray, effeminate ways. Sylvia was always very confident in herself, even at a young age when she began experimenting with makeup as a young boy she was proud of who she was.
When Sylvia started getting bullied at school and kids around her neighborhood started calling her “pato,” or faggot, her grandmother kicked her out. Sylvia left the only place she could call home at the age of ten and headed to the 42nd Street Christopher Street docks in Manhattan where a lot of homeless people in the gay community took refuge. This was both the start of Sylvia’s introduction to drugs, alcohol, prostitution, systematic abuse and, as a result, her rise to becoming martyrs for the trans community.
One of Rivera’s most notable contributions, amongst many radical demonstrations for legal reform, was her rebellion at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. Imagine enjoying a night out with your friends in one of the very few spaces you felt safe in. Imagine there being community and solidarity in the midst of a good time only to once, again as was routine, have the scarcity of the space raided by police who have come to do what they always do — harass and arrest you for being you. The Stonewall Bar in the East Village of NYC was that space for marginalized groups of queer trans people of color.
The Stonewall Uprising changed what had been thought to be possible before. Thereafter there was a collective effervescence in the community to stand up for themselves. In an interview with Seymour Pine, the responding Deputy Inspector, admitted the night of the Stonewall Uprising was everything but submissive. Pine recalls, “For some reason, things were different this night. As we were bringing the prisoners out, they were resisting.”
The police were held hostage inside of the bar for almost 45 minutes, in which time “nearly two thousand people” had congregated outside of the bar yelling, “Police brutality! Let’s get ‘em! We’re not going to take this anymore!” The doors to the bar were pushed down and Molotov cocktails started flying across the bar. Sylvia was one of the first trans queens who threw one of the first bottles at the Stonewall Uprising. She recounts, “I said to myself in Spanish… oh my God, the revolution is finally here! And I just like started screaming “Freedom! We’re free at last!”
As a Latinx trans woman living in the 60’s, Sylvia Rivera experienced a lot of discrimination and made it her life’s mission to advocate for those being left behind by mainstream gay rights activism — poor queer people of color and transgendered people. Together with Marsha P. Johnson, one of Rivera’s lifelong friends and a self-identified queen herself, Rivera founded the Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — a revolutionary organization that started with a political analysis centering gender self-determination and homeless trans people of color, most of whom did sex work. Sylvia knew first hand what it felt like to be a victim of systematic poverty, racism, and homophobia and didn’t want other’s feeling alone the way she did growing up.
Sylvia Rivera is well known to many people in Latinx feminist and queer spaces. However, to others like me for whom identifying as queer is a recent thing, I didn’t know there was so someone in history with so much courage with whom I’d share so identities — Latinx, born to immigrant parents, from the Bronx, we both grew up exploring the streets of New York City, and who has an open view of gender expression.
As a child of immigrant parents often times it’s hard to find heroes from your same background in the United States with whom to resonate with. For me, Sylvia Rivera’s courage makes me more comfortable being Latinx and queer. It’s important that we all remember those who came before us and who fought for change. It is in part thanks to Sylvia if I am free to be who I am today.