Sylvia Rae Rivera (2 July 1951–19 February 2002) was an American transgender activist. Rivera was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and helped found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group dedicated to helping homeless young street transwomen, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson.
Rivera was born and raised in New York City and would live most of her life in or near this city. She was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. Her birth name was Ray (or Rey) Rivera. She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three years old. Rivera was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of Rivera’s effeminate behavior, particularly after Rivera began to wear women’s makeup in fourth grade. As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of eleven, where she joined a community of drag queens.
Rivera’s activism began during the Vietnam War, civil rights, and feminist movements and fully bloomed around the time of the Stonewall Riots. She often spoke of her presence within the Stonewall Inn the night of the riots. She also became involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and Black Panthers.
Activist Riki Wilchins notes in Wikipedia, “In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall”.
At different times in her life, Sylvia Rivera battled substance abuse issues and lived on the streets. Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, the mainline community (and often the queer community) were leaving behind.
Wikipedia reports “Rivera refused to have the drag culture erased from the gay rights agenda by what she considered to be assimilationist gay leaders who were, in her mind, seeking to make the community look more attractive to the heterosexual majority. Rivera’s conflicts with mainstream gay and lesbian advocacy groups were emblematic of the mainstream gay rights movement’s strained relationship to transgender and transvestite issues. After her death, Michael Bronski recalled her anger when she felt that she was being marginalized within the community:
After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA—which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office—even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, “straight-appearing” leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: “When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more’”. But, she added, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”.