Activists: Sylvia Rivera

Episode Summary

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) was an icon of the gay liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s and a champion for marginalized identities in the LGBTQ+ community. She worked with friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson to include gender identity in legislation and is credited with putting the “T” in LGBT. Her tactics made her a radical figure in the moment, but she’s since been admired as one of the most important trans activists in history.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Activist was an icon of the gay liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s and a champion for marginalized identities in the LGBTQ+ community. She worked with friend and fellow activist Marsha P. Johnson to include gender identity in legislation and is credited with putting the “T” in LGBT. Her tactics made her a radical figure in the moment, but she’s since been admired as one of the most important trans activists in history. Please welcome Sylvia Rivera.

By her own account in her later years, Sylvia was born feet first in a taxi  in the parking lot of Lincoln Hospital. What’s known for sure is she was born on July 2nd in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother. She had a tumultuous childhood. When she was three, Sylvia’s father threatened to kill Sylvia and her mother. Shortly after, her mother committed suicide and Sylvia went to live with her grandmother. In the fourth grade, Sylvia began wearing makeup to school-- her grandmother disproved and beat Sylvia for what she saw as effeminate behavior.

When she was eleven, Sylvia ran away from home and began making a living through sex work. A group of drag queens in Times Square welcomed her into their community. There, she named herself “Sylvia” and began to identify as a drag queen. Later on in life, Sylvia’s gender identity would shift as new terms, such as transgender, became more common vocabulary.

Sylvia protested throughout the 1960s for Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and against the Vietnam War; however, she didn’t see herself or members of the larger gay and transgender community represented in these struggles. So, when the 1969 Stonewall Uprising came around, Sylvia was ready to jump in.

Sylvia is recognized as one of the veterans of the Stonewall riots, but there is some conflict on whether or not she was there on the morning of June 28th when the first bricks were thrown. Some sources place her elsewhere in the city, while others say she was re-inserted into the story to cement her and the Latinx community’s role in the Gay Rights movement. Sylvia herself struck a middle ground in later years, saying she threw the second molotov cocktail to hit the bar, not the first. . Her broader contribution as a catalyst of the gay liberation movement, along with Marsha P. Johnson, cemented the place of the trans and Latinx communities as a backbone of this struggle. 

Sylvia’s role in the gay liberation movement in the decades following Stonewall was monumental. Her greatest focus was always on including the most marginalized members of the community. She co-founded the Gay Liberation Front and a club called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, with Marsha P. Johnson. 

Sylvia was known for her persistence and radical protest style. As one story has it, she was arrested for climbing the walls of City hall in an attempt to crash a closed-door hearing for a gay rights bill-- and all in a dress and heels. Yet, despite her dogged dedication to her causes, Sylvia often found rivals in the very networks she and other gay activists were meant to find support.

In the 1970s, the Gay Activists’ Alliance emerged as New York’s dominant gay rights group. It called itself politically neutral and dedicated itself to furthering gay and lesbian rights-- however, it often did so by excluding its most marginalized members. It was a predominantly white, gay, middle-class group. Sylvia, a poor, trans, Latinx drag queen who had been a sex worker, experienced homelessness, a drug addiction, and spent time in jail, fought for a community that felt like it fell outside of the Gay Activists’ Alliance’s scope.

This conflict came to a head in the struggle for a gay rights bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For years, Sylvia lobbied the leaders of the GAA to include legislation on trans and gender non-conforming people. The mainstream members of the group saw these identities as “too radical” to push on their agendas. When the bill passed after 17 years of debate it lacked language to protect trans, gender-nonbinary and gender-fluid people.

At the 1973 Liberation Day Rally, worn out from protesting without success for her cause, Sylvia took the stage and delivered an impassioned speech, known as her “Y’all Better Quiet Down” speech. In it, she denounced the audience and members of the LGBTQ+ community for leaving the most marginalized behind. After that  speech, Sylvia disappeared from activism for nearly 20 years. 

Sylvia returned to the public eye in the 1990s. Her protests were still radical for the community: in 1995, she was banned from New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center because her demands for the center to care for poor and homeless queer youth were called too aggressive.. As movements for large scale gay rights like marriage and repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy gained traction, Sylvia was called back by a movement that now honored her as a revolutionary. Of her participation in NYC pride on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, Sylvia recalled: “The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off.”

In her final years, Sylvia started to see the larger-than-life impact her legacy would leave on the LGBTQ+ community: at the Millenium March in Italy in 2000, she was hailed as the “mother of all gay people.”

In 2001, Sylvia resurrected STAR, this time using “Transgender” for the T, to protest the silence surrounding the murder of Amanda Milan. During this time, Sylvia’s gender identity also shifted to use the term transgender. She had previously said in a 1995 interview that she was tired of labels and simply identified as “Sylvia Rivera.”

Sylvia died of liver cancer in New York on February 19th, 2002. She was 50 years old. She continued to fight until the very end: on her deathbed, she met with local gay leaders and advocated for the inclusion of the trans community as tirelessly as she’d been doing since the 1970s. 

Ultimately, gender identity wouldn’t be included in New York law until seven years after her death. But Sylvia’s work for trans rights set the precedent for work that took off in the 2000s. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded the same year as her death and works to continue Sylvia’s activism by pursuing issues of systemic poverty and racism and prioritizing the struggles of queer and trans people. 

In 2019, the city of New York commissioned a monument memorializing Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson-- the first permanent public art commemorating trans women in the world, per the city.The Metropolitcan Community Church of New York, which Sylvia often worked through, renamed its food pantry and queer youth shelter after her. Sylvia is also the only transgender person included in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. 

All month, we’re talking about Activists. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing check out our newsletter Womannica Weekly. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @encyclopediawomannica and follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan. 

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!