Famously known for tossing a Molotov cocktail during the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York City, Hispanic-American transgender activist Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002) devoted her life to the gay, lesbian, and transgender liberation movements. In 2015, a photograph featuring Rivera was added to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, making her the first transgender American to be featured there.
Sylvia Rivera was one of the United States’ first visible transgender activists. After taking part in the Stonewall Inn riots, which touched off the modern gayrights movement, Rivera helped found the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. Despite her devotion to and work for gay rights, she often found herself marginalized by the gay-rights agenda as activists sought to “mainstream” the movement. Many gay-rights historians credit Rivera with keeping trans inequity issues in the limelight and putting the “T” in the acronym LGBTQ.
Rivera was born on July 2, 1951, in a taxicab in the parking lot of Lincoln Hospital, located in the Bronx borough of New York City. Although she was born male and named Ray Rivera Mendoza, by age 11 she had left Ray behind and transformed into Sylvia. Her mother was of Venezuelan descent, and when Rivera was three, the woman committed suicide in order to escape from her drug-dealing Puerto Rican husband. It was supposed to be a doublesuicide; although the troubled woman urged her child to drink the suicide potion she offered, the child refused and survived.
After her mother's death, Rivera went to live with her Venezuelan grandmother, Viejita, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. From the start, the rebellious and effeminate Rivera struggled to fit in, and her grandmother sent her off to foster homes and boarding schools. Along the way, the future activist was molested by an older man, and by the time she was ten she was hanging out on 42nd Street in an area known for prostitutes and hustlers. When Viejita's neighbors discovered Rivera hustling on 42nd Street, they teased Viejita and accused her of pimping out her grandson. At this point, Rivera attempted suicide and ended up in a state mental institution.
When Rivera escaped from the hospital, she returned to 42nd Street, viewing it as the only place where she really fit in. The area teemed with drag queens, transvestites, and other non-gender conformists, and she soon found a friend in an African-American drag queen named Marsha P. Johnson. (The P stood for “pay it no mind.”) Marsha and her friends threw a party for Rivera and re-christened her Sylvia Lee Rivera to better reflect her gender identity. Rivera spent the next several years hustling on the streets while living with a group of about 40 drag queens who took care of each other. They spent their days in movie theaters, buying double-feature passes so they could sleep all afternoon before hitting the streets at night.
Life on the street was rough: The drag queens were frequently beat up by police and as well as by passers-by who got their kicks by humiliating them. Rivera was jailed for the first time at age 12 in a street sweep of hustlers and prostitutes. Three years later, in 1966, she was introduced to heroin at New York's Rikers Island prison complex and would struggle with drug addiction for the rest of her life. At age 15, Rivera faced serious jail time after shooting a brutal john (customer), but her grandmother came to her defense, and she arrived at court wearing appropriate masculine clothing in order to escape the charges. Eventually, Rivera and her band of drag queens took up residence in the Aristo Hotel on the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue. The hotel rented “trick” rooms by the half-hour.
In the mid-1960s, Rivera took hormones briefly and contemplated sex-reassignment surgery, although she ultimately decided against the surgery. As she explained to Layli Phillips and Shomari Olugbala, in an essay published in The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, Rivera “came to the conclusion that I don't want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I like to dress up and pretend, and let the world think about what I am. Is he, or isn't he? That's what I enjoy.”
During the mid-20th century, the word “transgender” had not yet been coined; instead, gender nonconformists like Rivera were classified as drag queens, transsexuals, and transvestites. Although Rivera is often referred to as a “drag queen,” she never performed as such. She enjoyed wearing male and female clothing together and perplexing onlookers who were forced to confront gender stereotypes in her presence. “For her, drag was an identity and a way of life, not simply a costume or performance,” explained Phillips and Olugbala.
By the late 1960s, Rivera was off the streets and living in New Jersey with her lover, Gary, while holding a stable job as a warehouse clerk. On the evening of June 27, 1969, several friends summoned her to the Stonewall Inn. Located in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn was a gay bar run by the New York mafia. At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, eight officers from New York City's 6th Precinct raided the bar. Such raids were common in this era because of New York state statutes. In addition to anticrossdressing laws requiring citizens to wear clothing “appropriate” for their gender, there were laws prohibiting homosexual activity, such as dancing together. Such laws were meant to curb bars like the Stonewall Inn. Police would normally arrest crossdressers, those without identification, and perhaps a few employees, then remove the bar's liquor and padlock the door. Patrons typically cooperated and left quietly because they did not want to get arrested or humiliated by being caught at a gay bar. Because the mafia ran the gay bars, closures were mostly for show; the police received regular payoffs from the mob in exchange for looking the other way.
The Stonewall Inn raid started like any other: The police came in and the patrons filed out. What was different this time was that the crowd did not disperse. Instead, they stood outside and watched the police round up those tapped for arrest. On that night, there were many gays and lesbians in the area because actor/singer and queer icon Judy Garland had been laid to rest earlier that day, and thousands of fans had gathered in Manhattan to pay their respects. They were still in the city that night, drinking and celebrating Garland's life. As Stonewall Inn patrons gathered in the street, they were joined by many Garland mourners who were passing by.
As the raid wore on, the crowd grew defiant. They booed and hissed at the police. Tensions exploded after a lesbian (in trouble for dressing in men's clothing) was led to a transport vehicle in handcuffs and resisted arrest. Her defiance excited the crowd, police officers brandished their billyclubs in an effort to control the throng, and chaos erupted. Initially, the crowd had been throwing pennies—in reference to the payoffs. Soon, bricks and bottles entered the fray. As the violence escalated, more people joined the fracas.
Many accounts of the Stonewall riots credit Rivera with throwing the first bottle, but she told Holding On author David Isay that this was not the case. “It was somebody that was behind me that threw the first bottle,” she recalled. “But when the first bottle went by me, I said, ‘Oh Lord Jesus, the revolution is finally here! Hallelujah—it's time to go do your thing!’ Then all kinds of things started flying!” Energized by the resistance of the crowd, Rivera wanted to hurl something of her own. When someone handed her a lit Molotov cocktail, she threw it. The gay-rights movement was born that night as patrons fought back and refused to let their peers be arrested. Against chants of “gay power,” the drag queens sang and linked arms like Rockettes to prevent the officers from moving through the crowd.
The crowd uprooted parking meters, cut phone wires, and threw explosives. Eventually, the officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. At 2:55 a.m., the police department's riot control team arrived and quelled the uprising. There were several arrests and many hospitalizations. For several nights after Stonewall, demonstrators gathered in the area, clashing with police, looting stores, and setting fires. The Stonewall riots marked the first time U.S. citizens fought back against gay oppression.
The Stonewall riots spawned the formation of gay-activist groups and ushered in a new era of visibility for the LGBTQ community. They also inspired Rivera to become a vocal and visible activist. After the riots, she got involved in a Gay Activists Alliance campaign to pass a gay-rights bill in New York City and was arrested while collecting signatures for the petition. Later, when she learned that transgender concerns had been dropped from the bill, she scaled the walls of city hall in a dress and high heels, attempting to enter a closed-door session debating the bill. “Always sassy and scrappy by temperament, Sylvia was a natural in the newly created context of gay visibility, and her loud, confident voice was needed as the newly emerged movement required intrepid spokespersons,” wrote Phillips and Olugbala. In this case, Rivera was arrested and the gay-rights bill failed.
In 1970, Rivera and Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which advocated for trans street youth and operated STAR House to provide a refuge for them. They acquired the home from the local mafia and hustled to support its operation. STAR House remained open for about two years. During this time, although Rivera was active in the gay-rights movement, she was gradually sidelined because the gay community did not fully support including trans issues in its agenda. In addition, she held minority status as a transgender woman of color. Tension within the activist movement came to a head in 1973 during a Gay Pride rally in Greenwich Village when Rivera sparred with Lesbian Feminist Liberation founder Jean O'Leary. After O'Leary told the assembled crowd that drag queens and transgender people hurt the movement, Rivera stormed the stage. She berated the crowd for ignoring the rights of everyone, including trans people like her who had started the movement at Stonewall and sacrificed so much to keep it going.
Abandoning activism by the 1980s, Rivera worked in food-service jobs in Westchester and Tarrytown, New York, but drug use continued to haunt her. Now addicted to crack cocaine, she eventually ended up back on the streets. In 1992, when Johnson's body was found in the Hudson River, Rivera again attempted suicide. Rallying, she recalled her close relationship with Johnson and threw herself back into political activism with renewed vigor because that is what her friend would have wanted. In 1994, Rivera led a march up Fifth Avenue to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, and three years later she helped plan the first Brooklyn Pride March. In October of 1998, she was arrested for taking part in an illegal march through Manhattan to honor Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and left to die, perhaps because of his sexual orientation. Tapped to address the 1999 World Pride Rally at the World Pride Celebration in Rome, Rivera returned home and in 2001 reactivated STAR, redubbing it the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. She also began urging the Human Rights Campaign to embrace transgender issues.
During her last years, Rivera lived at the Transy House Collective in Brooklyn, offering financial and counseling assistance to those who walked through the doors. She also coordinated a food pantry at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. Reaching age 50, she died of liver cancer on February 19, 2002, at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village.
Six months after Rivera's death, the New York City–based Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded. The organization serves low-income, gender-nonconforming women of color, carrying out Rivera's mission to be of service to the most marginalized. As Rivera once told New York Times Magazine writer David Isay: “When I see someone that's alone, and the person is hurting and they need some comfort, my heart opens up. I can't say no if they need a little help.”
Glisson, Susan M., editor, The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Isay, David, and Harvey Wang, Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics, and Other American Heroes, W.W. Norton, 1996.
New York Times, February 20, 2002.
New York Times Magazine, June 27, 1999. Online
MSNBC online, http://www.msnbc.com/ (November 27, 2015), Joseph Neese, “Sylvia Rivera Becomes First Trans American to Have Portrait in the Smithsonian.”
NBC News online, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/ (October 6, 2015), Raul A. Reyes, “A Forgotten Latina Trailblazer: LGBT Activist Sylvia Rivera.”❑