Each March the U.S. celebrates women’s achievements and contributions to society during Women’s History Month. Though March has come and gone, it’s better late than never to acknowledge women and our innumerable contributions. In honor of this Women’s History Month, we picked a fierce poderos@ to profile, based on her valuable contributions to social justice and society in general.
This year our Women’s HERstory Month poderosa is Sylvia Rivera, who was a trans woman activist and queer youth advocate whose activism spanned over the course of four decades. She is sometimes referred to as the “mother of all gay people” – a title bestowed upon her during the Millennium March because of her important contributions to the LGBTQ liberation movement.
Sylvia Rae Rivera was born on July 2, 1951 in New York City to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents. She was orphaned as a toddler and raised by her grandmother for part of her childhood. However, her grandmother strongly disapproved of her defiance of traditional gender roles, including her affinity for wearing make up. As a result, Rivera began living on the street with a queer and gender non-conforming community at age 11 – an experience that would later influence her advocacy efforts for queer youth.
Rivera became politically active during the late 1960’s – a time when the nation was exploding with change from various social justice movements. She was involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism through the Young Lords and Black Panthers. But she really came into her own as an activist around the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which was a series of riots that sparked the modern wave of LGBTQ activism. While she was heavily involved in the LGBTQ movement, she noted its exclusion of transgender people at times. As a result, she focused her advocacy efforts on people who were often left behind.
Later in life she gave speeches about the Stonewall Riots and the importance of unity within the LGBTQ movement. While she struggled with personal demons, including substance abuse and a failed suicide attempt, she remained a vocal activist for equality until her death in February 2002.
More than a decade after her death, Rivera’s legacy and contributions to LGBTQ liberation remain strong. She was a founding member of Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, and helped found Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. The Metropolitan Community Church of New York, in which she was actively involved, named its queer youth shelter “Sylvia’s Place” in her honor. Additionally, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established in 2002, to fight against the discrimination of gender non-confirming people. But perhaps fellow activist Riki Wilchins best described Rivera’s integral role in the LGBTQ movement, saying “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.”
We invite you contribute to Rivera’s legacy by making a donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.