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16 June 2009

Sylvia Rae Rivera (1951-2002) activist.

Rey Rivera Mendoza, an orphaned New Yorker of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, lived on and off the streets from age 11. She became Sylvia and was mentored in her early days by Marsha P. Johnson.

++ This is disputed: Both were prominent participants in the Stonewall Riots, 1969, the iconic origin of Gay Lib. Sylvia was only 17 at that time.

She was a founding member of both the New York Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, and helped found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Marsha for homeless street queens.

She organized with Lee Brewster. At the 1973 Stonewall rally, a feminist leader objected to the trans and drag persons as mocking women. Sylvia and Lee jumped on stage and shouted: “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”.

Sylvia fought long against the assimilationist gay leaders and the New York Human Rights Campaign (HRC) who would ignore transgender issues. She fought for homeless queers.

She was also involved with Puerto Rican and black youth activism with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.

She mentored Chelsea Godwin. She was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. She was married to a fellow trans woman Julia Murray.

From 1997 she lived at Transy House, the home of Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Godwin. She was an alcoholic at this time, but after discussions with Rusty and Chelsea, she went cold turkey.

She renewed her political activism, giving speeches concerning the need for unity among trans persons, and their position at the forefront of the GLBT movement.

In 2000 she went to Italy for the Millennium March, and was acclaimed as the Mother of all gay people.

In 2001 she revived STAR and they fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. They also agitated for justice for Amanda Milan a trans woman who had been murdered the previous year. She still had to fight with the HRC and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) who were neglecting trans issues. She was still negotiating with ESPA on her deathbed.

She died, with Julia at her side, of complications from cancer of the liver at age 50.

In her honor: MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place; In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson Streets was renamed Rivera Way.  The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated "to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence".

*Not known to be related to Birdy Rivera.
  • Martin B Duberman. Stonewall.  Dutton, 1993.  Plume, 1994. xix,330 pp. 1993: 20-24,65-71, 117,122-8, 190-3,195-6,198,201,202-3,235-9, 246,251, 259, 262-5,282.
  • David Isay, with photographs by Harvey Wang. Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes. W.W. Norton, 1995. Contains a chapter on Sylvia.
  • Leslie Feinberg. Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Beacon Press, 1998. Contains a section on Sylvia.
  • David Isay, with a photograph by Harvey Wang. “Sylvia Rivera”. New York Times Magazine. June 27. Online
  • Michael Bronski. “Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002: No longer on the back of the bumper”. ZMag. April. 2002.
  • Sylvia Rivera. “Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones”. In Joan Nestle, Clare Howell & Riki Wilchins (eds). GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary. Alyson Books, 2002.
  • Dora Francese (dir). Sylvia, rimembri ancora? Scr: Adi Gianuario, with Sylvia Rivera. Italy 21 mins 2001.
  • “Sylvia Rae Rivera”. Stonewall Veterans.
  • Victoria I. Muñoz. "Fabulous Resistance: Carmen Miranda, Sylvia Rivera, and Queer Latinidad" National Women's Studies Association Conference, 2005.

Watch SYLVIA RIVERA TRANS LIFE STORY in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at


Sylvia is, of course, a major character in Duberman's 1993 book on Stonewall.

Of course Charles Kaiser's The Gay Metropolis, 1997, ignores her in his account of Stonewall. His book ignores all trans women. It is a de-transification of gay history.

But what is going on in David Carter's Stonewall, 2004? He does not appear to be transphobic. He tells of transies and drags who are not told of in Duberman's book, and he tells us further details of Marsha P. Johnson not in Duberman's book. So where is Sylvia Rivera in his book? She is not mentioned at all. There is not even a footnote saying that he disagrees with Duberman re Sylvia. Surely if he thinks that Sylvia was not at Stonewall - he is permitted to disagree with what the rest of us think - it behooves him to explain that he thinks that Sylvia was not there, and that every other account of Stonewall (except Kaiser's) is wrong on this point.

1 comment:

NorthandClark said...

What a moving and authentically told life.