Activist BIPOC Historical Figure Transfem wlw

Sylvia Rivera

Ms. Rivera was a Puerto Rican transfem transgender rights activist that dedicated her life to the movement, fighting for trans inclusion in queer spaces, which was not always something that could be taken for granted. She was a prominent figure during and after the Stonewall Riot, and formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P. Johnson.

More Info:

  • Pronouns/gender: she/her, transfem
  • Birth date/death date: July 2, 1951–February 19, 2002

Life Story:

Sylvia was born in New York into a very harsh life, with a father that was immediately absent and a mother who took her own life when Sylvia was three. She was then sent to live with her grandmother, who beat her when she began to try on feminine clothing and makeup. She was attacked by another student at school when she was in the sixth grade, was blamed for it, and suspended from school for a week as punishment. At age 11, she ran away from home, and resorted to prostitution as a means for survival. 

A couple months later, Sylvia was found by a local group of drag queen, who took her in as one of their own. Among them was Marsha P. Johnson, who soon became her best and closest friend. It was one of these genderqueer role models that gave her the name that millions would know her by: Sylvia.

Rivera claims to have been involved in the Black Liberation movement in the following years, and participated in the Stonewall Riots during the summer of ’69 along with Marsha. She claims to have been the second protester to throw a Molotov cocktail at the police, and to have been at the riots for six straight days. 

in 1970, Sylvia and Marsha founded STAR and their headquarters, STAR House, which doubled as a home for trans people in need. Though the STAR House didn’t last long, they gave the clothing and shelter to kids like them that they wished they’d had as kids. 

The Stonewall Riots caused a massive change and boost of confidence within the queer rights movement, and the first pride parades began the following year, though drag queens and trans women were excluded. During one of these events in 1973, Rivera jumped onstage with a fellow drag queen, Lee Brewster, cutting off a feminist activist who was talking s**t about qenderqueer people. While being booed by the crowd, Sylvia gave her famous “y’all better quiet down speech”, speaking out about transgender exclusion in the larger trans community. A recording of her speech is linked here

During all this, Sylvia had been struggling mentally and with substance abuse, with Marsha at one point claiming that she had problems with heroin, and frequently found herself homeless. After attempting suicide, she left New York and her work as an activist behind, but returned to the city when Marsha died in 1992. 

After her return, she got back into the trans rights movement, and founded the Transy House in 1997, a building with the same goal as the old STAR House. Over time, she became known by some as the “mother of all gay people”, and eventually reformed STAR as the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. The new STAR pushed the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for trans inclusion in the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which were both in some way passed in later years.  

During a pride parade celebrating the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994, Sylvia was given a place of honor! She was finally thanked for her work by people on the streets celebrating at the parade. 

Sadly, she died in 2002 from lung cancer, but her contributions to the cause still live on today. 


Though Sylvia claimed to have played a role in the Stonewall Riots, and some remember her being there, several sources, such as her friend Marsha Johnson, claim that she was never there. It’s possible that, if she in fact wasn’t there, she lied to give young Puerto Rican kids a role model.

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