Sylvia Rivera was a Latina American of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, born on July 2nd, 1951. She was a transgender rights activist who fought for the rights of those who were marginalized as the gay liberation movement surfaced, but specifically, she was a voice for people of color and those of low income in transgender and LGBTQ+ spaces. Although she died of liver cancer on February 19, 2002, her impact on the transgender community is still felt to this day. Although the gay liberation movement was initiated to unite the entirety of the gay community, discrimination still divided the individuals within. Sylvia Rivera was excluded from the freedom that the gay, white, cisgender, upper to middle-class sought because she and other activists represented themselves as a part of the transgender community.
To comprehend how Sylvia Rivera was introduced into the movement, one must first understand her unpleasant childhood. Her father left when she was born, and her mother committed suicide when she was three years old, failing to kill Sylvia with her. As a result, her grandmother, Viejita, took care of her, but not without malice in her heart. Viejita claimed that Sylvia was a “troublemaker,” reminding Rivera constantly that she did not want her and instead wished for a “white child” (Gan 129). Furthermore, Sylvia Rivera demonstrated effeminate and promiscuous behavior at a very young age. Rivera stated that she “began wearing makeup in the fourth grade,” “already had sex with her 14-year-old cousin by age seven,” and “by age ten she was having sex with her fifth-grade teacher, a married man” (Gan 129). Her behavior brought judgment not only from her neighbors and community but also relentless abuse from her grandmother.
Due to these consequences, Sylvia Rivera decided to run away at eleven years old to 42nd street in Times Square, where sex workers and drag queens were known to frequent. Once she was there, drag queens took her in and had a formal ceremony to name her Sylvia Rivera. Out of respect for Rivera, her deadname, a transgender individual’s name at birth, will not be discussed. However, she recalled the naming ceremony as “being reborn,” and it led the way for her to be able to participate so heavily in activism (Gan 130). Her new community also led Sylvia Rivera to be present for the Stonewall Inn riots of June 28th, 1969. In fact, it is commonly recognized that she threw the second bottle at the police officers, however, the controversy over this statement will be discussed later on.
Contextual Overview of the Movement
The mid to late 1900s brought about a sense of unrest and agitation within the gay community. Individuals who identified themselves as gay could not get proper housing, jobs, healthcare, and even education. Those who were a part of the gay community would get thrown into jail solely for their sexual orientation, and, if applicable, their gender expression. However, the transgender community not only faced ostracization from the law, but they also faced ostracization from the rest of the gay movement. Transgender is defined by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth” (GLAAD). Although transgender individuals have been prevalent for centuries, especially in indigenous cultures, transphobia reached a peak in the 1900s. Transphobia is the “the fear, hatred, disbelief, or mistrust of people who are transgender, thought to be transgender, or whose gender expression doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles” (Parenthood). All of these frustrations with oppression from cisgender heterosexuals, as well as those from within the gay community, accumulated into the Stonewall Inn riots in the early hours of June 28th, 1969.
It is often misconstrued that the Stonewall Inn was a drag queen bar. In reality, the proprietors of Stonewall seldom let anyone who was gender non-conforming to enter because they felt their presence would attract police to their doors. If owners happened to allow drag queens into their bar, it was because those individuals had connections to the owners. In Sylvia Rivera’s words, Stonewall Inn was “a white, male bar for middle-class males to pick up young boys of different races” (Gan 131). From this statement alone it is evident that racism still found its way within the gay community, which is without a doubt a major factor in the police raid that occurred that night.
The attendees of Stonewall Inn were startled by the arrival of police officers that night, since reportedly the owners would be informed beforehand, allowing the attendees time to escape. Once the police raid commenced, a common division within these raids occurred; Sylvia Rivera described the routine as “it was ‘faggots over here, dykes over here, and freaks over there,’ referring to my side of the community” (Gan 131). Police officers soon began to round up those that they assumed were gay, and those who went against the three-piece law. Although there was no evidence found of this law formally existing, it was a common rule of thumb that police officers used to incarcerate transgender individuals. The three-piece law stated that an individual had to have at least three items of clothing that conformed to their assigned gender at birth, and if they didn’t, they would be taken to jail. Soon after the raid started, a police officer began to manhandle a butch lesbian who went against the three-piece law. The butch lesbian began to fight back and even yelled at the rest of the crowd to help her. At this initiation, the drag queens in the crowd began throwing pennies at the police officers, causing everyone else to join in the riot.
The riots began that night, and they continued for several more. The Stonewall riots were a turning point in LGBT+ history; not only was this the first major gay demonstration against police officers, but also the gay community had finally united in resistance. Stonewall is described by Martin Duberman as “the emblematic event in modern [queer] history…an empowering symbol of global proportions,” which can be demonstrated by the organizations that were established because of it (McCarthy 13). Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) were the most prominent ones to be founded in this time period, and Sylvia Rivera is known to be one of the first members of both. Rivera attended their meetings, stating that “[she] thought that night in 1969 was going to be [their] unity for the rest of [their] lives,” but unfortunately, that was not the case for those who didn’t conform to the organizations’ white, cisgender, middle-class ideals (Gan 133).
At the New York Gay Pride Parade in March of 1973, three years after Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera gave a speech now known as “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” where she spoke to a gay, cisgender, white, middle-class crowd who were heckling her from the moment she stepped onstage. Even though everyone was present to be united for the liberation movement, those in attendance refused to listen to Rivera’s words because of how she identified herself. Rivera soon managed to speak over the crowd, and stated, “I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and gay sisters in jail,” which insinuates that even before she stepped onto the stage she faced inequity from those in charge (Rivera). Many leaders of the gay movement attempted to erase her contributions because they deemed her as unsuitable to be standing at the front lines. Those who oversaw the revolution had the belief that those of the transgender community were not “gay” enough to act in the liberation movement, and so they actively tried to steer her away from participating. In fact, even before Sylvia Rivera got onstage, Jean O’Leary of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) publicly denounced Rivera for “parodying” womanhood, and the Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL) passed out flyers opposing the “female impersonators,” otherwise, the drag queens present (Gan 133).
The discrimination that the drag queens faced at this parade led to Rivera scrutinizing the audience for their marginalization towards the transgender community. Objectively, the entirety of “Y’all Better Quiet Down” correlates back to intersectional politics—Sylvia Rivera is pointing out that not only is the cisgender, white, middle-class audience ignoring her, they are also ignoring the issues that those who do not conform to the crowd’s ideal identities are facing as well. Intersectional politics, otherwise known as intersectionality, is defined by Wendy Smooth as “the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality… intersect to produce unique… experiences… that [are] equal to more than just the sum of their parts” (Smooth 31). To prove her point of double oppression, Rivera exclaims, “I have been to jail. I have been raped… and beaten. Many times! By… heterosexual men… but do you do anything for me? No! You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs…” which noticeably silences the crowd (Rivera). With the expression of frustration in her voice, the crowd is compelled to examine their hypocritical behavior. Despite the hate crimes and violence that Rivera has faced, she still gives support to a revolution that does not even bother to support her back.
When considering intersectionality, Sylvia Rivera’s identity impacts the way the listener interprets the speech and the way they interpret how the cisgender, white, middle-class reacted to Rivera’s presence. Not only was Sylvia Rivera a Latina American in a time of racism, but she also had an association with the transgender community, which received endless belittlement and ostracization from other members of the gay movement. Therefore, the listener would be accurate in guessing that the crowd’s harassment and dismissal of Rivera were due to these biases, and so Sylvia Rivera had to build her speech around those judgments. Despite these prejudices, transgender activists like Sylvia Rivera actively put in more effort in order to perpetuate the gay liberation movement in the interest of including all spectrums of identity, even if no one wanted to see them at the front lines.
Critical Analysis of Contributions and Legacy
As mentioned beforehand, the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots caused many organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Association (GAA) to be founded. These meetings were attended by a majority of gay, white, cisgender, and middle-class individuals, and they made fun of Rivera and other drag queens for their class, race, and gender expression. It is even stated that “if someone was not sniggering at [Rivera’s] passionate, fractured English, they were… denouncing her sashaying ways as offensive to womanhood” (Gan 133). Though Sylvia Rivera did not identify as transgender at first and instead identified only as a drag queen, she still faced endless transphobia because of the way she presented herself. The GLF and GAA were filled with individuals who refused to hear the voices of the transgender community and of those who lived on the streets, and so Sylvia Rivera and other transgender activists united to find ways to force them to listen.
In 1970, Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P. Johnson. STAR provided housing and support for homeless queer youths and sex workers in lower Manhattan. This made STAR one of the only organizations that bothered to include these minorities since other groups, such as the GLF and the GAA, were made up of almost entirely of the cisgender, white, upper to the middle class that felt no responsibility to do so themselves. Though STAR only lasted from 1970 to 1973, the contributions to the gay liberation movement that Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson had in this time period was a big step forward for not only the transgender community but other minorities that identified under the LGBTQ+ label. Along with STAR, Sylvia Rivera had also been diverging into different aspects of the gay liberation movement.
In 1970, it was discovered that New York City was potentially going to pass a gay rights bill that included gender protections. Rivera is reported to have had a significant contribution to this bill, and she even attracted “media attention when she attempted to force her way into closed-door sessions concerning the bill held at City Hall” (Matzner 1). Unfortunately, her insistence and the insistence of other transgender individuals were not enough to successfully advocate equality for the transgender community. In later years, gay activists and politicians agreed in “a backroom deal to raise [the bill’s] chances of passage by removing gender protections from [it]” (Gan 135). The removal of gender protections in the gay rights bill brought about criticism of not only politicians but also of the gay activists in the deal that day. This event deepened the distrust that the transgender community had in the rest of the gay movement because, as Sylvia Rivera stated, “transgender political needs [had yet again been] sold ‘down the river’ in favor of [the needs of the] gays” (Gan 136).
After her speech “Y’all Better Quiet Down” directed towards the white, cisgender, middle-class crowd at the New York Gay Pride Parade of 1973, Sylvia Rivera was brutally beaten. She was beaten by those that she respected, and by those that she had thought were on her side of the movement. This event so greatly frustrated her that she declared 1973 as the end of STAR and the end of her participation in the gay liberation movement. This proclamation was one that sparked the most criticism toward Rivera. It was stated that after she left, gay politics’ “narrow, single-identity agenda situated Rivera on its margins, and viewed her and her memory as both manipulable and dispensable” (Gan 135). Randy Wicker, a friend of Sylvia Rivera, stated that she left the movement because she had been denied the right to speak by the very people she had been supporting all along. Sylvia Rivera left the gay liberation movement and New York for approximately twenty-one years while still struggling with homelessness, suicide attempts, and drug abuse.
In 1994, after Sylvia Rivera had left the gay liberation movement, she was asked to lead the march of the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. Soon after this reintroduction to the gay liberation movement, she “vehemently demanded” the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Center “to take care of homeless trans and queer youth” (Gan 135). Upon hearing these criticisms, the community center formally banned Sylvia Rivera from their premises. Since the Lesbian and Gay Community Center did not share the struggles of homeless transgender and queer youth, they saw no reason to make any attempts to help them. Rivera publicly criticized them again, stating that “the gay rights movement had to go beyond sexual orientation and include issues of class, race, economic systems, and poverty” (A.S.). To rebel against the community center, she refounded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and aimed to have an organization that made an effort to include transgender individuals.
It is important to note that there are many individuals who criticize Rivera’s story. Many believe that she was not present at Stonewall at all, and many believe that she claimed to be involved in more activism than she was to make herself seem more prominent in the gay liberation movement. It is stated that there is “no credible evidence that Rivera was there that first night” and that she instead “arrived on the scene two weeks later” (Carter). Marsha P. Johnson, her close friend at the time, even publicly affirmed that Sylvia Rivera was never actually at the Stonewall riots, saying that “she was asleep after taking heroin uptown” (Cain). However, other gay activists assert that she was. Even so, Rivera insists that she was involved in the Black liberation movement, the women’s movement, and had done protests of the Vietnam War. However, in a 1970 interview with Arthur Bell, before Rivera became famous, it is stated that she “never mentions Stonewall nor any activism before 1970… rather the story… of a sad life” (Carter). With the amount of evidence against Sylvia Rivera, one cannot say for certain if she did indeed do everything she said she did.
Reportedly exaggerating her participation in activism is detrimental to the trust individuals have with Sylvia Rivera, and this trust wavers as more evidence is found. However, whether or not she was at Stonewall, and whether or not she participated in other forms of activism at the time, Sylvia Rivera still made tremendous progress for the transgender community. The gay liberation movement was built almost entirely of the white, cisgender, middle-class, and they refused to acknowledge the double oppression transgender individuals faced from heterosexual and homosexual circles. With the help of other activists, Sylvia Rivera was able to take initiative to provide the transgender community a voice in a society that consistently silenced them.
A. S. “Sylvia Rivera.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2019. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=ers&AN=134922024&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Cain, Paul. “David Carter: Historian of the Stonewall Riots.” Gay Today, http://gaytoday.com/interview/070104in.asp.
Carter, David, and Leonard Fink. “Exploding the Myths of Stonewall.” Gay City News, https://www.gaycitynews.nyc/stories/2019/15/david-carter-stonewall-2019-06-27-gcn.html.
Gan, Jessi. “‘Still at the Back of the Bus’: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle.” Centro Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 124–139. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=a9h&AN=25930227&site=eds-live&scope=site.
“GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender.” GLAAD, 19 Apr. 2017, https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender.
Matzner, Andrew. “Rivera, Sylvia (1951-2002).” GLBTQ Social Sciences, Jan. 2015, pp. 1–2. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=qth&AN=110523386&site=eds-live&scope=site.
McCarthy, Timothy Patrick, et al. “Reclaiming Stonewall.” Nation, vol. 309, no. 1, July 2019, pp. 12–19. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=fth&AN=137195833&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Parenthood, Planned. “What’s Transphobia?: Facts About Transphobic Discrimination.” Planned Parenthood, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation-gender/trans-and-gender-nonconforming-identities/whats-transphobia.
Rivera, Sylvia. “Y’all Better Quiet Down.” Gay Pride Parade. New York City, 3 Nov. 2019.
Smooth, Wendy. “Intersectionalities of Race and Gender and Leadership.” Ohio State University, pp. 31–40.