A veteran of the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising, Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) was a tireless advocate for those silenced and disregarded by larger movements. Throughout her life, she fought against the exclusion of transgender people, especially transgender people of color, from the larger movement for gay rights.
Rivera was born in New York City in 1951 to a father from Puerto Rico and a mother from Venezuela. She was assigned male at birth. Rivera had an incredibly difficult childhood. Her father was absent and her mother died by suicide when Rivera was 3 years old. Raised by her grandmother, Rivera began experimenting with clothing and makeup at a young age. She was beaten for doing so and, after being attacked on a school playground in sixth grade by another student, suspended from school for a week. Rivera ran away from home at age 11 and became a victim of sexual exploitation around 42nd Street.
In 1963, Rivera met Marsha P. Johnson and it changed her life. Johnson, an African American self-identified drag queen and activist, was also battling exclusion in a movement for gay rights that did not embrace her gender expression. Rivera said of Johnson that “she was like a mother to me.” The two were actively involved in the Stonewall Inn uprising on June 28, 1969 when patrons of the Stonewall Inn—a gay bar in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan—rebuffed a police raid and set a new tone for the gay rights movement. Rivera said in an interview in 2001 that while she did not throw the first Molotov cocktail at the police (a long-enduring myth), she did throw the second. For six nights, the 17-year-old Rivera refused to go home or to sleep, saying “I’m not missing a minute of this—it's the revolution!”
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