A picture of Italian trasngender activist Marcella Di Folco (1943-2010) at the Rome World Pride in 2000. At left, Usa transgender activist Sylvia Rivera.

Sylvia Rivera and Marcella Di Folco at the World Pride in Rome – Giovanni Dall’Orto-Wikimedia Commons

Top 10 Facts About Sylvia Rivera


Sylvia Rivera, a veteran of the Stonewall Inn riot in 1969, was a dedicated champion for individuals silenced and ignored by larger causes. Throughout her life, she battled to ensure that transgender people, particularly transgender persons of color, were not excluded from the greater homosexual rights movement. Rivera who was born on July 2, 1951, to February 19, 2002, was an American gay liberation and transgender rights activist as well as a prominent New York community worker. She co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with close friend Marsha P. Johnson, a group dedicated to assisting homeless young drag queens, homosexual kids, and trans women. Here are some of the things to know about Sylvia Rivera.

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1. Riviera had a difficult childhood

A picture of a text printed on a paper

A text printed on paper by Karolina Grabowska-Pexels

Born in the Bronx in 1951 to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother, she was quickly abandoned by her father and orphaned at the age of three when her mother committed suicide. Rivera was thereafter reared by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of her effeminate behavior, especially once she began wearing cosmetics in fourth grade. As a result, she left home and began hustling on the streets of New York when she was 11, relieved to be free of the mockery and harsh criticism of the woman she referred to as “viejita,” or little old lady.

2. She identified as a drag queen in her youth

Rivera fled home due to the criticism she got from her grandma at the age of eleven and began living on the streets of New York in 1962. She engaged in survival sex as a child prostitute, like many other homeless adolescents in the community until Marsha P. Johnson, a local drag queen who became Rivera’s best friend and guardian, took her in.

3. She was a transgender

A picture of cubes spelling the word transgender

Cubes spelling the word transgender by Alexander Grey-Pexels

Rivera was initially born a man with his original name as Ray Rivera. In later interviews and writings, particularly her 1995 interview with Randy Wicker and her 2002 essay, “Queens In Exile, The Forgotten Ones,” she expressed a fluid take on gender and sexuality, referring to herself alternately as a gay man, a “gay girl,” and a drag queen/street queen, embodying all of these experiences and seeing none as excluding the others. Rivera says that she explored gender reassignment surgery much earlier in her life, but finally decided against it, only taking hormones near the end of her life.

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4. Rivera’s political activism began in the late 1960s

Rivera’s activism began in 1970. Although Rivera spent much of her life in and out of homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty, a very powerful leader in the 1960s gay liberation Front. In a similar but lesser-known achievement, she influenced the formation of political parties representing people of color on the New Left in the late 1960s. Rivera gained respect for queers in the militant New Left during a time of widespread machismo while advocating for the rights of trans people and people of color in the gay liberation movement.

5. She was co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)

A picture of Sylvia Rivera in 1970

STAR Rally-by rose leechs-Wikimedia Commons

Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera’s older acquaintance, had been Rivera’s guardian and friend since Rivera came to the city, and the two were close friends from 1961 through 1973. Rivera and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries(STAR) in 1970. STAR provided assistance and advocacy for homeless LGBT youth and advocated for New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.

6. Rivera is perhaps most remembered for her role in the Stonewall riots of 1969

The first Pride marches commemorated the Stonewall uprising, which occurred on June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City after midnight. After escalating tensions, cops raided the homosexual pub and arrested a number of people but some resisted. Riots erupted between customers and police. The revolt lasted six days. In remembrance of the tragedy, June is now recognized as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Rivera was one of the most well-known participants in Stonewall, and the event inspired her to push for a city nondiscrimination ordinance with the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA).

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7. She died of liver cancer complications

A picture of cancer newspaper

Cancer by PDPics-Pixabay

Rivera died of liver cancer complications at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the early hours of February 19, 2002. As activist Riki Wilchins noted, “In many ways, Riviera was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall”.

8. Her name is greatly honored

Rivera has been recognized in ways that she would have appreciated. To begin with, she has a street in Greenwich village named after her, and her portrait is on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Named in her honor (and launched in 2002), 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”. In her honor, MCC New York runs a food bank called the Sylvia Rivera Foodbank and a gay youth shelter called Sylvia’s Place. The Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center at The New School’s newly opened University Center was named after activists James Baldwin, Sylvia Rivera, and Grace Lee Boggs in 2014.

9. She was inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor

A picture of LGBTQ letters on a person hands

LGBTQ letters on a person’s hands by Alexander Grey-Pexels

Rivera was one of the first fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” enshrined in the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 2019. The SNM is the first national monument in the United States dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and its unveiling coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

10. She has been featured in films and novels

Her tale is told in Season 1, Episode 1, and Season 3, Episode 1 of the podcast Making Gay History. Rivera earned additional national exposure in 2002 when actor/comedian Jade Esteban Estrada portrayed her in the well-received solo musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1 (directed by Aliza Washabaugh-Durand and produced by Aliza Washabaugh-Durand and Christopher Durand). Sylvia So Far, a new musical based on Rivera’s life, premiered in New York at La Mama in January 2007, featuring Bianca Leigh as Rivera and Peter Proctor as Marsha P. Johnson. Rivera was featured in the Spring 2007 issue of CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which was dedicated to “Puerto Rican Queer Sexualities” and published at Hunter College.

Sylvia Rivera rose to prominence as a gay liberation and transgender rights activist, particularly for transgender persons of color. Her legacy continues to have an impact on the LGBTQ+ rights movement and serves as an inspiration to disenfranchise queer people worldwide.