Sylvia Rivera: Trailblazer, Heroine

Sylvia Rivera was born in New York City in 1951. She was a bisexual Latina trans woman. She was orphaned at three and raised by her grandmother, who disapproved of her effeminate behavior, and at age eleven she began living with a community of drag queens on the streets. Rivera was an activist for the most marginalized members of the LGBTQI community, the ones that mainstream activists were most likely to ignore: trans women, drag queens, people on the streets, and people with substance abuse problems. Rivera, along with Marsha P. Johnson, was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and the Street Transgender Activist Revolutionaries. She was also involved in the Stonewall riots in 1969, Vietnam protests, and activist groups of POC like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.

Rivera was an advocate for the most vulnerable members of society, and had an intersectional perspective on oppression in a time when the rest of feminism was stuck firmly in the second wave. Near the end of her life, her great contributions to LGBTQI activism were acknowledged publicly–for example, when she went to Italy for the Millenium March, she was heralded as the “mother of all gays”–and she continued her political work until her death at age 50 in 2002.

Rivera was a trailblazer, someone who paved the way for future generations of activists. Her bravery to not just exist but resist in an era when people like her were barely acknowledged as real humans is inspirational. Without her and the legions of other trans women of color who spent their blood, tears, and sweat on advancing their cause, social justice as we know it would be set back by decades or centuries.

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