Celebrating LGBTQ+ Icons - Sylvia Rivera
Throughout Pride month, our S & W Pride members will release a series of articles on LGBTQ+ Icons. These individuals have created a lasting impact and influence on society and possess unique combinations of talent, charisma and the ability to inspire and resonate across generations. The third article in the series, written by David Chalmers will focus on the American activist, Sylvia Rivera.
Pictured above is the signpost at Sylvia Rivera Way in Greenwich Village, New York City. This street, two blocks from The Stonewall Inn, was renamed in 2005 to honour Sylvia Rivera's legacy as a leading figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement (particularly for those who were left behind by the mainstream movements). I chose to reflect on Sylvia's story in this article to commemorate the value of her work and to honour the legacy of the queer people of colour who laid the groundwork that the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement continues to build on today.
Sylvia was born, and lived most of her life, in New York City. Her father was from Puerto Rico, and her mother was from Venezuela. Her life was extremely difficult – with her father being absent and her mother committing suicide when she was 3 years old. Being raised by a grandmother who was unsupportive of her feminine side, she suffered bullying at school, and eventually ran away from home at ten years old and began living on the streets of New York City.
Rivera's gender identity was complex and varied throughout her life. She was homeless for significant periods and was the victim of sexual exploitation from a very young age. She was taken in by local drag queens, including Marsha P. Johnson, who became her best friend and protector.
Johnson and Rivera were vibrant and spirited members of the LGBTQ+ community in New York.
They were prominent figures in The Stonewall riots, which was a key moment in bringing the LGBTQ+ rights movement into the public eye.
Following the Stonewall riots, middle-class gay and lesbian people began to see transgender people as giving the movement "a bad name". As gay and lesbian people became more palatable to the public, leaders of the gay rights movement sought to exclude transgender people and reject the role they had played in the Stonewall riots. This exclusion of transgender people obstructed their progress in obtaining the very same rights that transgender activists such as Johnson and Rivera had been instrumental in obtaining for gay and lesbian people.
At a Pride demonstration in 1973 after being excluded from speaking, Rivera grabbed a microphone and famously said that "If it wasn't for the drag queen, there would be no gay rights liberation movement." Rivera was a fierce advocate for the inclusion of transgender people in legislation protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination relating to employment, housing, and education.
Johnson and Rivera founded STAR, a group to organise and discuss issues facing transgender people in New York. The group provided accommodation for homeless individuals and provided food and clothing to those in need. Following Johnson's death, Rivera founded another house based on the STAR house to protect homeless LGBTQ+ youth.
Rivera played a key role in reconciling the LGBTQ+ rights movement and ensured that transgender people, queer people of colour, and queer homeless people were included.
After her death in 2002, Rivera's legacy is a cornerstone of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Rivera's activism and support for transgender people, queer people of colour, and queer homeless people have left a legacy that has inspired future generations. Every aspect of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement is built upon Rivera's work and the work of the transgender people and queer people of colour who fought alongside her. Projects and memorials inspired by and honouring her legacy include:
- The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid body that provides legal services to transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming people of colour and people with low income. The organisation was set up following Rivera's death and continues her work to protect the most marginalised groups of the LGBTQ+ community.
- High profile media, including journal articles, films, podcasts, portraits and more, have been created to remind the world of the importance of her story.
- And, Sylvia Rivera Way in New York City, shown in the above photo.
Sylvia Rivera's role in the inclusion of transgender people, queer people of colour, and queer homeless people cannot be understated. Her fight for the inclusivity of those most marginalised groups of the LGBTQ+ community is one that we can all learn from and should continue to reflect on today and in the future.
David is a Trainee Solicitor in our Banking and Finance team and a member of the firm's PRIDE Network.