For LGBT History Month, NCTE is highlighting outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions to the movement for trans equality and justice. Our first spotlight is on Sylvia Rivera, a transgender activist who worked tirelessly for more than three decades on behalf of trans people and all LGBTQ people marginalized by poverty, racism, and a narrowly conceived “gay rights” movement.
Born and raised in New York City, Sylvia had already been living on the street for years when at 17 she became a veteran of the Stonewall riot. She was active in the formation of key post-Stonewall gay rights organizations such as the Gay Activists Alliance, as well as in organizing with the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, homeless youth, and sex workers. She campaigned for an early gay rights law in New York City, famously getting arrested for scaling the walls of City Hall (in heels, no less) to crash a closed-door meeting on the bill.
Even after all of Sylvia’s hard work on their behalf, the GAA ultimately dropped all trans-related issues from their platform and from the NYC bill, calling them too “extreme” for the public. This did not stop Sylvia, however, and in the autumn of 1970, she founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with her friend Marsha P. Johnson. STAR advocated on behalf of homeless drag queens and LGBTQ runaways, created a shelter for this community – STAR House – and pressed for trans inclusion in the mainstream movement. Although sex work at times provided their only income, Sylvia and Marsha strove to protect and feed the homeless queer and trans kids they took in and to help provide them with wider opportunities.
Through homelessness, drug addiction and depression, Sylvia continued to dedicate her life towards to the marginalized queer community, helping everybody that she could and getting involved in everything that she could. In 2002, Sylvia passed away of cancer. That year the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded in her honor, and in 2005 the corner of Christopher and Hudson Streets in New York City was named “Sylvia Rivera Way.” Her legacy lives on in the work we all continue to do for justice and equality for all.