Rivera was born and raised in New York City and lived most of her life in or near the city. She was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. Her birth name was Ray (or Rey) Rivera. She was abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life and became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three years old. Rivera was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of Rivera's effeminate behavior, particularly after Rivera began to wear women's makeup in fourth grade. As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of eleven, where she joined a community of drag queens.
Rivera's activism began during the Vietnam War, civil rights, and feminist movements and fully bloomed around the time of the Stonewall Riots. She often spoke of her presence within the Stonewall Inn the night of the riots. She also became involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and Black Panthers.
At different times in her life, Sylvia Rivera battled substance abuse issues and lived on the streets. Her experiences made her more focused on advocacy for those who, in her view, the mainline community (and often the queer community) were leaving behind.
In May 1995, Rivera tried to commit suicide by walking into the Hudson River. That year she also appeared in the Arthur Dong documentary episode "Out Rage '69", part of the PBS series The Question of Equality. Rivera died during the dawn hours of February 19, 2002 at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital, of complications from liver cancer. Activist Riki Wilchins noted, "In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall".
In the last five years of her life Sylvia renewed her political activity, giving many speeches concerning the Stonewall Riots and the necessity for unity among transgender people to fight for their historic legacy as people in the forefront of the LGBT movement. She traveled to Italy for the Millennium March in 2000 where she was acclaimed as the Mother of all gay people. In early 2001, after a church service at the MCC referring to the Star announcing the birth of Jesus she decided to reinstate Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries as an active political organization. STAR fought for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act. Also STAR sponsored street pressures for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000. Sylvia also attacked the Human Rights Commission and the Empire State Pride Agenda as organizations which were standing in the way of transgender rights. On her death bed she met with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz of the Empire State Pride Agenda in order to negotiate trans inclusion in ESPA's political structure and agenda.
Rivera refused to have the drag culture erased from the gay rights agenda by assimilationist gay leaders who were seeking to make the community look more attractive to the heterosexual majority. Rivera's conflicts with mainstream gay and lesbian advocacy groups were emblematic of the mainstream gay rights movement's strained relationship to transgender issues. After her death, Michael Bronski recalled her anger when she felt that she was being marginalized within the community:
After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York's primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it just wasn't possible to pass it with such "extreme" elements included. As it turned out, it wasn't possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA—which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office—even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to "front" possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, "straight-appearing" leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: "When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, 'We don't need you no more'". But, she added, "Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned".According to Bronski, Rivera was banned from New York's Gay & Lesbian Community Center for several years in the mid-nineties, because, on a cold winter's night, she aggressively demanded that the Center take care of poor and homeless queer youth. A short time before her death, Bronski reports that she said:
One of our main goals now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign, because I'm tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It's not even the back of the bus anymore — it's the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.Rivera's struggles did not relate exclusively to trans people, as they intersected with issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of color. The transgender-of-color activist and scholar Jessi Gan discusses how mainstream LGBT groups have routinely dismissed or not paid sufficient attention to Rivera's Latina identity, while Puerto Rican and Latino groups often have not fully acknowledged Rivera's contribution to their struggles for civil rights. Tim Retzloff has discussed this issue with respect to the omission of discussions about race and ethnicity in mainstream U.S. LGBT history, particularly with regard to Rivera's legacy.
An active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, Rivera ministered through the Church's food pantry, which provided food to the hungry. Recalling her life as a child on the streets, she remained a passionate advocate for queer youth, and MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place in her honour.
Named in her honor (and established 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 2002, actor/comedian Jade Esteban Estrada portrays Rivera in the well-received solo musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 1 winning her renewed national attention.
In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets was renamed "Rivera Way" in her honour. This intersection is in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in New York City where Rivera started organizing, and is only two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
In January 2007, a new musical based upon Rivera's life, Sylvia So Far, premiered in New York at La Mama in a production starring Bianca Leigh as Rivera and Peter Proctor as Marsha P. Johnson. The composer and lyricist is Timothy Mathis (Wallflowers, Our Story Too, The Conjuring), a friend of Rivera's in real life.
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, included a special dossier on Sylvia Rivera, including a transcription of a talk by Rivera from 2001 as well as two academic essays exploring the intersections of Rivera's trans and Latina identities. The articles in this journal issue complement other essays by Puerto Rican scholars who have also emphasized Rivera's pioneering role.
Sylvia Rae Rivera by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1125698)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
Transgender History (Seal Studies) by Susan Stryker
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Seal Press (May 6, 2008)
Amazon: Transgender History (Seal Studies)
Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990—the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.
Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Revised edition (May 28, 2008)
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As the growing gay mainstream prioritizes the attainment of straight privilege over all else, it drains queer identity of any meaning, relevance, or cultural value. What's more, queers remain under attack: Gay youth shelters can be vetoed because they might reduce property values. Trannies are out because they might offend straights. That's Revolting! offers a bracing tonic to these trends. Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, That's Revolting! collects timely essays such as "Dr. Laura, Sit on My Face," "Gay Art Guerrillas," and "Queer Parents: An Oxymoron Or Just Plain Moronic?" by unrepentant activists like Patrick Califia, Kate Bornstein, and Carol Queen. This updated edition contains seven new selections that cover everything from rural, working-class youth in Massachusetts to gay life in New Orleans to the infamous Drop the Debt/Stop AIDS action in New York. This lively composite portrait of cutting-edge queer activism is a clarion call for anyone who questions the value of becoming the Stepford Homosexual.
The Riddle of Gender by Deborah Rudacille
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Anchor (February 14, 2006)
Amazon: The Riddle of Gender
When Deborah Rudacille learned that a close friend had decided to transition from female to male, she felt compelled to understand why.
Coming at the controversial subject of transsexualism from several angles–historical, sociological, psychological, medical–Rudacille discovered that gender variance is anything but new, that changing one’s gender has been met with both acceptance and hostility through the years, and that gender identity, like sexual orientation, appears to be inborn, not learned, though in some people the sex of the body does not match the sex of the brain.
Informed not only by meticulous research, but also by the author’s interviews with prominent members of the transgender community, The Riddle of Gender is a sympathetic and wise look at a sexual revolution that calls into question many of our most deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a man, a woman, and a human being.
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
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