Queer Icon: Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

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By Kyle Parker

Sylvia Rivera
(1951-2002)

Climbing to the mountaintops to shout the word of queer liberation, Sylvia Rivera is a saint in the LGBTQ+ community. A sister to all who knew her, Rivera was part of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, alongside Holy Mother, Marsha P. Johnson.

Gender non-conforming and a self-identified drag queen, Rivera’s family was not accepting of her identity, forcing her to live on the streets. To make money, Rivera became a prostitute when she was only eleven years old. She soon found a family in that dismal life, as other sex workers, trans women, and drag queens (such as Marsha P. Johnson) took Rivera under their loving wings. Along with Johnson, Rivera founded STAR which sought to help house and take care of queer youth, much like herself.

Rivera was very vocal about her place in the LGBTQ+ community. After the Stonewall Riots and the LGBTQ+ visibility was on the rise, cisgendered gay men began to downplay Rivera's involvement in the queer liberation movement. Rivera was outraged and continued to fight for the rights of queer people, but especially trans and gender non-conforming people of color, joining the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican leftist group) as well as taking part in the Black Panther movement. While at an event for feminism, Rivera jumped on stage, shouting, "You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!"

While her fight was founded in the queer liberation movement, Rivera, who lived much of her life on the streets because of displacement, was also involved in speaking out against the discrimination of people of color, specifically those who were low income or homeless.

As LGBTQ+ rights came into the mainstream in the 1990s, Rivera was still upset by the focus on white, cis-gendered, heteronormative individuals, who are far more privileged than gender non-conforming individuals or people of color. The movement developed corporate offshoots, such as the Human Rights Campaign (aka HRC, which is still in operation today), that were very different from the grassroots activism Rivera was used to. Feeling abandoned by the community, Rivera is quoted saying "Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned". She continued helping those around her until her death in 2002 to liver cancer.

While life had many struggles, Sylvia Rivera climbed every mountain, and forged her own path. A path which others proudly still follow.