Sylvia Rivera: A Pioneer of the Modern LGBTQ Rights Movement

By: Kate Kershner  | 
Sylvia Rivera
Gay rights activists (from left) Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Barbara Deming and Kady Vandeurs rally for gay rights in New York City in 1973. Diana Davies/Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

A lot of civil rights heroes appear to come in perfect packages, above reproach. Rosa Parks was a hardworking, soft-spoken woman; Mahatma Gandhi prized modesty and peace. Yet, even some of the most praised leaders faced controversy and criticism — Gandhi has been accused of racism, and Martin Luther King Jr. has been chided for his extramarital affairs.

But Sylvia Rivera, a gay and transgender rights activist, definitely did not fit a pacifist mold.


Rivera became part of civil rights lore as the first person to throw a Molotov cocktail at a police officer in Manhattan's West Village, essentially starting the 1969 Stonewall riots. (Rivera disputed this account, insisting she threw the second one.)

Who Was Sylvia Rivera?

Sylvia Rivera was born in New York City in 1951 and was assigned male at birth. Shortly after, she was abandoned by her father, and by the time she was just 3, she was orphaned after her mother committed suicide.

Raised by an abusive grandmother who beat her for playing with makeup and being effeminate, Rivera ran away from home and was living on the street in New York City by age 11. She ended up a child prostitute in Times Square.


That was in 1963 and it was then that Rivera met Marsha P. Johnson and a group of drag queens. Johnson was a Black drag queen and activist for gay rights. With Johnson's support, and the support of the other drag queens, she became "Sylvia."

Activism and the Stonewall Riots

Pride parade New York
Two trans women smile for the camera, as they walk along side other activists during New York City's Pride March in 1994, which also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Walter Leporati/Getty Images

As a trans activist in the 1960s, Rivera wasn't just fighting for the rights of gay people. Rivera was extremely vocal about including transgender and gender nonconforming people in the movement for civil rights. (It should be acknowledged that terms describing gender identity have gone in and out of preference; Rivera used the terms "transvestite" or "transgender" at various stages, for instance, and later shrugged off any label for herself.)

Rivera wasjust 17 when she took part in the famous Stonewall riots. The protest was against a police raid of the Manhattan gay bar the Stonewall Inn. The event was a major catalyst in the gay rights movement.


But getting the gay rights movement to include trans or gender nonconforming people wasn't an easy sell. The first pride parades started after the Stonewall riot in 1970, but Rivera and transgender people were discouraged from participating.

Rivera often rowed with gay rights leaders who refused to include transgender people in their work.

In response, Rivera co-founded both the Gay Liberation Front and later the Gay Activists Alliance. She also established the advocacy group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha Johnson. STAR provided support and resources to homeless transgender youth.


Rivera's Lasting Legacy

street signs of Hudson Street and Sylvia Rivera Way
Rivera's legacy is especially apparent in New York City, the activist's old stomping ground. public domain

Rivera's activism extended beyond protests and demonstrations. She tirelessly fought for the inclusion and recognition of transgender individuals within the broader LGBTQ movement.

As a transgender woman of color (her mother was Venezuelan and father Puerto Rican), Rivera understood the intersecting oppressions faced by marginalized communities. She emphasized the importance of embracing diversity and intersectionality within the fight for equality.


However, much of her work went unrecognized within mainstream society. Rivera often was homeless and had problems with substance abuse. At one point, Rivera attempted suicide.

In 1994, she received a place of honor in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall Inn march. "The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off ... still, it was beautiful," she told The New York Times in 1995. "I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, 'Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did.'"

Rivera died in 2002 and today The Sylvia Rivera Law Project provides legal services to gender nonconforming, intersex and transgender people, and the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in New York City was officially renamed Sylvia Rivera Way.