Profiles of Transgender Courage: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was a gay liberation and transgender activist. She was born in 1951 and raised in New York City, spending the majority of her life in or near the city. Early in her life, her father walked out on the family, later she became an orphan when her mother committed suicide. Afterwards, she was raised by her grandmother who did not approve of Sylvia's effeminate behavior, especially when she began wearing makeup. She started living on the streets at the age of 11, working as a prostitute and taken in by a group of drag queens who named her Sylvia. She has been described as the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement. She considered her gender very fluid, referring to herself in a variety of pronouns at different times in her life.


Rivera was present during the civil rights movement and later in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. She also participated in the feminist movement of the mid-1960's. In 1969 she was among the rioters in the Stonewall Inn Riot which started as a routine raid by police and resulted in the LGBT community and allies rising up in protest. She also became involved with the Black Panthers and Young Lords movements. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group that helped homeless transgender people and drag queens, with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson.

At different times in her life, Sylvia battled substance abuse and homelessness often staying in a gay homeless camp at Christopher Street docks. She also Made a suicide attempt in 1995. That same year she gave an interview discussing her suicide attempts, the death of Marsha P. Johnson in 1992, and her advocacy for homeless LGBT people. In 2001, she fought for the New York City Transgender Rights bill and the trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. She also called out various organizations who claimed to help and support LGBT people for standing in the way of transgender rights.

Sylvia was an activist in a variety of ways, her work intersected the LGBT community, homelessness, drug abuse, poverty and racial issues. This makes her one of the most important figures in transgender history, as she was a shining example of why transgender people need to ally themselves with other oppressed people. Sylvia died in 2002, after complications from liver cancer. After her death, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project which is an organization that offers legal aid to people who are low-income or people who are of color, transgender, intersex, non-binary, and/or gender non-conforming, was named in her honor.

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