She was part of a revolution.
I grew up in a pretty safe environment when it came to being LGBT+. Lots of kids in my school were bullied for being out, but I wasn't among them. I had plenty of safe spaces. My family didn't care (I was lucky there- my friends would have been homeless if they came out). And same-sex marriage was legalized in my state when I was still in school. Acceptance has always felt like it was just around the corner to me. Homophobia didn't feel like this insurmountable force. And I owe that to people like Sylvia Rivera. Because when she was a teenager, things were very different. The police frequently conducted violent raids in LGBT+ spaces and neighborhoods, and in New York you could be arrested for wearing clothing that didn't "match" your assigned sex.
And the community mobilized.
The Stonewall Riots began in 1969.
I've already spoken about Marsha P. Johnson (here). She and Sylvia Rivera were at the heart of the Stonewall Riots that ignited the LGBT+ movement in America. Sylvia Rivera had been an activist with the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, and the second-wave feminist movement. Her young life had been extremely difficult. Abandoned by her father, her mother committed suicide when she was three years old. Sylvia became homeless at age eleven due to her grandmother's disapproval of her effeminate behavior. She was taken in by the local drag queen community, which is how she became a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn.
"I'm not missing a minute of this. It's the revolution!"
Marsha P. Johnson is credited as the one who threw the first brick that sparked the Stonewall Riot, and Sylvia Rivera was right there with her. She was seventeen years old. "This was started by the street queens of that era, which I was part of, Marsha P. Johnson and many others that are not here." (via). After the riots, Rivera continued her activism, rallying against racism, sexual violence, and transphobia. She and Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group that worked with homeless drag queens and trans women of color.
She was a hero that started a movement.
So many of us owe her a debt of gratitude. For her courage, her authenticity, and her defiance. Freedom and equality might be just around the corner, but her work is what got us here.