Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with People CHICA's LatinXcellence series, spotlighting the incredible people who have changed the world through their work and activism. Today we focus on Puerto Rican–Venezuelan activist Sylvia Rivera, a Latina who stood up for the LBGTQ community.

Por Alma Sacasa
Octubre 07, 2020

Here at People CHICA we celebrate our Latinidad 365 days a year, but during Hispanic Heritage Month, we go extra hard. Established in 1988, Hispanic Heritage Month (also known as Latino Heritage Month or Latinx Heritage Month) recognizes the generations of Latinos who have positively influenced and enhanced our society. All month long, we'll be celebrating with a series called #LatinXcellence, highlighting people who have made a difference in Latino culture today through their art, work, and activism. 

Sylvia Rivera had a troubled childhood and adolescence, but she never let it curb her desire to help others. Raised by her grandmother after her father abandoned her and her mother committed suicide, Rivera was rejected and abused because of her effeminate behavior. At age 11, she ran away and became a sex worker to support herself. While living on the streets, Rivera met a group of drag queens who welcomed her; she became "Sylvia" and started identifying as a drag queen. Later in life, she considered herself transgender (but she also disliked labels).

Rivera began her activism in 1970 after she joined the Gay Activists Alliance, where she fought for the rights of gay people but also for the inclusion of drag queens. She went on to become one of the most radical gay and transgender activists in the early LGBTQ civil rights movement. With her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. "We were the frontliners," she said. "We didn't take no s*** from nobody. ... We had nothing to lose."

In 1973, Rivera gave her fiery "Y'all Better Quiet Down" speech in New York City at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally while enduring boos from the crowd. "You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs," she said. "I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? ... I believe in the gay power. I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights."

Rivera fought for not only gay and trans rights but also racial, economic, and criminal justice issues. Initially, she supported the Gay Rights Bill but felt betrayed when the bill, which took 17 years to become New York law, excluded the rights of the transgender community. "They have a little backroom deal without inviting Miss Sylvia and some of the other trans activists to this backroom deal with these politicians," she said in 2001. "The deal was, 'You take them out, we’ll pass the bill.'"

In honor of Rivera's activism in the LGBTQ community, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was founded in 2002 — the same year of her death. As a legal aid organization, SRLP "works to guarantee all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income and race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence" by giving gay, trans and gender-fluid individuals access to legal services and leadership program. It's a fitting tribute to a woman who never stopped fighting.