Thursday, July 2, 2009

Today in Gay History

Happy 58th Birthday

Sylvia Rae Rivera

July 2, 1951 - 2002

Rivera was born July 2, 1952 and raised in New York City and lived most of her life in or near that city. She was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. Her birth name was Ray (or Rey) Rivera. Abandoned by her birth father José Rivera early in life, she became an orphan after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was three years old. Rivera was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of Rivera's effeminate behavior, particularly after Rivera began to wear women's makeup in fourth grade. As a result, Rivera began living on the streets at the age of eleven, where she joined a community of drag queens.

She was one of those rabble rousing resisters to queer oppression who literally led the charge at the Stonewall Inn, New York City, on the night of 27th of June, 1969, the night that a riot at the bar, touched off the open radicalization of the Gay Liberation Movement fighting back against police harassment directed at the most visible members of the community. She became a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and helped found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group dedicated to helping homeless young street transwomen, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson.

Rivera spent most of her life at the forefront of both transgender and gay activism, tirelessly advocating and demonstrating for LGBT rights, inclusive social policies and struggling against transphobia.

In 1970 Rivera formed a group called S.T.A.R. - Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries - to fight for the civil rights of transgender people, and provide them with social services support. The S.T.A.R. House lasted for two years until her crack habit caused her to lose the house. It was the first institution of its kind in New York City, and inspired the creation of future shelters for homeless street queens.

In 2000, she reformed S.T.A.R. pressuring the Human Rights Campaign to be more inclusive of transgender people. Even when hospitalized with liver cancer, Rivera never stopped working for the civil rights of transgender people and several hours before she passed away on February 19, 2002 she was meeting with LGBT community leaders.

An active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, Rivera ministered through the Church's food pantry, which provided food to the hungry. Recalling her life as a child on the streets, she remained a passionate advocate for queer youth, and MCC New York's queer youth shelter is called Sylvia's Place in her honor.


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