Sylvia Rivera

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Sylvia Rivera (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002) was an American gay liberation and transgender rights activist who was also a noted community worker in New York. Rivera, who identified as a drag queen, participated in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front.


  • Any time they needed any help, I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect.
    • 1998 interview (cited in Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969-1976 by Iris Morales)
  • The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women.... they do not write women, they do not write men, they write 'STAR' because we're trying to do something for them.
    • 1973 Speech (cited in Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969-1976 by Iris Morales)

Speech (June 2001)


at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City. Caption: "Sylvia is explaining the antecedents to and the context of the Stonewall riots."

  • Some people say that the riots started because of Judy Garland's death. That's a myth. We were all involved in different struggles, including myself and many other transgender people. But in these struggles, in the Civil Rights movement, in the war movement, in the women's movement, we were still outcasts. The only reason they tolerated the transgender community in some of these movements was because we were gung-ho, we were front liners. We didn't take no sh-- from nobody. We had nothing to lose. You all had rights. We had nothing to lose. I'll be the first one to step on any organization, any politician's toes if I have to, to get the rights for my community.
  • Routine was, "Faggots over here, dykes over here, and freaks over there," referring to my side of the community. If you did not have three pieces of male attire on you, you were going to jail.
  • Part of history forgets, that as the cops are inside the bar, the confrontation started outside by throwing change at the police. We started with the pennies, the nickels, the quarters, and the dimes. "Here's your payoff, you pigs! You f---ing pigs! Get out of our faces. " 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.
  • People have also asked me, "Was it a pre-planned riot?," because out of nowhere, Molotov cocktails showed up. I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians but I always like to correct it; I threw the second one, I did not throw the first one!
  • we have to remember one thing: that it was not just the gay community and the street queens that really escalated this riot; it was also the help of the many radical straight men and women that lived in the Village at that time, that knew the struggle of the gay community and the trans community.
  • it was a long night of riots. It was actually very exciting cuz I remember howling all through the streets, "The revolution is here!"
  • When the cops did finally get there, the reinforcements, forty five minutes later, you had the chorus line of street queens kicking up their heels, singing their famous little anthem that up to today still lives on, "We are the Stonewall girls/ we wear our hair in curls/ we wear our dungarees/ above our nelly knees/ we show our pubic hairs," and so on and so forth.
  • I am tired of seeing homeless transgender children; young, gay, youth children. I am tired of seeing the lack of interest that this rich community has.
  • That night, I remember singing "We Shall Overcome," many a times, on different demonstrations, on the steps of Albany, when we had our first march, where I spoke to the crowds in Albany. I remember singing but I haven't over-come a damn thing. I'm not even in the back of the bus. My community is being pulled by a rope around our neck by the bumper of the damn bus that stays in the front. Gay liberation but transgender nothing! Yes, I hold a lot of anger. But I have that right. I have that right to have that anger. I have fought too damn and too hard for this community to put up with the disrespect that I have received and my community has received for the last thirty-two years.
  • Stonewall is a great, great foundation. It began the modern day liberation movement, like we spoke before about the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society.
  • One of my best friends now, who has employed me for the last seven years before I changed jobs, is Randy Wicker. Randy Wicker was a very well-known gay male activist in 1963. He was the first gay male—before any real movement was there—to get on a talk show and state to the world that he was a normal homosexual. I give him credit for that. He has done a lot of different things, but he also in 1969 and for many years trashed the transgender community. It took him a lot of years to wake up and realize that we are no different than anybody else; that we bleed, that we cry, and that we suffer.
  • on the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall movement, of the Stonewall riot, the transgender community was silenced because of a radical lesbian named Jean O'Leary, who felt that the transgender community was offensive to women because we liked to wear makeup and we liked to wear miniskirts...Jean O'Leary started the big commotion at this rally [Christopher Street Liberation Day, 1973]. It was the year that Bette Midler performed for us. I was supposed to be a featured speaker that day. But being that the women felt that we were offensive, the drag queens Tiffany and Billy were not allowed to perform. I had to fight my way up on that stage and literally, people that I called my comrades in the movement, literally beat the sh-- out of me. That's where it all began, to really silence us. They beat me, I kicked their a--es. I did get to speak. I got my points across.
  • the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable. I do not want to go to work looking like a man when I know I am not a man. I have been this way since before I left home and I have been on my own since the age of ten.
  • I don't pull no punches, I'm not afraid to call out no names. You screw with the transgender community and the organization StreetTransgender Action Revolutionaries[STAR] will be on your doorstep.
  • The trans community has allowed, we have allowed the gay and lesbian community to speak for us. Times are changing. Our armies are rising and we are getting stronger.
  • it used to be a wonderful thing to be avant-garde, to be different from the world. I see us reverting into a so-called liberated closet because we, not we, yous of this mainstream community, wish to be married, wish for this status. That's all fine. But you are forgetting your grassroots, you are forgetting your own individual identity. I mean, you can never be like them. Yes we can adopt children, all well and good, that's fine. I would love to have children. I would love to marry my lover over there [Julia Murray], but for political reasons, I will not do it because I don't feel that I have to fit in that closet of normal, straight society which the gay mainstream is going towards.
  • This is a month that's very important. I may have a lot of anger but it means a lot to me because after being at World Pride last year in Italy, to see 500,000 beautiful, liberated gay men, women, and trans people and being called the mother of the world's transgender movement and the gay liberation movement, it gives me great pride to see my children celebrating.
  • it seemed like everybody and their mother came out for Matthew Shepard. A white, middle class gay boy that was effeminate! Amanda Milan got killed last year, five days before Gay Pride. We waited a month to have a vigil for her. Three hundred people showed up. What kind of a—doesn't the community have feelings? We are part of the gay and lesbian community! That really hurt me, to see that only three hundred people showed up.
  • I wish yous all a very happy gay pride day but also think about us

Oral History Interview with Eric Marcus (1989)

  • Before gay rights, before the Stonewall I was involved in the Black liberation movement, the peace movement. I felt I had the time and I knew that I had to do something. My revolutionary blood was going back then.
  • People were very angry for so long. How long can you live in the closet? I listen to my brothers and sisters who are older than I am and I listen to their stories. I would never have made it. They would have killed me. Somebody would have killed me. I could never have survived the lives that my brothers and sisters from the forties and fifties did. Because I have a mouth.
  • Marsha and I fought for the liberation of our people. We did a lot back then. We did sleep in the streets. Marsha and I had a building on Second Street, which we called STAR House. When we asked the community to help us [tears coming down face] there was nobody to help us. We were nothing. We were nothing! We were taking care of kids that were younger than us. Marsha and I were young and we were taking care of them. And GAA had teachers and lawyers and all we asked was to help us teach our own so we could all become a little bit better. There was nobody there to help us. They left us hanging. There was only one person that that came and help us. Bob Kohler was there. He helped paint. He helped us put wires together. We didn't know what the fuck we were doing. We took a slum building. We tried. We really did. We tried. Marsha and I and a few of the other older drag queens. We kept it going for about a year or two. We went out and made that money off the streets to keep these kids off the streets. We already went through it. We wanted to protect them. To show them that there was a better life. You can't throw people out on the street.

Quotes about Sylvia Rivera

  • "We fed people and clothed people," Rivera explained in a 1998 interview. "We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent." The work was of course treacherous, as Marsha P Johnson, proudly brandishing a can of Mace, once said: "It's very dangerous being a transvestite going out on dates because it's so easy to get killed." She and her sisters had to protect themselves and each other, because they knew no one else would...Johnson and her comrades innately understood the intersectional nature of their struggle, even if those who should have been their natural allies did not. Sex workers like them provided crucial material and organizational support to the early trans rights movement as well as the broader gay liberation movement, yet due to the stigma attached to their labor, even the most pivotal activists were scrubbed from the narrative. In 1973, only a few years after the Stonewall uprising, Rivera was excluded from the speakers' list at a gay pride rally organized to celebrate its anniversary because the crowd was uncomfortable with her profession. Furious, Rivera got onstage anyway and castigated the crowd for abandoning their queer sex worker brothers and sisters who had been arrested and jailed for their means of survival. "I will not put up with this shit," she shouted. "The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a middle-class white club. And that's what you all belong to!"
  • Rivera was involved in protests against homophobia within the Black Panther Party, after which Huey Newton writing a letter opposing homophobia and supporting gay liberation...Rivera faced transphobia and discrimination as Pride events gained larger mainstream momentum. This boiled down in an impassioned speech by Rivera known as the “Y’all Better Quiet Down” speech...Following her death, the impact of Rivera's activism has been much more widely acknowledged, including by the queer community but also that of homeless, trans, and gender-nonconforming sex workers.
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