Women's History Month Feature: Sylvia Rivera - Pioneer for Transgender Rights

The month of March signifies the beginning of Women’s history Month. In honor of this occasion, we will be featuring an outstanding woman from history, highlighting the amazing accomplishments of women in our nation’s storied past

Our next installment features Sylvia Rivera, an activist and pioneer of transgender rights in America.

Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 in New York City and assigned male at birth. She had an incredibly difficult childhood, with an absentee father and a mother who died by suicide when she was 3. As she began embracing her true self, Sylvia was frequently attacked and abused for her identity expression. She eventually ran away from home at the age of 11 and became a victim of sexual exploitation in New York.

Everything changed for Sylvia when she met Marsha Johnson, a self-identified drag queen and activist who was fighting for transgender inclusion in the larger Gay Rights movement. Under the mentorship of Marsha, Sylvia developed her own streak of activism and pride in who she was. 

Both Sylvia and Marsha were instrumentally engaged in the Stonewall Inn uprising on June 28th,1969, when patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar rebuffed a police raid and lit the fire of a new movement for equality. As Sylvia would later say in an interview, while she did not throw the first Molotov cocktail of the uprising, she did throw the second.

Unfortunately, Sylvia felt the Gay Rights movement was not open to the inclusion of transgender issues and it would take two decades before transgender rights was more fully integrated into the overall movement. Sylvia Rivera also helped found several safe spaces for trans youth to live and be amongst friends, including STAR House and later Transy House. Sylvia also led the fight against the exclusion of transgender people in the 2002 Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York.

Sylvia Rivera died in 2002, but her legacy lives on through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which continues her fight to guarantee “all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.” 

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