We were thrilled when, in honor of Gay Pride week, 2x YEA Camper Aine Violet Pipe wanted to share a post to remember and educate us about one of the most influential transgender activists in US history: 17-year-old Sylvia Rivera.
From Stonewall to Breaking Down Walls: A Thank-you to Sylvia Rivera
by Aine Violet Pipe
It has been more than 240 years since the “shot heard ‘round the world’ was fired at Lexington on a fateful April day, and still, we have no idea who shot it. Nevertheless, the revolution it caused created America, land of the free and home of the brave. On a day in late June almost 50 years ago, a transgender Latina woman fired another shot heard ‘round the world, a bottle aimed at a policeman in New York City. The site was the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and the riots that erupted there recreated America, if not as the land of tolerance, than at least a land of more tolerance. The woman who threw the bottle was Sylvia Rivera, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Aromantic, etc. (LGBTQIA+) community and I owe to her a debt that we cannot possibly repay.
Rivera was 17-years-old when she threw the bottle at Stonewall; she had been living on the streets for the past seven years after she was tormented by her peers for wearing makeup. She left her house, she said in a 1983 interview, because she could feel her grandmother’s anguish at the queer-bashing she (Rivera) had been experiencing.
Flash forward to 1969, when she had been passing through New York City with her partner at the time; that night was the first time she had gone to Stonewall. When the police raided the bar and started rounding up those who were not dressed in conformity with their biological sex, using brutal force and breaking bottles over detainees’ heads, something in the crowd snapped. Rivera and others witnessing the brutality decided to fight back. What followed was the catalyzation of a gay rights movement that moved swiftly and forcefully to change the culture in America to one exponentially more tolerant of gays, lesbians, and every sexuality in between.
However, the acronym of the community is not the LG community nor the LGB community, it’s the LGBTQIA community. It is a direct result of Rivera’s tireless work that people who aren’t cis have representation in the community and have their rights advocated for. In her time, she also advocated for queer people of color and those in the community who were homeless. Shortly after Stonewall, Rivera was one of those participating in the campaign to get New York City to pass a gay rights bill, which they did. Though she tried earnestly to include trans rights in the bill, the gay community abandoned her, as well as all genderqueer people. In Sylvia’s own words, they put her on the shelf.
This didn’t stop Sylvia from changing the world. She continued her tireless advocacy of genderqueer people, as well as other minorities in the then-unformed LGBTQ+ community. She created homeless shelters for trans people who were kicked out of their homes with the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) program she co-founded with fellow activist Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson. (NB: the word “transvestite,” though used pejoratively today, was, in the time of STAR, the predominant label transgender/genderqueer people used to describe themselves.)
Sylvia Rivera risked her life on multiple occasions. She had been thrown in jail, beaten up, and even scorned by the gay community itself, but she never gave up. She is credited with putting the “T” in LGBT, and she is the first trans woman to have her portrait in the Smithsonian. Most importantly, however, she is an inspiration to every person who is persecuted for who they are, for everyone who feels they need to hide who they are for fear they might be judged, and for everyone, absolutely everyone who feels they are too small to make a difference in this world.
Almost two months ago, I came out as transgender girl to a cisgender person for the first time. Not only did she immediately understand what trans meant, but she also accepted me. She gave me a hug and told me that she was proud of me for being who I am. The world may not have completely warmed up to the fact that there are people who aren’t straight, to say nothing of people who aren’t cis, but thanks to Sylvia Rivera and people like her, we’re a whole lot closer to America being the land of the tolerant. This Pride Month, we have to ask ourselves, if a 17-year-old trans lesbian of color who had lived the last seven years of her life on the streets can make such a difference, what’s stopping us?
Aine Violet Pipe has been an animal rights advocate since her first day on the planet and works with multiple organizations. A student journalist, her life’s mission is to expand free speech and free press protection to students (and to be a Supreme Court Justice). She’s currently working with Labrador Hill Sanctuary and the New Jersey New Voices Campaign.