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The Legacy of Sylvia Rivera

From the Stonewall riots to the gay rights movement, the Hispanic activist has led the fight for equality

Silvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera , a 17-year-old Puerto Rican-Venezuelan transgendered woman, played a key role in the Stonewall riots. — Photo by: Kay Tobin Lahusen

En español | A 17-year-old Puerto Rican-Venezuelan transgendered woman named Sylvia Rivera helped kick off the Stonewall riots when she and other patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar refused to sit quietly during one of its periodic police raids. The fight against the police included "anything and everything the crowd outside could get its hands on: garbage, garbage cans, pieces of glass, fire, bricks, cobblestones, and an improvised battering ram," according to David Carter, author of "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution."

 See also: Hispanics and the fight for LGBT rights.

"We were sick and tired of being put down," wrote Rivera in "The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall." "Things just started happening." In fact, one of the most famous quotes from the Stonewall riots is attributed to Rivera: "I'm not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!"

In subsequent years, Rivera was influential in forming the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance, and she stayed involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism all her life. But as the gay-rights movement, seeking wider acceptance, began distancing itself from transgender concerns and other issues important to Rivera, she said she was shunned. "When things started getting more mainstream," said Rivera in a 1995 Village Voice interview, "it was like, 'We don't need you no more.’"

The movement ultimately rediscovered Rivera, awarding her a place of honor in the New York City Gay Pride march marking the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1984.

"The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off," Rivera told The New York Times in 1995. "Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, ‘Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did.’ After that, I went back on the shelf," said Rivera, who died in 2002.

Now, whenever the Stonewall riots are remembered, Sylvia comes down from that shelf and assumes a place of honor in the celebration.

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