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by Dave Singleton, AARP VIVA, June 2009
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 quietly submit to arrest during one of the periodic police raids. The fight against the police, according to David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, 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.”
“We were sick and tired of being put down,” wrote Rivera in The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall, “and 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 (GLF) and the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), 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 felt 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.
Now, whenever the Stonewall riots are remembered, Sylvia, who died in 2002, comes down from that shelf and assumes a place of honor in the celebration.
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