Sylvia Rivera (1951–2002) was a gay rights and transgender rights activist in the late twentieth century. Born Ray Rivera in New York City to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents, she was orphaned by the age of three and identified as a drag queen by 1962. She fled her abusive grandmother, who had raised her, and found welcome in the city’s drag community. By the later 1960s she had become well-known as an activist, speaking and marching against the Vietnam War and for civil rights and women’s rights causes.
In 1970, along with fellow drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992), Rivera founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, as a refuge for gay, lesbian, and trans youths. These young people were systematically excluded from services extended to cis-gendered and heterosexual young men and women. Rivera and Johnson often met with pushback from some people within the LGBTQ+ community, who found them too radical for their own comfort. In her speech at a 1973 New York City gay pride parade, “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” Rivera pushes back against those people. In this speech, she called for equal rights and fair treatment for trans men and women and for people of color within the LGBTQ+ community.
Her struggle with moderates in the gay rights movement is captured when she states: “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? . . . I believe in the Gay Power. I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights. That’s all I wanted to say to you people.”
As we reflect on the history of LGBTQIA+ activism, it is important to remember the many facets and figures of the gay rights movement. Rivera’s “Y’All Better Quiet Down” will be featured in our upcoming 3-volume set The Schlager Anthology of Women’s History (November 2023), part of our Schlager Anthologies for Students series. This document stands alongside more than 200 other essential primary sources, and the set emphasizes the voices and perspectives of women in often-marginalized communities.