Teachable Trans History: Sylvia Rivera

Recently, I introduced a new feature called “teachable trans history,” designed to make it easier for community educators, activists, scholars, and classroom teachers to share transgender history.  I am compiling primary sources, videos, and other resources you can use to bring transgender history to life.  This time, I’m covering Sylvia Rivera.

First things first: huge thanks to Tourmaline:  You’ll find that most of the links below  trace back to Tourmaline, a brilliant Black trans woman activist, artist, and historian.  Without Tourmaline’s work to “liberate” the archive by making primary sources publicly available, I might not have been able to read about Rivera in her own words.  Tourmaline doesn’t get the credit or support they deserve, so please link to their website and look out for opportunities to financially support them.  Tourmaline: sincerely, thank you.  Being able to ‘know’ Sylvia through the sources you found and distributed transformed my life.  

Why teach about Sylvia Rivera:

Sylvia Lee Rivera was a Puerto Rican transgender woman who spend her life fighting for liberation alongside her dear friend Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman.  Together, they resisted at Stonewall and founded STAR, one of the first transgender organizations.  Rivera is also one of the best documented transgender activists.  She spoke and wrote about her life extensively.  This makes teaching about her a joy.

Background information on Rivera:

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Guiding Stars provides a brief overview of Rivera’s life and activism.  For more information,  check out Martin Duberman’s book Stonewall.

Primary Source Texts:

There are so many great primary source texts by and about Rivera to choose from.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones: Rivera narrates her life (content warning for suicide, rape, racism, ableism, drug use, transphobia, and police violence).  This is a beautiful piece and a student favorite.  For people with disabilities, please comment if you need a screen-reader friendly pdf.

Leslie Feinberg interviews Sylvia Rivera: A condensed version of Rivera’s life through an interview with the amazing Leslie Feinberg, transgender activist and historian extraordinaire.

Sylvia Rivera and the NYPD:  The Stonewall Riots through the eyes of Rivera and Seymour Pine, the officer responsible for the raid.

Gay Power: When do we want it, or do we?:  This is the statement that Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson wrote after the NYU sit-ins.  Rivera resisted longest and hardest when police arrived and she was disgusted that students gave up so soon.  This statement served to found her new organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). This is the piece that I would be certain to teach.


Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Christopher Street Rally:  If you only teach one video about Rivera, teach this one.  You can follow it up with this video of Jane O’Leary, a prominent radical lesbian, misgendering and insulting Rivera immediately after her speech.

Sylvia Rivera reflects on Marsha P. Johnson’s spirit

Sylvia Rivera, Trans Movement Founder:  Rivera’s close friend Randy Wicker made this video and it’s a personal favorite of mine.  Her friends talk about the end of her life and her legacy.  I think it’s a beautiful look at how Rivera created community in order to support other trans women and queer people and then found herself supported by the same.

Sylvia Rivera, Dean Spade, and Tim Eubanks talk about capitalism and resistance: this video is only 1:30 long, but it’s wonderful.

Contemporary Connections:

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is a great example of how Rivera’s legacy continues today.

h o t - a i r

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