Sylvia Rivera: a positive voice in defence of the most vulnerable and marginalised

By Anna Chivers (she/her)

In the past, I have been invited to speak on behalf of the charity Mermaids [link:] at Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) events at the University of Lincoln. So, it was especially meaningful to be asked to speak in my own right at the most recent, student organised TDoR event and vigil, on Sunday 20th November 2022.  On Monday 20th February I have been invited to speak by the University of Lincoln’s student Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Humanities and Heritage School.  Please join me!

LGBTQ+ History Month - An event with Anna Chivers, an artist, carer and former Mermaids volunteer and trustee. - Date of event - Monday 20th February 6-7pm - Location NDH0020 - Funded by College of Arts EDI committee fund. Image of Sylvia zine and "mother of all gay people"
LGBTQ+ History Month event with Anna

The social impact of the COVID pandemic had emphasised the importance of connection, community and solidarity to many of us in the trans including non-binary community, where the isolating effects of prejudice and discrimination are already significant challenges. This has been compounded over recent years in the UK by a growing trend of hostile rhetoric in politics and the media, creating an environment where reported hate crimes and incidents break shameful new records year on year.


From a global and historical perspective, adversity and struggle is a common theme for many trans including non-binary people, particularly where there are intersections of stigmatised aspects of personal identity, meaning an individual may experience multiple forms of prejudice and discrimination, such as against race and disability as well. Again and again, we see the greatest vulnerability to mistreatment, abuse and violence among those most marginalised. This is born out each TDoR by the gross over-representation of Black trans women added to the dreadful list of lives abruptly taken from us in horrific circumstances every year.

Sometimes, it is difficult to feel hope.

This is why Sylvia Rivera means so much to me, and why I chose to talk about her at the students’ TDoR event.

Photograph of Anna's zine on Sylvia
Sylvia zine made by Anna

To me, Sylvia represents defiance, anger, resilience, pride and hope. She had survived so much adversity throughout her life, yet still she would never give-up without a fight. She was a revolutionary with a strong sense of social justice, who understood the importance of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid (principles that also resonate for me, as an anarchist). She cared when many didn’t, and spoke and acted from the heart, providing a positive voice in defence of the most vulnerable and marginalised when others stayed quiet.

I’ve never been one for role-models, I always say it’s important to follow your heart and to be you! However, when faced with a situation that feels overwhelming, I often fall back on asking myself, “what would Sylvia do?” It helps.

Two years ago I was in despair following a transphobic experience that felt devastating. Fortunately, support and help was available to me and I was able to stay in a crisis house. I count my blessings. It was an extremely low time in my life when I needed safety and hope. It was a place that gave me time to think. What would Sylvia do? There it was in a picture on the wall in the kitchen of the crisis house: “NEVER GIVE UP!!!”

In preparation for speaking at TDoR, I asked some of my friends what Sylvia Rivera means to them?

An, “icon, defender, authentic,” and the “future” said one. “An inspirational, brave woman,” said another. “The importance of standing up for what is right. The strength to start the conversation, to fight back, even if you’re the first or the only voice – even when it feels like no one is listening!”

My friends continued, “The strength to keep on speaking when people ridicule or threaten and hurt you. (What’s new, right!)  That takes some strength of character.” And, “We should all be thankful for Sylvia: ONE STRUGGLE ONE FIGHT!”

Photograph of Anna on a stall
Activism in action

A cherished friend in Mexico City, an activist fighting for the rights of trans people for over 20 years, said, “She represents our trans herstory! Our fight! She represents us all, trans people of colour and every trans person, we’re still demanding social justice and equality.”

As my friends spoke to me, I realised the qualities and characteristics they saw as inspirational in Sylvia I also recognised in the people around me now. She represents the best in all of us in the trans community, and I believe in humanity.

Art is therapeutic, so I created a zine celebrating the life of Sylvia Rivera and printed a special limited edition to help raise funds for The Outside Project [link:] to sell at Brighton Trans Pride [link:] in July 2022. It’s a charity that operates in the spirit of Sylvia, providing a safer space and refuge for homeless queer people in London. In the protest march at Brighton Trans Pride we sang, “When trans rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

It’s exactly what Sylvia would do.

I gave out more copies of my ‘SYLVIA’ zine at the TDoR event, and a copy is now in the University’s own Zine Library. I also donated copies of of ‘Trans Britain’ by Christine Burns and ‘Trans History’ by Dr Susan Stryker to the library, and recommended everyone watches Stryker’s documentary film about the 1966 Compton Cafeteria riot, ‘Screaming Queens’ [link:].

Sylvia zine artwork
Sylvia zine artwork

It’s so important, and in some ways reassuring, to understand there is a mostly hidden, but rich and diverse history of trans including non-binary lives, our struggles, and victories waiting to be discovered and celebrated.

A week later, I was told that one of the students I had met at the TDoR event stood-up to talk in support with the University and College Union industrial action, making reference to the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners groups in 1984-85, and the importance of solidarity across all oppressed groups.

I feel confident that the spirit of Sylvia Rivera lives on in a new generation.

Solidarity, Anna x

[Many thanks to the University of Lincoln Trans and Non-Binary Society, University of Lincoln Pride Society, University of Lincoln Students’ Union, and friend and ally Oonagh Monaghan.]

We would like to dedicate this blog post to Brianna Ghey who was brutally murdered this week. A young trans girl who had so much life ahead of her but in death will not have the dignity she deserves.

Vigil for Brianna Ghey - Sunday 19th February 2023 - Speakers Corner Lincoln
In memory of Brianna Ghey