The Unsung Heroines of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Important Terms:

  • Transgender: (adj.) denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.
  • Transvestite: (n.) a person, typically a man, who derives pleasure from dressing in clothes traditionally worn by the opposite sex.
  • Drag Queen: (n.) a man who dresses up in women’s clothes, typically for the purposes of entertainment.
  • Note: at the time of the Stonewall riots, the gay community did not have the same extensive vocabulary to describe sexuality as we do today. Marsha and Sylvia were transgender women, but primarily referred to themselves as drag queens or transvestites, which have separate meanings today. Transvestite is now considered a derogatory term.

For much of history, trans people and people of color have been excluded from both the gay rights and women’s rights movements, in spite of the fact that they are often the most negatively impacted by gender and sexuality-based discrimination. Two trans women of color, however, refused to be left out of the fight for equality from the very beginning. Activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were on the front lines of the fight for trans rights from as early as the 1960s when the movement was just beginning to gain traction.

Born in 1945 in New Jersey, Marsha P. Johnson was an outspoken African American trans rights/gay rights/AIDS activist, sex worker, and drag queen during the late 20th century. Famous for her uniqueness, individuality, passion for equality, and compassion for others, Marsha was truly a one-of-a-kind woman. Whenever she was asked what the “P” in her name stood for, she famously replied “Pay it No Mind.” Like the queen that she was, Marsha used the same reply when people pried about her gender or sexuality.

Sylvia Rivera was born in New York City in 1951; she was of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent, and worked as a trans rights/gay rights activist and drag queen around the same time. Rivera was orphaned at an early age, and after she began to wear makeup in the 4th grade, Sylvia was thrown out of her house by her grandmother at the young age of 11. At this point, Rivera began living on the street and working as a prostitute before she was adopted by the local drag queen community. These tremendous hardships could not crush Sylvia’s incredible spirit and passion for the fight for equality, however. As the saying by Gina Carey goes: “A strong woman looks a challenge dead in the eye and gives it a wink.”

Rivera and Johnson’s paths crossed at the famous Stonewall riots in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City which catalyzed the modern gay rights movement. At this point in 1969, the Stonewall Inn was one of the few places in the city that the gay community was able to commune without suffering harassment from the police and public shaming. Furthermore, the regular patrons of Stonewall were not the mainstream members of the gay community (white males), but rather the most marginalized members. The most common patrons at Stonewall were drag queens, transgender people, butch lesbians, male sex workers, and homeless youth. Most of these patrons also happened to be living in poverty by virtue of the fact that they were outcasts even in their own subculture; many were also people of color, as, at the time, much of the gay community tended to sideline members who were not white.

Marsha P. Johnson was celebrating her 25th birthday at Stonewall during the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969 when the police began a raid of Stonewall under the guise of busting the establishment for selling liquor without a license. When the police began arresting and harassing gay patrons at the club that night, however, the gay community had had enough. Too many times, establishments across the city where gay patrons congregated had been raided and too many times, gay patrons had suffered persecution by the police.

At the time it was standard procedure for police officers to lead women in the club to the bathroom to verify their sex, and promptly arrest any crossdressers among the crowd. According to eyewitness reports, the police also began sexually harassing lesbian patrons at the bar that night while they frisked them. At this point a crowd of sympathizers had begun to gather outside the inn, and they watched in horror as employees and drag queens alike were dragged outside and violently handled by the police before being shoved into police cars. Finally, when a police officer clubbed a drag queen over the head for saying that her handcuffs were too tight, a violent riot broke out and the crowd exploded. They could no longer stand silently and watch members of their community be assaulted and unjustly imprisoned for their sexuality.

Marsha P. Johnson was among the first of the patrons to resist the police that night, and Sylvia Rivera among the first in the crowd of onlookers to take action by throwing a bottle at her police oppressors. The riots they helped catalyze spread to surrounding neighborhoods until all of New York was in an uproar, and continued on to last several nights. Their bravery, along with the others at the bar that night, led to the gay liberation movement: one year after the riots the first gay pride parades were held, and two years after there were gay rights groups in every major American city.

After Stonewall, Marsha and Sylvia co-founded the organization STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of color. They dedicated their lives to the fight for equality.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera serve as inspirational reminders that, even when the world seems to be pitted against us, we still must find the strength and courage to stand for what is right. And if others would try to stand in our way? Pay It No Mind.

 

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