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 butch lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie 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.



Edit: In the first version of this post, I said that a drag queen was clubbed over the head by the police, sparking the rioting. Thanks for reader Logan for pointing out that it was in fact Stormé DeLarverie who was clubbed for saying her handcuffs were too tight.

12 thoughts on “The Unsung Heroines of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

  1. Lord Lord,
    This is what I did not know AND what they do not teach . Teach it Tell It. SOLIDARITY Baby. Colorful TransGender Sisters – STARTED It
    who whoo – I appreciate you for telling IT!!!
    Toni Bee

  2. Hey! I love this, however it has been said by many accounts that the person clubbed over the head for the handcuffs comment was Stormé DeLarverie. I was wondering where you saw drag queen, or got it from? Anyways, great piece! Marsha is an icon that is too often not given the due credit.

    1. You’re absolutely right! I can’t find the source now that said it was a drag queen (I didn’t keep a good record of the articles I used) but I’ll make the correction now. Thanks for reading!

  3. This article is a must read for every person that falls under the transgender umbrella. Plus every member of the rainbow community needs to read this
    Those two women’s lives were filled with oppression and discrimination.
    The constant fear of being arrested was everyday.
    In NYC it was illegal to dress as the opposite gender. That’s the reason for their arrest, the riot started in part because of their resistance to being arrested

  4. I keep seeing this misinformation around over the past few years and it infuriates me that no one fact checks anymore, police reports and eyewitness reports state that they were not there until later, see below as Marsha even states that in an interview. I’m not even American and i get angry at the misinformation being spread, this is your history.

    “The way I winded up being at Stonewall that night, I was having a party uptown. And we were all out there and Miss Sylvia Rivera and them were over in the park having a cocktail. I was uptown and didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock, because when I got downtown the place was already on fire. And it was a raid already. The riots had already started. And they said the police went in there and set the place on fire. They said the police set it on fire because they originally wanted the Stonewall to close, so they had several raids.”

    — Marsha P. Johnson discussing her involvement in the Stonewall uprisings (which goes against the claim she “started” the riots or that Sylvia Rivera was a participant, at least on the first night) in an 1987 interview at Randy Wicker’s apartment conducted by Eric Marcus, owner of Making Gay History.

  5. Except that Marsha herself (who identified as a drag queen – not Trans) said she didn’t arrive at Stonewall until 2pm that night after the riots had started and after the bar had been emptied and set on fire. She also said Silvia was not present as she was passed out in a park at the time and that they were not celebrating her birthday on June 28 (Sylvia’s claim) because her birthday wasn’t until August 24.

  6. How have we made the leap that Sylvia is a transgender person when she/he at times went by the name Ray, referred to himself as an effeminate gay male and transvestite, and said he has no interest in passing but just want to be himself?

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