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You've heard of Stonewall; meet the women behind it.

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

A story about the BIPOC trans activists Marsh P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

By: Ana Palacios

Marsha P. Johnson on the left. Sylvia Rivera on the right.

It's June 28th, 1969, the faithful night Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera found themselves at the Stonewall Inn, New York city, which would later become the Stonewall riots, and an important step towards civil rights.

It was rutinary for police to raid and harass establishments frequented by LGBTQIA+ individuals. That night, they targeted the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar notorious for its patrons, who differed from the mainstream population (predominatley wealthy white gay males). Instead, the bar was frequented by working people,mostly sex workers, housless individuals and BIPOC; all with differing sexual and gender identities. That night, the police raids began abusing and arresting individuals from the bar, as customary of the epoch. This time, everyone had had enough. Some eyewitness reports say the harassment of Stormé DeLarverie, after she protested her handcuffs were too tight, catalysed the riots, which followed into several nights. Both Marsha and Sylvia were amongst the first in the crowd to resist arrest and participate against the opression of queer individuals. These riots marked the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.

It's important to understand the precedent behind these protests. Since the 50s, homosexuality was considered “sodomy,” in 49 states (excluding illinois, where it became legal in 1961), and thus outlawed. In New York, gay bars provided a safe heaven for LGBTQIA+ individuals who did not conform to the status quo, and whose existence was prohibited. These “safe” spaces could not exist entirely without involvement from the Mafia. The Mafia, who naturally, bribed police and authorities to look the other way, were in control of the bar. Their business: overcharging patrons and extorting wealthy regulars with “outing them,” which in some cases, could be a death sentence. The police often raided bars, like the Stonewall inn, and arrested those who “they deemed wearing non-gender appropriate clothing.” Targeting specifically trans and gender non-conforming individuals amongst the crowd.

Marsha and Sylvia were both indeldible figures in Greenwich Village street life, and beyond. Their perseverant commitment to social justice stood beyond their efforts at Stonewall. As women of color and transgender individuals they were outcasts in their own subculture, and highly discriminated in society. Together, they lidered the Gay Liberation Movement in New York city. Co-founding STAR (Street Transvestite** Action Revolutionaries). It is imperative to note however that Marsha and Sylvia were both transgender women and transvestite is modernly considred a slur. They offered housing for unhoused trans and BIPOC youth as well as drag queens: a particularly vulnerable demographic. As the first trans women of color to lead an organisation they opened the first ever LGBTQ+ shelter in the United States. Two eclectic women who dedicated their lives to social justice and activism, fully deserving of our recognition and gratitude.

The small acts of gratitude Marsha and Sylvia did receive, however, were eclipsed by their continued discrimination in various forms. Regardless of their activism. Infamously, Sylvia Rivera was booed and subjected to slurs and abuse from an overwhelmingly white crowd of Pride attendees in New York City, even though she helped organize and even begin those events: she was ostracised because she was trans, because she was latinx, because she was not conventional.

In her speech, she helplessly pleaded with the crowd; “That's all I wanted to say to you people. If you all want to know about the people in jail and do not forget Bambi L'Amour and Dora Mark, Kenny Metzner and other gay people in jail, come and see the people at Star House on 12th Street on 640 East 12th Street between B and C apartment 14. The people are trying to do something for all of us and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class White Club and that's what you all belong to!”

Sylvia Rivera was right, and altruistically continued her fight despite being discriminated against by the same group of people who benefited the most from her activism.

Instances of injustice were always present in Marsha P. Johnson's life. The 5th of July of 1992 tragedy struck and Marsha’s body, who was 46 at the time, was recovered from the Hudson River, her death ruled a suicide and no further investigation done. Her friends and STAR family protested this ruling as an impossibility, however, NYPD disagreed and the case was closed. The few who veiled for Marsha’s rights were those who knew her personally, an example of the neglect trans women of color, specifically black trans women face from law enforcement and even within their own communities: when it comes to protecting them or getting justice.

Marsha’s life was cut short and while her death is now considered an unsolved murder, if it wasnt for her friends and community, her case would not have been reopened in 2012, and her activism swiftly forgotten in the gay community. This is the reality we live in: where oppressed individuals struggle to find a safe space, even within marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+. In 2020 for example, Human Rights Watch stated “44 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women.”

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are the courageous reminders of who was truly behind the Gay Liberation movement, and who society still fails to protect or even respect. Their efforts continue to resonate with modern liberation movements fighting for the health, safety and equity of Black, Brown and BIPOC folks, acknowledging the autonomy of black and BIPOC trans women is especially challenged. They stand as a call to action, as a catalyzer for the justice that still needs to be fought for, and especially, they stand in a place that belongs to trans women, especially for trans women of color, in Feminist movements.

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