How Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera's Contributions to Pride are Often Overlooked
The first Gay Pride was a riot--and it started in a bar.
Late into the New York City night, on Christopher Street in 1969, the gay, the lesbian, the trans, the bisexual, the homeless, the effeminate, the butch, the sex workers, the youths--they all gathered at a bar called Stonewall Inn--a place of refuge during a time when it was illegal to be yourself.
The gay bar, run by a crime family banking on the shunned gay clientele, and one of the last few to allow dancing, became an important site in Greenwich Village for the queer guests who wanted to socialize and express themselves openly. While raids were a regular occurrence for gay bars, the mafia-run ones would usually be tipped off by corrupt cops, giving the owners enough time to hide their alcohol (sold without a license) and other illegal activities (such as their patron’s acts of being). On this particular night, the 28th of June, there was no tip.
Just days after a recent raid, police went to Stonewall Inn once again under the guise of busting the bar for illegal alcohol sales. The raid lead to the harassment of patrons and the arrest of 13 guests. Police would lead people into the bathrooms to verify their sex, and if they were discovered to be crossdressers, they were arrested. Lesbian patrons were being sexually harassed as they were being frisked by the officers, according to eyewitness reports. Employees and drag queens were violently dragged from the building and into police cars. People watched in horror. Until an officer clubbed Storme “Guardian of the Lesbians” DeLarverie, a biracial butch and gender nonconforming lesbian, for telling them her cuffs were too tight and thrown into a police van.
“Why don’t you guys do something?” she yelled out to the crowd.
And with these words, the crowd erupted. The constant pressure of blackballing and criminalization of their sexuality and gender expression boiled over. And thus Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans street queen, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latinx trans street queen, threw one of the first bricks and bottles. Everyone went mad. Enough was enough. The police barricaded themselves in the bar waiting for backup. They weren’t expecting their would-be victims to fight back. But all of these people united to drive the police out and keep them out.
This night was a catalyst for the progression of the Gay/Queer Liberation movement. And it started in a bar.
And it was started by queer and gender nonconforming and trans women of color.
Yet, we forget or overlook their contributions to the uprising and movement of the modern queer liberation struggle in favor of a largely white, male representation of the movement.
Many of the common patrons of Stonewall were not a part of the mainstream (white male) gay community. They were drag queens, homeless youth, butch lesbians, sex workers, and transgender people. Many of them were poor and of color and were often sidelined for being such--even in the gay community. Even within an already marginalized group, they were pushed further into the margins.
The 60s was an era rampant in political activity and resistance to the oppressive systems of our country. It was about establishing one’s identity as valid and worthy of being. Pushback against those who embodied multiplely marginalized identities (like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, Storme DeLarverie, and the countless others) prevents us from knowing the full scope of their contributions, concerns, and involvement in the fight for equal rights.
Because many of the leaders in the gay liberation movement were white and middle class, and sought to assimilate into society’s existing institutions and declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, the concerns of queer or gender non-conforming people of color were often not acknowledged.
Rivera’s own struggles in the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) lead her and Johnson to form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in order to address the needs of other poor street queens. Despite their exclusion, Johnson and Rivera worked tirelessly for the inclusion of gender non-conforming and queer people of color in the mainstream Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights movement. Sylvia would frequently front dangerous protests for the GAA, only to be pushed aside by the more “respectable” leaders when the media appeared.
While now, transgender people have reached a “tipping point” of sorts in visibility and activism led largely by transgender women of color (notable figures include the likes of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox), and there is more of an effort to correct the whitewashing of Stonewall’s narrative, there is so much more to do in terms of no longer sidelining queer/trans/gender non conforming people of color of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s still dangerous out there for our queer and trans sisters of color. By recognizing their identities and the intersectionality of those identities, we can begin to understand why they had that mixture of political awareness, anger, courage, and hope to riot in the first place. They were poor, black/brown, transgender, and gay. Unfortunately, these are things that make you an underdog in our culture. They had to fight. And that fight continues on.
Pride is a celebration of freedom, love, and acceptance.
Its purpose is to spread hope and remember the lives that have been lost in the fight towards equality. It should give visibility to the groups of people who are constantly pushed out of frame, silenced from the conversation. Because that is how it started.
The first Pride was a riot... and we should remember who was fighting, why, and what they were fighting for.
Artwork by Susannah Price