In this feature, Label News Editor Izzie Naish highlights the impact of transgender individuals and people of colour in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights through recounting the lives of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
February is LGBTQ+ History Month, and so we should remember some of the important figures who have had a massive impact on the ongoing movement for the equality of the LGBTQ+ community within society. Sometime this year, a monument of two of the most influential activists within the movement will be unveiled in New York City – these two activists being Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The pair helped to change LGBTQ+ history during the late 20th century through their active roles in the Stonewall Riots and the fight for acceptance of both gay and transgender people.
Marsha P. Johnson (they/them)
Despite being one of the most prominent figures in LGBTQ+ history, Marsha P. Johnson’s name and their story only really became mainstream knowledge in light of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which drew widespread attention towards the contribution of black activists belonging to the LGBTQ+ community.
Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in August 1945, was a black American self-identified drag queen. At a time where American sexual liberation had still not been achieved, Johnson was radical in that they paid no attention to gender norms and dressed in a typically feminine way. They were known for dressing in a very flamboyant and colourful style, an outward protest against conventional gender stereotypes. Johnson’s stance on the topic of gender is encapsulated through their statement that the ‘P.’ in their name stood for ‘Pay it no mind’, an opinion which defied the traditional conservative views on sexuality that reigned at the time.
Their rebellion was not only limited to their clothing since they played an important part in both the Stonewall Riots and the activist organisation the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, when NYC police raided a popular gay bar named The Stonewall Inn, violently forcing those inside out onto the streets. 23-year old Johnson was at the bar and resisted arrest, and in reaction organised and participated in a series of protests in the days and weeks after the raid. Johnson was believed by those there to be a key instigator of the reaction, with an eyewitness recounting that they saw them ‘in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something’. Today, the Stonewall Riots remain one of the most infamous yet pivotal events in the fight for gay and transgender rights. Johnson also was involved with the GLF, another organisation which accepted all those in the LGBTQ+ community and worked towards their equality within society.
However, Johnson’s life was not glamorous. They lived as many transgender people did at the time; suffering from mental health issues, discrimination due to their sexual identity, and many of the associated problems that came with being a gay, trans individual in 20th century America. As a child, Johnson endured the hardship of identifying as LGTBQ+ in a Christian community and so moved from New Jersey to New York City’s Greenwich Village upon finishing their education. Here, they were initially homeless and had to engage in sex work to earn a living. However, Johnson found solace in Christopher Street’s drag scene, stating ‘I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world’. They quickly gained a reputation through both their drag and their role as a ‘drag mother’, which involved helping other LGBTQ+ individuals following a similar path to their younger self. Two years before their death, Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, a disease which they tirelessly raised awareness for. In July 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River, and the event was ruled as a suicide despite evidence signalling otherwise. Their death came as a great surprise to the LGBTQ+ community, who Johnson had fought for untiringly throughout their adult life.
Sylvia Rivera (she/her)
Rivera, born in 1951, was a Latina-American drag queen known as Johnson’s best friend, and she played a similarly important role in gay rights activism. Rivera had a tragic childhood; her mother took her own life in Rivera’s early childhood and she was raised by her conservative grandmother who condemned her sexuality. She ran away aged eleven and worked as a child prostitute until she met Johnson a year later, who Rivera credits ‘was like a mother to me’. Later in her life in 1970 she attempted suicide but was rescued and taken to hospital by Johnson.
Just like Johnson, Rivera was involved in the Stonewall Riots, resisting arrest to fight in the protests following the initial raid. She too suffered from similar struggles of substance abuse and discrimination; so she fought in particular for the rights of the transgender community, who were often forgotten from LGBTQ+ activism, and those of a reduced socio-economic status in general. Together with Johnson, Rivera founded an organisation named Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which worked to offer accommodation and support to those who were homeless and transgender, just as both of them had been.
Despite her work, the exclusion of the transgender community within the Gay Rights Bill left Rivera and other trans activists feeling betrayed by those who they had fought for, and so she left both STAR and LGBTQ+ activism. However, in the five years before her death from liver cancer in 2002, Rivera returned to activism to resume her fight for transgender rights.
For years, the role of transgender individuals in the fight for sexual liberation was often under-appreciated or even ignored. In 1973, when she took to the stage in the NYC Pride march and claimed ‘if it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.’ Rivera was forced off the stage and the work of activists like her and Johnson continued to go largely unnoticed. This attitude is unfortunately still widespread, with the role of both transgender activists and people of colour often being censured from LGBTQ+ history. Therefore, when celebrating and learning about LGBTQ+ history we should be intersectional in our approach and make sure to learn about the profound impact of transgender activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
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