The Stonewall Riots: Who Marsha P. Johnson And Sylvia Rivera Were

A life 2023

Table of contents:

The Stonewall Riots: Who Marsha P. Johnson And Sylvia Rivera Were
The Stonewall Riots: Who Marsha P. Johnson And Sylvia Rivera Were
Video: The Stonewall Riots: Who Marsha P. Johnson And Sylvia Rivera Were
Video: The Stonewall You Know Is a Myth. And That’s O.K. | NYT Celebrating Pride 2023, February

New York City authorities in honor of the fiftieth anniversary The Stonewall Riots are about to erect a monument to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The friends fought together for the rights of homeless gays, transgender people and drag queens. For a long time, no one recalled their participation in the riots due to disagreements within the community, but today they started talking about their merits again. Here's who Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were and how they influenced LGBT history.


Yulia Dudkina


Marsha and Sylvia

When Sylvia Rivera first appeared on 42nd Street, she was only eleven years old. Unlike other homeless people, she seemed to keep her presence of mind. Toward nightfall, a passerby offered her ten dollars for sex, and Rivera immediately agreed: “As much as ten dollars? Let's go to!" Then Sylvia still used another name received at birth - Ray. For most of those around her, she looked like a little boy - then almost no one knew what transgender was.

Rivera grew up in a Puerto Rican family. The father left the mother even before the birth of Sylvia, and the mother committed suicide when she was three years old, then tried to take the child with her. Sylvia was raised by her grandmother, a strict woman who severely punished her. She was always proud to belong to a family of "light" Hispanics, so the child who inherited dark skin from his father only irritated her.

At the age of four, Sylvia, secretly from her grandmother, began to try on her dresses and use cosmetics. At the age of seven, she first had sex - with a fourteen-year-old cousin, and at ten she was forced into a relationship by a school teacher - a married man whom no one even suspected of abuse of minors. There were rumors among the neighbors about the "boy": they discussed that "he behaves like a girl" and that "he has strange manners." They complained to Sylvia's grandmother, "he will become a teenage transvestite" and "a prostitute on 42nd Street" - this is where gay sex workers, transgender sex workers and drag queens looking for clients. In the 60s, official work was almost inaccessible to them, so they faced a choice: either to hide, or live on the street, ask passers-by for change and trade in the body.

After every complaint from neighbors, grandmother beat Rivera and said: "At this rate, you will definitely finish on 42nd with sh *** s." Once, unable to withstand the insults and beatings, Sylvia tried to commit suicide. After spending a couple of months in the hospital, she decided: since everyone is predicting my future on 42nd Street, then that's where I go.

“Yes, I really had an interest in men since childhood,” Sylvia Rivera later said. - But I did not plan to be on the street and sell my body, I was pushed to it. Since childhood, everyone has just told me that this is my only path. In our Latin American culture, if you were gay, you were automatically considered a sex worker. Everyone thought there was no other option. " At the age of eleven, having escaped from her grandmother and found herself on the street, Rivera felt free: even sex work was better than bullying and beatings. She liked that among her new acquaintances - homeless gays and transgender people - no one judged her. She found a new family.


Friends recalled that she appeared on the corner of 42nd Street

and loudly greeted everyone: "What a wonderful day today!"

A few days after her escape, Rivera met Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha stood at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue. On that day, she was in a man's suit, she was wearing pants and a shirt. She had just worked her shift in a cafe and was now asking passers-by for a change. Sylvia liked her immediately, she had a loud voice and bright appearance. She went over to speak.“What's your name, child? Marsha asked. - Ray? Miss Ray, you are very young. You need to be at home with your mom. " Marsha was one of the first people to address Rivera in the feminine gender, and she liked it. She herself had long doubted whether she was comfortable in a male body.

Marsha was only six years older than Sylvia, but she already had a lot of experience living on the street. She was born in 1945, her parents named her Malcolm. At the age of five, she started wearing girly dresses, but quickly stopped. The neighbors' guys started to mock her, and then one of them raped her. “He grabbed me and put something between my legs,” Marsha recalled later. - And then a sticky liquid flowed down my leg. I knew before that the neighbors' boys touch each other - as a child, everyone learns each other. But I didn’t know that a boy could put something in another boy."

After this story, Marsha did not wear dresses for a long time. But after graduating from school, she took all her savings - fifteen dollars - and left home. In New York, she quickly became a star among the drag queens. Sometimes Marsha appeared in the form of Malcolm, sometimes in the form of Miss Black Marsha. Everyone knew that you could always borrow money from her or ask for food, although she herself spent the night where she had to. Sometimes she bought a ticket for an evening show at the cinema for ninety-nine cents and stayed overnight in the auditorium. On other days, she met men on the street and went to spend the night with them. She wore artificial fruits and flowers in her hair, a sheer miniskirt, and oversized heels. Friends recalled that she appeared at the corner of 42nd Street and loudly greeted everyone: "What a wonderful day today!"

Sylvia and Marsha quickly became friends. The evening they met, Marsha suggested, "Come on, I'll feed you spaghetti and meatballs." While they were walking towards an Italian eatery, Rivera asked a new acquaintance why she was asking for alms if she had a job in a cafe. She replied, “Yes, today I scraped up a little tip. But more money will not bother me - you never know how your evening will end. " Later, Marsha taught Sylvia the main rules of street life: never flirt with other people's lovers and clients - not take away someone else's earnings. After a couple of months, Sylvia tried to appear on the street in a drag outfit. In those days, few people dressed up in women's clothing from head to toe, usually everything was limited to makeup and a couple of accessories. Emboldened, she began to reincarnate as a whole.

Almost everyone who finds themselves on 42nd Street has experienced difficult events in the past: bullying, beatings, boycotts. Many were abandoned by their families. Often, starting a new, street life, people took new names for themselves. Rivera decided that she wanted to take a woman's name, and new friends suggested to her: “You can be Sylvia. We haven't had a drag queen with that name yet. " So she became Sylvia Rivera. A few months later, Sylvia underwent an official de-church ceremony. All of her new acquaintances, including Marsha, gathered in the New York apartment of one of the gay activists. A specially invited priest from the Spanish Pentecostal Church, pouring water on Sylvia's head during the ceremony, said: "Consider, your new life will be difficult." Sylvia herself knew about this, but did not doubt her choice.



Until 1966, Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, New York, was a regular Friday night bar for singles and heterosexual couples for drinks and dancing. There was no room for LGBT people. Gay bars were effectively banned at the time, with police raiding nightclubs and cafes throughout the city. In the 60s, it was not even allowed for people of the same gender to dance with each other - if this happened, they could be detained. Also under threat during police raids were transgender people, drag queens, and indeed anyone whose sexuality or gender identity seemed to the police "questionable".

If gay bars existed in New York, they worked underground, only acquaintances or those for whom their own vouched were allowed. There were only a few such establishments. Anyone who dared to open an institution for LGBT people would immediately be outlawed. On the other hand, there was a demand for gay bars: hundreds of gay, lesbian, transgender men and women walked around Manhattan. However, the word "transgender" was hardly used at that time - both cross-dressers and transgender people were simply called "transvestites."

If in the 60s someone could open a gay bar and get around problems with the law, it could bring good money: all LGBT people in the city, for lack of other options, would go there. The Stonewall Inn bar on Christopher Street was owned by people closely associated with the New York mob. They had money and, most importantly, connections with the police. So in 1966, the owners converted Stonewall Inn into a gay bar - now the entrance to the establishment was blocked by a door, and the bouncer examined each guest through the peephole and let only trusted people in. Inside, almost total darkness reigned: the windows were covered with plywood, the walls were painted black. Dim light bulbs, also painted over with black paint, were shining on two dance floors - they burned with a pulsating light, and the visitors saw each other only in the twilight.

Once a week, a man from the New York City Police Department came to Stonewall Inn and left with a puffy envelope. The owners of the establishment provided themselves with a roof and were now always warned in advance about checks. By the time the police broke into the building, a bright light was on in the bar. Transgender people managed to take off their wigs and change clothes, and gay couples regrouped - each tried to take a place on the dance floor next to a person of a different gender. The police arranged a formal ID check, took a couple of people to the toilet to check if their clothes were “appropriate” for their biological sex, and left. The holiday continued.


Some people recall that drag queen Marsha P. Johnson threw a glass into the mirror

and screamed: "I have a license!"

The bar had no fire exits and no running water - used glasses and glasses were rinsed in basins and put back on the bar. But no one cared about this: a gay bar appeared for the first time in New York, where you can dance until the morning and almost not be afraid of the police. After sunset, there was always a crowd at Stonewall Inn.

On Saturday, June 28, 1969, about two hundred people gathered at Stonewall Inn. The fun was in full swing when the police broke into the establishment at 1:20 am. This time, the bright lamps did not light up in advance, no one had time to change their clothes and regroup - the check came without warning. It was later said that the owners of the bar had taken to blackmailing one of the rich and influential visitors and that he provided them with problems with the law.

When the police arrived, the music died down and the overhead light turned on. Several people, realizing what was happening, tried to escape through the windows in the toilet, but it turned out that the police blocked the entrances and exits. Anyone the police suspected of being transgender and cross-dressing were lined up. The women were taken to the toilet one by one to check their biological sex. The alcohol from the bar was confiscated and taken outside to be loaded into a police van. Those who had not been arrested went out into the street and crowded around the bar, waiting for what would happen next. Gradually, a crowd gathered on Christopher Street - representatives of LGBT people, who were not in the bar that evening, having learned about the arrests, came to help their friends. Passers-by and neighbors came over to see what was happening. It was clear that a conflict was brewing - the police called for reinforcements, but when they arrived, the crowd around the bar only grew.

What happened next - no one knows for sure. There is still debate among historians and participants in the events about what was the starting point of the Stonewall riots. Some people recall that drag queen Marsha P.Johnson threw a glass into the mirror and shouted: "I have a license!" Perhaps, along with the sound of broken glass, a scuffle began. Others say they clearly remember how a "tall, handsome Puerto Rican" (apparently it was Sylvia Rivera) threw a milk carton at a policeman. There is evidence that this same person turned to a group of gay men and asked: "Why are you not doing anything?" According to other testimonies, the police started pushing the detainees into the bus, one of the women began to struggle and was hit on the head. Be that as it may, a large-scale fight began. The police were herded inside the bar and locked from the outside, the detainees began to flee, and the crowd rocked the police bus to turn it over. Thus began the Stonewall riots - spontaneous demonstrations and pogroms that lasted for several days.

The Stonewall riots became a landmark event - this moment is considered the first in history when the LGBT community has put up strong resistance to homophobic authorities and the actions of the police. After the events on Christopher Street, human rights organizations began to appear in the country, laws began to be revised, and a year after clashes with police in Greenwich Village, the first American gay pride parade took place.


After Stonewall

In the following years, human rights organizations and movements in defense of the LGBT community began to appear throughout the country. In New York, the largest were the Gay Liberation Front and the Union of Gay Activists. They released LGBT-related media outlets, prepared bills and raised money to help and protect community members.

Rivera and Johnson were members of both communities, some even believed that they were among their founders. But very quickly they began to feel superfluous there. If, immediately after the Stonewall riots, mutual understanding reigned among gays, transgender people and drag queens in New York, then after a while conflicts began. Sylvia recalled how one day, having come to a meeting of one of the coalitions with a friend, another drag queen, she felt lonely: there were no African Americans, Latin Americans, or transgender people around. “There were solid white cisgender gays and lesbians all around,” she lamented.

The more visible the LGBT community became and the calmer its representatives felt in New York, the more internal conflicts appeared in it. The community had its own internal discrimination. White, cisgender gays looked down on both transgender people and drag queens. The latter were accused of being "mannered" and fostering stereotypes about women.

In the summer of 1973, the Gay Liberation Front and the Union of Gay Activists held another, now traditional, pride in honor of the anniversary of the Stonewall riot. During the rally, one of the activists - white cisgender lesbian and radical feminist Jean O'Leary - took the floor. From the stage, she began to say that “these men dress up as women and play the roles assigned to us by the male society. These roles have nothing to do with femininity. " According to her, drag queens supported the patriarchal order and they had no place in the LGBT community. Other complaints about the drag queens were that they were trying to deny that they had "masculine privileges."

Sylvia also spoke at the rally that day. She recalled to the audience that the drag queens had also been involved in the riots on Christopher Street and played an important role there. Still, Rivera and Johnson left the LGBT movement and founded their own organization - STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The friends decided that first of all they would take care of people like them - homeless transgender and queer women forced to make a living by sex work. First, they settled their charges in an abandoned trailer. At night, Rivera and Johnson went to their clients, and in the morning they used the money they earned to buy groceries and bring breakfast to their "children."They were mostly teenagers - girls and boys who had recently run away from home.


Sylvia Rivera

until her death she spoke in defense of transgender people, national minorities, homeless

and low-income

STAR was constantly chased and evicted - first from the trailer, then from the building, for which the friends could not pay the rent. For a long time, the organization did not have a permanent home. But Rivera and Johnson, having earned some money, rented an apartment and a hotel room and brought all their charges there so that they could warm up, wash and sleep.

Sylvia Rivera, until her death, advocated for transgender people, national minorities, homeless and low-income LGBT people. Together, the girlfriends tried to make transgender people and drag queens become a noticeable part of the LGBT community and find their place in it. In honor of Rivera in New York, there is an organization RSLP - Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Volunteers and lawyers working on the project help people with any difficulties arising from gender or nationality.

Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992 - her body was fished in the river. The police immediately closed the case, declaring the incident a suicide. But eyewitnesses and friends of Johnson still claim that when she was taken out of the water, it was clear that her head was injured. Johnson's family was not allowed to look at the body before the funeral, and because of this, the story became even more suspicious. Marsha's supporters have protested for years and pushed for Johnson's death case to be reopened. This only happened in 2012. In 2017, Netflix released a documentary on Marsha P. Johnson and the investigation into her death. One of the heroines of the film - the legendary trans-activist Victoria Cruz - is trying to get to the bottom of the truth. She says that dozens of transgender people and drag queens are killed in New York every year. Basically, their murders remain unsolved: for the police, these stories are not particularly important, representatives of the LGBT community are still considered marginalized, whose death few people care about.

A few years after the death of her friend, Sylvia Rivera tried to commit suicide - in May 1995, she entered the very river where Johnson's body had been fished out before. As Rivera said, that morning she was sad, she drank a lot of alcohol and went ashore to think about Marsha and how she became lonely without her. On that day, Sylvia was saved, and in 2002 she died of cancer, having outlived her friend by ten years.

Rebirth of memory

In May 2019, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, New York authorities announced that a new monument would appear in the city: it will depict Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

It is not actually known if Johnson and Rivera were present at Stonewall Inn that evening. They themselves at different times told different versions of events. Sometimes Marsha P. Johnson herself said that she and Sylvia were indeed the instigators of the riot. On other days, she confessed: they appeared on the spot only half an hour after the start of the fight. Friends Johnson and Rivera claim they saw the mirror and milk bag incident themselves. For a long time, it was believed among many participants in those events that transgender people and drag queens were not involved in the coup. For years, their involvement in the watershed events of 1969 remained unnoticed. “The LGBTQ movement has long been portrayed as a white men's movement,” said New York City First Lady Shirlane McCrae. "This monument will break the trend to whitewash history."

Even if the skeptics are right and Johnson and Rivera weren't actually at Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, they were louder and more violent in the ensuing days of turmoil - everyone admits it. In addition, participating in the Christopher Street riots is far from the only thing the two friends have done for the LGBT community. Once on the streets in the 60s, for many years they helped low-income gays, lesbians and transgender people, provided them with housing and food, and defended their rights.In the early days of the LGBT movement, they were iconic figures in New York, with many people even approaching Marsha P. Johnson and taking pictures with her. After her death, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a human rights organization that fights for the rights of transgender African Americans, was launched. Modern drag star Ru Paul calls Johnson "the mother of drag" and says that she was the one who showed the way to all subsequent drag queens.

Photos: TASS, The Film Collaborative, Netflix, Wikimedia (1, 2, 3, 4)


Popular by topic