The Founding Drag Mothers of Gay Liberation

Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera: History’s Bravest Heroes You’ve Never Heard Of

Marsha P. “Pay it No Mind” Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are drag queens that are not honorably mentioned in the popular television series, RuPaul’s Drag Race. The activists are also not mentioned in your history or sociology books, and they certainly are not taught by your professor. Who were these transgender women? History’s greatest and gayest heroes you’ve never heard of.

“Marsha Johnson is our queen forever.”
The queen is seen in drag which was also her normal dress

First and foremost, Marsha P. Johnson was a black drag queen and a transgender woman. She is credited as the “beloved founder of the gay movement” in the Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

Sylvia Rivera promotes her and Marsha’s support group, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR).

After meeting Marsha at just 12-years-old, Sylvia felt like she had found her mother. Latina transgender woman, Sylvia Rivera, who was also a drag queen, teamed up with Marsha to create their support group called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Together, they helped young homeless drag queens, gay people, and trans women, and despite being poor and almost always homeless, Marsha and Sylvia were able to move and change the lives of LGBTQ people in their own special way. Sylvia said she and Marsha did not mind getting their heads smashed in if it meant helping others. Both women had also been arrested multiple times in their lives, and sometimes were arrested for no reason at all other than being a drag queen.

This is a picture of the Stonewall Inn (before the fire in 1969) located on
53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village of New York City. In 2016 the bar became a National monument, making it the first to be dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history.

The history of the Stonewall Inn is essential to understanding how it became famous as the Stonewall Riots. The inn was an all-male gay bar owned by the Mafia in the 1960s. At the time, gay people were not allowed in bars, but the Mafia would pay off the police to keep from arresting their customers. But on June 28, 1969, the police raided the bar. The policemens’ guns were drawn; Stonewall patrons were being put into police cars. Police returned inside the bar after many people started hollering and throwing coins at police, removing parking meters, setting fires, and more. Molotov cocktails were thrown into the Stonewall Inn causing a fire inside the building.  

The Stonewall Riots in June 1969 showing the gravity of the situation.

Sylvia and Marsha gave their testimonies of what they did and saw that first night of the riots. Marsha claims she arrived after the riot had already started and said Sylvia and some others were “over in the park having a cocktail.” After Marsha found Sylvia, they and other rioters started turning over cars and blocking traffic. Sylvia Rivera is also credited as the first person to throw a brick, bottle, or Molotov cocktail into the Stonewall Inn. Sylvia validated this was a lie.

A small segment from the following morning’s article on the previous night’s historical raid and riot.

There is no doubt Marsha was a veteran of the Stonewall riots, but most of what was said about her involvement has been mythologized as the drag queen who started the riots. She was however according to the documentary, Pay it No Mind one of the first to “physically resist the police.” “Anyone with more to lose would never have stood up to the cops the way drag queens…did at the Stonewall…” said one activist in The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement.

What’s so interesting about Marsha and Sylvia’s activism was that, for years, it was not well received by the people they were essentially fighting for. Both the documentaries give this idea that Marsha and Sylvia had many friends and allies, which is true, however there were more people who were prejudice against them because they were drag queens and transgender women. At the time, they were seen as inferior even to LGB, and certainly did not belong in their community.

Here is Sylvia Rivera’s forceful and emotionally charged speech where she argues that she is fighting for gay liberation through STAR (1973).

In 1973 at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, Sylvia was booed while on stage by the majority LGB audience for being a drag queen and a transgender activist. Despite the negative response, Sylvia continued her speech, where she mentions her group, STAR. She shamed the audience in not helping the gay people who were in jails and shelters and were being raped by white heterosexual men. Meanwhile, STAR was morally and physically supporting these victims. Sylvia claimed many of these gay people in jails and shelters were trying to transition to women by having sex-change operations or receiving hormones, but could not because they neither had money or money to post bail. Her speech was so memorable with her anger and frustration. She ended her speech by spelling the words “gay power.”

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in New York City (unknown date)

Sylvia suffered from severe alcoholism after the sudden death of Marsha in 1992. People of the LGBTQ community believed she was murdered, but the police did a minimal investigation and claimed she committed suicide. The now suicidal Sylvia was also living in extreme poverty as she was homeless and owned very little. Friends and loved ones helped Sylvia by helping her get clean and giving her a home. She continued her activism with organizations: Sylvia’s Place, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and New Alternatives for LGBT Youth until her death from liver cancer in 2002. The actions that Marsha and Sylvia took for gay liberation drastically impacted the gay community. The drag queens both deserve credit for the risks they took, despite resistance from the people who they were trying to liberate.

3 thoughts on “The Founding Drag Mothers of Gay Liberation”

  • I honestly didn’t know much about the history of our Trans Sisters in the early years, and now i wish i knew more. Trans people in general are one of the most ignored groups in society today, even in the LGBTQIA+ community they don’t get equal treatment and it sucks. To know these brave individuals helped fight for our rights, and we can’t even acknowledge their awesomeness is beyond me. i personally cherish the trans individuals i know, but i know thats not the case with most people in community. So hopefully this article helps people started to be more positive towards Trans people today. Because we’re all fighting the same struggle.

  • This was so interesting! I honestly did not know that Marsha and Sylvia even existed. This post also sheds light on the struggles that the LGBTQ+ community has faced; and faced not that long ago. The LGBTQ+ community has become more accepted over the years, but we are nowhere near complete equality. There is still so much progress that needs to be made.

  • I honestly did not have any idea how much Marsha and Sylvia stood for. I think they were brave for advocating for people who in the first place did not want it. They were very strong women. I think it was great to focus on them, and share their story.

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