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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.