History remembers New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn as the birthplace of the modern LGBT rights movement. On June 28, 1969 it’s bar patrons clashed with the police who had arrived to arrest and shame same-sex couples who came there to dance and socialize with each other.
The Rebellion on this day now marks Gay Pride and Christopher Street Day celebrations across the world. And while The New York Times describes a recent film version of the event to includes the “invention of a generic white knight” making it “tantamount to stealing history from the people who made it,” the truth is that transgender women of color were leading the fight.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were there. They witnessed the police raid and were among the first people to fight back. Born male, Johnson who was African American and Rivera, who was Puerto Rican, were then known as drag queens, or transvestites, but they self-identified as women. Today, both Rivera and Johnson should be understood as women. They both lived in New York City. And, because of their gender non-conformity, racism, and their sexual orientation, they often struggled for food, shelter, and safety. Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project advocates on behalf of their community.
Their courage, their acts of resistance, and in 1970 their activisms as co-founders of STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, they were pillars of the gay liberation movement.
Watch: Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson (1992)
Along with other STAR members—Bubbles Rose Marie, Andorra, Bebe Scarpi, Bambi L’Amour, and Miss Pixie—they fought for gender liberation within the movement.
Their radical actions for LBGT justice in New York City—at City Hall and on Wall Street—were also important examples for AIDS activisms in the 1980s, especially for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP.
Watch: Slyvia Rivera: Trans Movement Founder (n.d)
Listen: Anthony and the Johnsons, “River of Sorrow” from Anthony and the Johnsons (1998)
Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (2013)
Susan Stryker, Transgender History (2008)
Photo Credit: LGBT Community Center National History Archive