Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera
The category is… revolutionary love. Revolutionary women, civil rights pioneers, drag queens, freedom fighters. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were the vanguard of the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement. They openly embraced their sexuality, helped others to do the same, battled state violence and the stigmas placed upon the LGBTQ+ community, and were fierce champions in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera Early Years
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was born August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was born Malcolm Michaels, Jr., the fifth of seven children born to Alberta and Malcolm Michaels, Sr. The family was devout members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, her mother was a housekeeper, and Malcolm Sr., worked as an assembly line worker at General Motors. She knew as early as age five that she preferred feminine clothing, contrary to what was expected by her Christian upbringing. Although it doesn’t appear that Marsha endured physical abuse at home as a result of her sexuality, in one of her final interviews, she discussed being sexually harassed and later assaulted by one of the neighborhood boys. This harassment led her to briefly pause donning feminine apparel. Marsha moved to New York City in 1963 after graduating high school and arrived in the city with a bag of clothes and fifteen dollars to her name.She adopted the surname Johnson for her affinity for the popular eatery, Howard Johnson’s. Sex work became her means of survival and she created family among the other sex workers along Manhattan’s Christopher Street. It was there that Marsha met her sister in the struggle, Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia was born Ray Rivera on July 2, 1951, in New York City. She, like Marsha, was also rejected early on by her Puerto Rican/Venezuelan family for embracing her sexuality. Sylvia’s life lacked familial love from the start. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family early on and Sylvia was only three when her mother committed suicide. Sylvia embraced her sexuality early on, wearing her grandmother’s clothes, and by the fourth grade, she began wearing makeup, had sex at age seven with a male cousin, and at ten she was sleeping with her teacher, a married man. Her grandmother, Viejita, routinely beat Sylvia for having sex with men and told her she was unwanted and a “troublemaker,” largely in part – according to Sylvia – because of colorism and her desire for a “white child.” As a result, Sylvia made the streets her home and by age eleven she — like Marsha — engaged in survival sex work and was accepted into the kinship networks, or families, of the city’s drag queens. These families are lovingly crafted and comprised of members who’ve embraced their sexuality and subsequently rejected by biological kin. Yet, they aren’t a modern invention. In fact, these families maintain their roots – along with ballroom culture — in the nineteenth century.
New York’s Queer Culture — In Retrospect
New York’s ballroom scene dates to 1869 – yes, after the Civil War – at Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge Ball. The balls attracted thousands and were known for their lavish costumes and performances and enjoyed a diverse crowd of participants and spectators that included members of the LGBT+ community, heterosexual men and women, and even crossed racial lines￼
Harlem and the Village became well-known enclaves for LGBTQ community, but also small businesses, restaurants, bars, artists, and of course, tourists. Both locales also became known as spaces to dismiss social conventions and embrace free love of one’s choosing. Bars and speakeasies thrived in the Village, but as real estate investors took greater interest in the area, they sought to eliminate vice to bolster property investments. Bars, brothels, and other well-known LGBTQ spaces were subject to regular arrests and police crackdowns as a means of reducing vice for increased property values, but also as a method of controlling white sexuality. The frequent police harassment and persistent arrests that occurred in the 1920s continued through subsequent decades and culminated at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera: Stonewall Uprising
The Stonewall Uprising was a 6-day series of riots that occurred at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located on Christopher Street and a watershed moment for the LGBTQ rights movement. On the night of June 28, 1969, police officers entered the bar, assaulted patrons, seized bootlegged liquor, and arrested thirteen patrons including several who violated New York State’s gendered clothing statute. Instead of quietly dispersing, the Stonewall patrons and many other members of the LGBTQ community – according to legend, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – resisted arrest, pushing back against the state violence that had become so common.
All Power to the People: Activism in the Aftermath of Stonewall
By 1970, Marsha and Sylvia were at the forefront of the gay liberation movement. Despite historically integrated ballroom spaces and grassroots organizing that crossed racial/ethnic lines, the kinship networks formed within the LGBTQ community were far from racially harmonious. LGBTQ people of color are often faced with the struggle of being accepted in two communities: racial and/or ethnic connections and those related to sexual orientation and trans women and men were often dismissed for not being “normal heterosexuals.” Sylvia was a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), but as both organizations grew increasingly conservative, they rejected transgender rights as well as Sylvia’s membership. As a result, Marsha and Sylvia established Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) to provide basic needs for homeless trans women and to serve as a policy advocate. S.T.A.R. continued serving as a resource and advocate for trans men and women and successfully lobbied for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill as well as trans inclusion in the New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.Johnson and Rivera’s revolutionary approach was considered radical for the period and Johnson’s philosophy on securing equal rights regardless of sexual orientation was simple, “We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.” S.T.A.R. collaborated with other revolutionary groups of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. Rivera met with Panther co-founder Huey Newton in 1971, and agreed they were sisters and brothers in the struggle for freedom. These collaborations may have been the key to S.T.A.R.‘s influence, building bridges with other oppressed groups, with a common goal of obtaining human rights.
Public Health & Human Rights: HIV/AIDS Activism
The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was a core focus of S.T.A.R.’s activism. Marsha had been arrested multiple times, confined in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, and resisted police violence most of her life. Those experiences led her to assist those recently released from incarceration with obtaining housing. She also worked closely with ACT UP, an organization working to combat the AIDS epidemic. Marsha revealed her HIV positive status in 1992 and later that year, after years of incarceration and mental health struggles, Marsha’s body was discovered in the Hudson River after the New York Gay Parade. Police initially ruled her death a suicide, but friends, family, and community organizers suspected foul play and pressed authorities for an authentic investigation. Marsha’s case was reopened, yet the cause of her death has yet to be determined. Sylvia continued her work on behalf of trans folks and championed Marsha’s legacy. She succumbed to liver cancer in 2002.
In 2019, activists around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, reflected on the gains since those six nights in 1969, and elevated the legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Although Stonewall was a watershed moment, it was a modern catalyst to push the LGBTQ rights movement forward, as many pioneers had resisted state violence and harassment by moral reformers for a century prior to Stonewall. After decades of this country has made few advances in the struggle for equity, but we still have a long way to go. Marsha P. Johnson firmly believed in that equity and argued, “As long as people with AIDS and as long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason to celebrate.” Marsha and Sylvia’s love for the people and their legacies continue to shine in the 21st century, but the fight is far from over, and the time is not ripe for celebration.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
 K. C. Washington, “Marsha P. Johnson,” in BlackPast.org, accessed August 29, 2020, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/marsha-p-johnson-1945-1992/.
 Oliver Stabbe, “Queens and Queers: The Rise of Drag Ball Culture in the 1920s,” in O Say Can You See: Stories from the Museum Blog, Smithsonian Institution-National Museum of American History, (April 11, 2016) accessed September 6, 2020 https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/queens-and-queers-rise-drag-ball-culture-1920s
 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: Basic Books, 1994)237.
 Chauncey, Gay New York, 246.
 Chauncey, Gay New York, 238.
 Sylvia Rivera, “Sylvia Rivera’s Talk at LGMNY, June 2001, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City,” in Centro Journal 19, no.1 (2007): 117-123, esp. 121.
 Victor Salvo, ”Sylvia Rivera – Inductee,” in Legacy Project Chicago, accessed September 1, 2020 https://legacyprojectchicago.org/person/sylvia-rivera
 Direct quote from Johnson. Bernadette Marie Calafell,” Narrative Authority, Theory in the Flesh, and the Fight over The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 6, no. 2 (2019): 26-39, esp. 27.
 Maddox Wilson,” Against Co-Optation: The Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in Left Voice accessed September 1, 2020 https://www.leftvoice.org/against-co-optation-the-life-of-marsha-p-johnson
Jessi, Gan, “Still At the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle,” in Centro Journal 19, no.1 (2007): 124-139, esp. 129.
Digital Transgender Archive (DTA). Link to source.
The DTA is a collaborative digital humanities project hosted by the Boston Public Library’s Digital Commonwealth project, the College of the Holy Cross and sixty additional universities and humanities-based institutions. The archive contains manuscript and photograph archival material and serves as a finding aid for other global collections related to transgender history and activism.
Lesbian Herstory Archives. Link to source.
The largest digital collection of lesbian history and activism.
New York Historical Society, Women at the Center Project, 1970 Interview with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on WBAI radio. Link to source.
A newly released WBAI New York radio interview with Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera from 1970 about the formation of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). The link will take you to a full blog article by the New York Historical Society (they have a full archive and exhibition related to the topic) and the interview links are contained within.
New York Public Library Digital Collections: Manuscripts and Archives Division. Link to source.
The NYPL hosts a large digital photo archive which includes numerous photographs of Marsha P. Johnson engaged in grassroots organizing.
Rivera, Sylvia. “Sylvia Rivera’s Talk at LGMNY, June 2001, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City,” in Centro Journal 19 no.1 (2007): 117-123.
A transcript of Sylvia Rivera’s 2001 speech at the LGMNY.
Born, Tyler. “Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson” in Challenging Gender Boundaries: A Trans Biography Project by Students of Dr. Catherine Jacquet, accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
Kuwabara, Sessi. “At STAR House, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera Created a Home for Trans People,” Vice News June 8, 2020, accessed August 25, 2020. Link to source.
Article centered on Johnson and Rivera’s work with STAR. This piece is part of a larger digital project entitled Queers Built This hosted by Vice News.
Washington, KC. “Marsha P. Johnson,” in BlackPast.org, accessed August 15, 2020. Link to source.
Klebine, Anna. “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Drag Queen Scorned”: Sylvia Rivera’s Activism, Resistance, and Resilience,” in Challenging Gender Boundaries: A Trans Biography Project by Students of Dr. Catherine Jacquet, accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
Books and Journal Articles
Calafell, Bernadette Marie. “Narrative Authority, Theory in the Flesh, and the Fight Over The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 6, no. 2 (Summer 2019), pp. 26-39.
Focuses on the controversy resulting from the Netflix documentary about Marsha P. Johnson’s life. The author uses Queer Theory to argue the documentary whitewashed Marsha P.’s biography and, by extension, the life experiences of trans people of color.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.
Recounts and analyzes the 1969 Stonewall Uprising using oral histories, first-person interviews, and sealed municipal records. The PBS documentary *Stonewall Uprising* was based on Carter’s work.
Cook, Timothy E. “The Empirical Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Politics: Assessing the First Wave of Research.” The American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (1999): 679-92. Accessed August 25, 2020.
Review essay covering ten monographs on LGBTQ identity and sexual politics as well as HIV/AIDS activism.
Duberman, Martin and Andrew Kopkind. “The Night They Raided Stonewall,” in Grand Street 44 (1993), pp 120-147.
Martin Duberman, LGBTQ+ rights activist and professor of American history, recounts the events leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.
Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2012 accessed. Link to source.
This short article focuses on STAR’s founding and collaboration with other grassroots organizations such as the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. It truly demonstrates coalition building and dispels negative perceptions of revolutionary organizations during the 1970s.
Gan, Jessi. “Still At the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle,” in Centro Journal 19, no.1 (2007): 124-139.
Gan offers a deeper dive into Rivera’s early life to argue that her “accountability to her ‘children’ and of inclusive love” fueled her passion for social justice.
Glass, Dan. United Queerdom: From the Legends of the Gay Liberation Front to the Queers of Tomorrow. London: Zed Books, Ltd., 2020.
British activist Dan Glass documents the evolution of the LGBT Rights movement in America and its impact on British culture and politics. Glass speaks specifically to the work of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and their collaborative work with the Black Panther Party in the 1970s.
Haynes, Suyin. “How the Fight Against Police Brutality Helped Ignite the LGBTQ-Rights Movement,” in Time (June 19, 2020) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
This article establishes the connections between state violence and the origins of the LGBTQ movement at Stonewall.
Morris, Charles E. and Thomas K. Nakayama. “Paying Mind to GLBTQ Pasts,” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1, no. 2 (Summer 2014), pp. 26-39.
This article is the introduction to a special issue centered on LGBTQ+ activism.
Mullen, Bill. “Meet James Baldwin: the Black, Gay, Angry Novelist Who Pathed the Way for the Stonewall Uprising,” in Pink News (November 2, 2019) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
Mullen’s article provides insight into the life and writings of James Baldwin and his influence on Marsha P. Johnson and the LGBT Rights Movement.
New York Public Library, eds. The Stonewall Reader. New York: Penguin Classics, 2019.
An anthology published in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising that traces the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the five years before and after the uprising.
O’Brien, Keegan. “Tearing Down the Walls,” in Jacobin Magazine (August 25, 2015) accessed August 25, 2020. Link to source.
Provides an overview of the Stonewall Uprising and the Gay Liberation Movement with commentary on the current and future of the movement.
Riemer, Matthew and Leighton Brown. We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2019.
A curated collection of photographs documenting the Queer Liberation Movement from 19th century Europe to contemporary activists of the 21st century. The Stonewall Uprising is featured in the book along with parades, protests, Queer family life, and culminates with Pride.
White, Deborah Gray. “Out and on the Outs: The 1990s Mass Marches and the Black and LGBT Communities.” In Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America, edited by Jennifer Brier, Jim Downs, and Jennifer L. Morgan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 282-294.
Prominent historian Deborah Gray White explores the issue of race and gender within the LGBT Rights Movement and the continuing fight for civil rights in the 1990s.
Wilson, Maddox. “Against Co-Optation: The Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in Left Voice (August 24, 2019) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
A guest essay reflecting on the life and legacy of Marsha P. Johnson.
Heilbroner, David. “Stonewall Uprising,” in American Experience. PBS Documentary. Aired June 9, 2020. Link to source.
PBS American Experience presents the Stonewall Uprising, based on the monograph written by David Carter.
Kasino, Michael and Richard Morrison. “Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson” Film accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
One-hour documentary complete with Marsha P. Johnson’s final interview from 1992, as well as a series of interviews with other gay rights activists who were present during the Stonewall Uprising in 1969.
Stonewall FOREVER. Link to source.
A digital monument and collective learning/reflection space for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Provides content central to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as integral leaders of the uprising and the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Queers Built This. Link to source.
A digital exhibition curated by *Vice News* covering LGBTQ activism, culture, and social issues.