The story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York is well-known. But what’s often missed in mainstream discussions are the revolutionary figures who were at the heart of the gay liberation movement the riots gave birth to.
Two leaders of the movement—Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson—were only 17 and 23 years old when the riots took place.
The early gay liberation movement had to fight against almost impossible odds. The police ran constant raids against gay people’s spaces, such the Stonewall Inn, and harassed them on the streets. Rivera and Johnson sought to broaden the fight against oppression into one against the system. As we celebrate LGBT+ History Month this year, remembering their radicalism has lessons for us today in the fight for liberation.
Sylvia Rivera is often overlooked in the history books, but she was one of the most influential activists of her generation. Rivera was born to a poor Latino family in New York in 1951 and endured a tragic childhood. When she was just three years old, her single mother killed herself, leaving her an orphan in her grandmother’s care.
From an early age, she experimented with more feminine looks and styles. But, when Rivera was just shy of 11 years old, her grandmother kicked her out for the way she presented herself. She was homeless and forced into prostitution. Rivera found refuge with a local group of gay people, where she adopted the name Sylvia.
A year after the Stonewall Riots at the age of 18, she joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). It was split from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the movement born out of the Stonewall Riots. While the GAA used militant tactics and pushed for significant changes, its political focus was much narrower than the GLF’s.
But Rivera’s radicalism grew over time and she became involved in a myriad of movements throughout the 1970s. They included fighting for black rights alongside the Black Panthers, the movement against the war in Vietnam and the fight for women’s liberation. It was during this time that she developed a belief that effective resistance must unite different struggles.
This view was shared by her new friend, Marsha P Johnson, whom she met through the GAA. Together they formed Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (Star), who prioritised advocacy and direct help for homeless LGBT+ people. Their campaigning was recognised much later with the passing of the Sexual Orientation and Non-Discrimination Act—known as the Sylvia Rivera law—in 2002. It prevents discrimination against LGB people in “employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights” in New York.
Rivera often made what were considered “controversial” speeches at demonstrations. She argued for the gay liberation movement to adopt more radical positions, making her at times quite unpopular. Rivera was an open revolutionary, saying in an interview in 1998, “I was a radical, a revolutionist. I still am”.
She should be remembered for her commitment to a radical overhaul of society to win true liberation when the world was strongly against her.
Johnson is often quoted to be the first person to have thrown a brick at the police during the Stonewall Riots. Whatever the truth of this story, they were a radical who played a key role in the foundation of the gay liberation movement.
Johnson was born into a black working class family. At a young age they began experimenting with their gender presentation, but stopped due to harassment and negative comments made by their mother. They did not experiment with their sexuality or gender identity further until they had left for New York at the age of 17, reportedly with $15 and a bag of clothes.
After meeting other LGBT+ people in the city their gender identity developed, becoming a drag queen. Today they probably would have been described as “gender non-conforming”, a label that didn’t exist at the time.
Johnson was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and took an active part in the riots in 1969. The riots themselves were in response to a violent police raid—something gay venues regularly faced. They lasted around two days and involved a peak of around 1,000 demonstrators. Many of them were from poor and marginalised backgrounds. The riots spurred on radicalism within the movement, with gay rights groups forming in every major US city and across Europe, Australia and Canada.
Following Stonewall, Johnson was involved in a series of other direct actions across New York including “sit in protests”, first as a member of the GLF and then STAR.
There have always been splits among gay activists over whether to fight for liberation or win changes within the system by proving their respectability. The movement that burst forth after Stonewall had marked a significant break with politics of moderate groups such as the Mattachine Society.
However, when the movement failed to break through, splits began to emerge over the way forward and how respectable they had to be in order to win change.
Both Johnson and Rivera were banned from attending some pride marches, due to their unconventional appearance and political ideas. Their response, much to the disappointment of the moderate activists, was to march anyway.
Johnson suffered heavily with mental distress, exacerbated by homelessness and harassment due to their identity. It was tragically this violence that led to their death in 1992 where Johnson’s body was discovered in the Hudson River. Classed as suicide by the police, Johnson’s friends contested this by arguing that at the time they had not been suicidal.
This ruling went at odds with the large head wound inflicted upon Johnson shortly before their death, suspected to be violence carried out during a hate crime. After several attempts it took until 2012 for the New York Police Department to re-open the case where it was deemed as “probable murder”.
Although early LGBT+ activism runs deep with tragedy, we can learn a lot from these struggles.
The radical and revolutionary politics of Rivera and Johnson played a crucial role in the development of the LGBT+ movements. The gains we have made today are in part thanks to them.
But the rise in transphobia and attacks on LGBT+ rights across the world show that reforms are not enough. That is why the ideas of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson are so relevant today. They saw the struggles of LGBT+ people as a revolutionary one demanding system change, even if they did not explicitly identify as socialists.
Rivera and Johnson were not afraid to challenge the backward ideas of the time even within the movement—something which ended their exclusion from pride parades. They were right to do so, and it is right to continue that tradition today.
When companies like Barclays and Starbucks try to make Pride corporate, we have to put forward a radical alternative that is based on struggle and solidarity. It’s one that builds on the history of Rivera and Johnson. We should learn about how they linked the struggle for LGBT+ liberation with other struggles against oppression. The slogan that was popular at protests and Pride events that took place last summer – “Black Trans Lives Matter” –picks up on their politics.
It is through their struggle and suffering that the rights of LGBT+ people today have been won. We can’t stop now. In a context of rising transphobia and LGBT+ hate crime, we have to stand in solidarity and face these attacks head on, just as Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did.
And we have to take the radicalism of the early gay liberation movement further, and identify the system that causes our oppression as capitalism.