Stonewall and Beyond: Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera, and the Marginalization of Trans People of Color

I as a straight black male have been allies with the LGBTQIA+ community back when it was just called the gay community, when DuPont Circle in Washington, DC where I grew up was the gay hub, where I bought house music from 12 Inch Dance Records and drank at Cagney’s bar.

I was marching in the Silence=Death campaign, fighting for AIDS funding against the virulent anti-gay fervor, and partying at the then Gay Pride parades. Christians were practically throwing bibles at the processionals, their rhetoric drowned out by bumping club music from speakers atop spectacular rainbow colored floats.

It shocked me to witness the amount of heat directed at bisexual and transgender folks within the gay community. According to the offenders, bisexuals could not make up their minds, and transgender persons (transsexuals as they were called then) were grotesque and disgusting. Then there were those who openly discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, and attacking them with racial epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘spic’.

Which made them not only ignorant, but completely hypocritical if you research the history of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

It began at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City. Like many gay establishments, the New York City Liquor Authority refused to issue liquor licenses, so it operated underground and was protected by the mafia. Police often raided gay bars under the guise of not having said licenses. This was the 1960’s, when being gay was illegal, as well as deemed a mental illness according to the American Psychological Association.

Then on June 28 1969 two individuals helped lead a riot at Stonewall. They were transgender women of color trans/gay activists, sex workers and drag queens - Marsha P. Johnson (black) and Sylvia Rivera (Latina). Johnson allegedly threw the first brick that sparked the riot.

Stonewall began a movement. It led to the first Pride parade on June 28, 1970 on the riot’s anniversary; the eventual dismantling of anti-gay laws; and though there is a huge amount of progress to be made, the LGBTQIA+ community has amassed a modicum of political and economic power and civil rights victories including marriage equality.

Johnson and Rivera were a part of the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and were instrumental in forming the first Pride parade, and co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Rebels) focused on assisting young homeless drag queens and Trans women of color.

Sex workers–prostitutes, strippers, porn actors, and others–have characteristically been marginalized in feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements, and Johnson was no exception. Her HIV status further pushed her to the margins as she struggled to receive adequate health care. Her death in 1992 at the age of 46 remains under suspicion.

A documentary depicting Johnson’s life debuted on Netflix in 2017 entitled The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

Many observers have assumed that today the LGBTQIA+ community is a unified front. This could not be further from the truth. 26 years after Johnson’s death, the transgender community is still separate and unequal.

White transgender persons suffer half the discrimination than their counterparts of color, who disproportionately are victims of hate crimes including rape, physical violence and homicide. They suffer in the shadows, and many of whom are unemployed and homeless. Consequently they are forced to create their own organizations just to be heard.

I find it disturbing that once again that the transgender activists who are in front of the camera leading the movement are predominantly white, while the activists of color are pushed to the margins.

Frankly, I am not well versed in the so-called bathroom bill, and how it affects the transgender community across racial and class lines. I do wonder, however, if white transgender leaders truly understand and empathize with the fundamental struggles transgender people of color face, or do they view them as lower priorities?

Johnson’s and Rivera’s story should be known by every member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Although they are remembered by older generations across racial lines, because they are not white, their stories are not kept alive for the new generations. Instead they are buried by a white controlled transgender community who fights for themselves first.

According to observers, Greenwich Village, which was a sanctuary for marginalized groups especially for people of color is now gentrified, its modernity whitewashing over the artefactual grandeur within a pivotal time in history.

Since 2000, WorldPride has held annual events in host cities around the globe to celebrate and promote the LGBTQIA+ community. Next year it will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in New York City. It will be a return to where it all began.

What sort of homecoming will it really be? True Pride occurs when there is equity in remembrance, celebration and inclusion. It is a travesty to exclude those who transformed a moment into a movement, and to marginalize those who have come behind them to carry the mantle.

During this historic commemoration, will Johnson and Rivera be in the shadows once again, or will the world finally lift them up as the icons they were?

Ron Kipling Williams