RAZZ Pride Icons: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Born in 1945, Marsha P. Johnson was an African-American trans rights/gay rights/AIDS activist, sex worker, and drag queen. Whenever someone asked her what the “P” in her name stood for, she would reply: “Pay it No Mind.” Sylvia Rivera was born in New York City in 1951 of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent, and worked as a trans rights/gay rights activist and drag queen as well.

Rivera and Johnson are most notably linked with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York City. In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was viewed as one of the few safe havens for LGBTQ+ people, and furthermore, for the most marginalised members of that community – mainly drag queens, transgender people, people of colour, butch lesbians, male sex workers, and homeless youth.

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969 (coincidentally Marsha P. Johnson’s 25th birthday), the police began to raid the Stonewall Inn. It was standard procedure for police officers to ‘verify’ the sex of women in clubs, and arrest any crossdressers. Clear instances of police brutality occurred when drag queens were violently handled and lesbians sexually harassed. Onlookers started gathering outside the Inn and a violent riot broke out.


We know that Johnson and Rivera were there that night – although details aren’t clear. Some say that Rivera was there drinking already with her boyfriend, while others say that she threw the first bottle while in the crowd of onlookers. Some say Johnson threw the first “shot glass heard around the world”, others say she threw the first brick, and others say she didn’t come until the riots had already broken out.

Whatever actually happened, Johnson and Rivera were present and active in the Stonewall riots that birthed the gay rights movement. One year later, New York City’s first gay pride parade was led by Johnson and Rivera. After Stonewall, they co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), dedicating themselves to helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of color.

During the 1980s AIDS crisis, Johnson became a leading activist with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, who took action such as with the Wall Street demonstration against the exploitative prices of experimental AIDS drugs. Johnson died in 1992 at age 48 under suspicious circumstances when her body was found floating in the Hudson River. The case remains unsolved and has suffered major neglect like many murder cases surrounding trans women. Rivera died in 2002 at the age of 50, after periods of homelessness and being left behind by the rest of the LGBTQ+ community.


Find out more: Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots – Drunk History – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLEOK_i5X00

The transgender women at Stonewall were pushed out of the gay rights movement. Now they are getting a statue in New York. – https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/12/transgender-women-heart-stonewall-riots-are-getting-statue-new-york/?utm_term=.c4cbc6ea475f (Image Source)

Meet the Trans Women of Color Who Helped Put Stonewall on the Map – https://www.mic.com/articles/121256/meet-marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera-transgender-stonewall-veterans 

The Unsung Heroines of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – https://sites.psu.edu/womeninhistory/2016/10/23/the-unsung-heroines-of-stonewall-marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera/

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson – https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Netflix Buys Documentary ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ – https://variety.com/2017/film/news/the-death-and-life-of-marsha-p-johnson-netflix-1202452021/ 

Charlotte ‘Fozz’ Forrester


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