Author’s note: Out of respect for how people described their identities at the time, this article uses several terms now considered archaic by the LGBTQ+ community.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LiberationSchool.org on October 13, 2020.
In the pantheon of figures in the history of LGBTQ struggles, few stand higher than Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Venerated for their leading roles in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City, these two working-class trans women of color were lifelong activists and revolutionaries. They believed that the only way to escape the harsh homophobic and transphobic oppression and class oppression created by capitalist society was to destroy it and transform it entirely.
As they fought to defend their lives and livelihoods, Marsha and Sylvia came up against the brick wall of the capitalist system and the police who defended it. Their drive to win acceptance for trans people — and especially trans people of color — in the struggles of working people and oppressed nations brought them shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow revolutionaries in the Black Panthers and Young Lords, the latter of which would join their mutual aid group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Up until the end of their lives, Marsha and Sylvia never relented in their fight to win liberation for working-class and transgender people, even as their comrades around them died from AIDS and vicious murders, and a bigoted society refused to acknowledge their existence, much less embrace them as full human beings.
We can learn from the examples set by Marsha and Sylvia as principled, dedicated, and patient revolutionaries and honor them by keeping alive not just a snapshot, but the entirety of their lives in the struggle.
The historic uprising that launched the gay liberation movement
On the night of June 28, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, turned into a three-day uprising against police brutality, homophobia, and transphobia when the patrons decided enough was enough. The police had long extorted gay clubs — one of the few places LGBTQ people could feel safe — for protection money, but Stonewall had already paid up that month. As working-class gay and trans people fought back with bricks, petrol bombs, their fists, and even an uprooted parking meter, they chased the New York Police Department from the streets and found a new strength to collectively resist.
Many of the leaders of that revolt, such as Sylvia and Marsha, became leaders in the new gay rights movement Stonewall had launched.
“We always felt that the police were the real enemy,” Sylvia told trans revolutionary Leslie Feinberg about the lead-up to Stonewall in an interview many years later. “We were not taking any more of this shit. We had done so much for other movements. It was time …. You get tired of being pushed around.”
Sylvia had fled her childhood home at the age of eleven in 1961, finding a life with drag queens and sex workers on the street, the only place where she had the freedom to explore her gender identity. Marsha, some six years older than Sylvia, became her mentor and protector, teaching her how to survive in a harshly transphobic world where even wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes for one’s birth-assigned gender was a crime. Marsha had come to New York prior to coming out, hiding her identity from her parents until graduating high school.
Before the Stonewall Uprising, gay, lesbian, and transgender groups (which at the time referred to themselves as either transvestites or transsexuals) typically advocated separately for inclusion, and one of the most transformative aspects of the uprising was to unite many of these groups under a common banner.
A new politics emerges from the Stonewall Rebellion
Stonewall sent shockwaves through existing gay advocacy groups like the Mattachine Society, which pursued gay acceptance by presenting an image of gays as inoffensive and non-threatening to straight society. Bricks flying through windows and working-class trans people skirmishing with cops in the street didn’t sit well with this crowd, and the more radically-minded members — including Mattachine’s communist founder Harry Hay — soon split to form the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an anti-capitalist group named in honor of the National Liberation Fronts in Vietnam and Algeria.
“Soft, weak, sensitive! … That’s the role society has been forcing these queens to play,” soon-to-be GLF co-founder Jim Fouratt said in a stormy New York Mattachine meeting a week after Stonewall. “We have got to radicalize. Be proud of who you are … and if it takes riots or even guns to show them what we are, well, that’s the only language that the pigs understand!”
GLF brought together not just gays, lesbians, and transgender people but also Marxists, antiwar activists, and radical feminists and allied themselves with the Black Panther Party. However, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) soon split off from GLF in order to once again focus exclusively on winning gay rights, adopting an in-your-face style using direct action tactics like ‘zaps’, which targeted officials and institutions, putting them on the spot to support equal rights for LGBTQ people or for having anti-gay practices.
Marsha was one of GLF’s co-founders, and Sylvia soon joined both GLF and GAA. The two became their most energetic activists. However, historian Martin Duberman described how they, and other non-white and trans people, were not always welcome:
“A Hispanic street queen’s transgressive being produced automatic alarm: Sylvia was from the wrong ethnic group, from the wrong side of the tracks, wearing the wrong clothes — managing single-handedly and simultaneously to embody several frightening, overlapping categories of Otherness. By her mere presence, she was likely to trespass against some encoded middle-class white script, and could count on being constantly patronized when not being summarily excluded. If someone was not shunning her darker skin or sniggering at her passionate, fractured English, they were deploring her rude anarchism as inimical to order or denouncing her sashaying ways as offensive to womanhood. Sylvia’s ability to represent herself in unconventional form had enabled her to have a life, but it had also made her a haunting affront to those inhabiting standardized shapes.”
According to Duberman, Sylvia was challenged on her gender by some of the cisgender women in GAA, who claimed she had “male privilege” and was “copying and flaunting some of the worst aspects of female oppression.” This tension boiled over the following year during a showdown at the elite private New York University, whose Greenwich Village campus is located just a couple of blocks from the Stonewall Inn.
“We’re tired of running”: The NYU occupation
On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the GAA hosted a gay ball in the basement of the Weinstein residence hall on the NYU campus in conjunction with the student group Gay Student Liberation. The event’s huge success led to subsequent dances every Friday evening, but the university administration soon banned the dances. In response, the activists united with GLF to launch a protest occupation of Weinstein Hall in September.
During the five-day open occupation — led by Marsha, Sylvia, and several other trans people — the activists hosted teach-ins on gay liberation and organized mass outreach events across the campus and city. The occupation received wide support from the student body as the university administration tried to force them out.
On September 25, the NYPD’s Tactical Police Squad arrived and threatened to storm the hall just hours before another dance was set to begin. While most of the activists decided to vacate, many of the trans leadership stayed and were eventually dragged out by the police. In a stormy response to the event, they condemned the actions of the other activists as a betrayal, and their polemic was also the founding document of Street Transvestites for Gay Power, which would focus on elevating the cause of working-class gay and trans people. However, its name soon changed to Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
“The question is, do we want gay power or pig power?” they wrote. “If you want gay power, then you’re going to have to fight for it. And you’re going to have to fight until you win. Because once you start you’re not going to be able to stop, because if you do, you’ll lose everything. You won’t just lose this fight, but all the other fights all over the country …. All we fought for at Weinstein Hall was lost when we left upon request of the pigs …. You people run if you want to, but we’re tired of running. We intend to fight for our rights until we get them.”
The evolution of STAR
Sylvia and Marsha did not leave GAA and GLF, but rather turned their attention toward expanding the ad hoc networks of mutual aid long established between homeless and other working-class trans people for purposes of survival.
“STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time,” Sylvia told Leslie Feinberg. “Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.”
“Sylvia Lee Rivera deserves all the credit for STAR,” Marsha swore in a later interview. “I was just one of the queens that was behind her, like the vice president of STAR. She knew exactly what she was talking about. She was talking about ‘nobody’s representing transvestites,’ ya know?”
“STAR was part of the people’s revolution, and it was time for us to show the world that we are human beings,” Sylvia said.
The group, which initially operated out of a seemingly abandoned trailer truck in a Greenwich Village parking lot, fed and clothed dozens of youth. But when the trailer was towed away one morning — with no less than 20 of the “STAR House Kids” in the back — they relocated to Marsha’s apartment on East 2nd Street and paid the rent themselves so the younger ones didn’t have to panhandle or perform sex work. They hosted community meetings and political education for the gay and trans community every Friday night and offered support for LGBTQ people who were arrested, as many of them often spent long periods in jail due to a lack of funds to pay bail or fines.
“STAR is a very revolutionary group,” Marsha told journalist and gay revolutionary Allen Young. “We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary. Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and have free and equal rights that other people have in America.”
However, STAR got little help from GAA or other gay groups, who thought it would be bad for their image to help fund a collective of housing for unstable trans sex workers and youth, many of whom were also drug users. Instead, STAR raised funds by not only holding charity dances and soliciting donations but also by pooling the funds their street hustling brought in.
Not long after forming, STAR soon became affiliated with the Young Lords Party, a revolutionary Puerto Rican socialist party fighting for the liberation of Puerto Rico from U.S. colonialism, and whose Marxist critiques of capitalist patriarchy had led them to champion the cause of women’s and LGBTQ liberation.
STAR and the Young Lords
As Sylvia was Venezuelan and Puerto Rican and Marsha was Black, the duo naturally looked to Third World revolutionaries for inspiration. According to Sylvia, STAR first joined the Young Lords at a demonstration against police repression in East Harlem in the fall of 1970, just a few months after the events at NYU.
As Sylvia later said, “I ended up meeting one of the Young Lords that day. I became one of them. Any time they needed any help, I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect. It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself — being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen — and my organization being part of the Young Lords.”
The trans people of STAR found a home in the Young Lords because the Lords’ progressive views on women’s oppression identified LGBTQ oppression as part of the same dynamic. They formed a special women’s caucus (and then a lesbian and gay caucus) to sharpen and elevate these struggles.
The Young Lords’ Minister of Information, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, sharply criticized patriarchal attitudes that demeaned women and LGBTQ people, writing in the party’s newspaper, Pa’lante (Forward), in 1970 that embracing them and their struggles means “really rounding out a person.”
“Being gay is not a problem, the problem is that people do not understand what gay means. See, there is a biological division of sex, right — however, this society has created a false division based on a thing called gender. Gender is a false idea, because gender is merely traits that have been attributed through the years to a man or a woman. Like, the man is supposed to be strong, noble, hearty, hairy, rough; and the woman is supposed to be light, tender, pretty, fragile, crying, and weak …. Because certain traits have been assigned to people historically by society, we’ve actually developed as half people, as half real. We’re saying that to be totally real, it would also be healthy for a man, if he wanted to cry, to go ahead and cry. It would also be healthy for a woman to pick up the gun, to use the gun.”
The end of STAR
Sadly, STAR was not to last. Just three years later, the group fell apart amid a disastrous loss of community solidarity in 1973 at Christopher Street Liberation Day, the first articulation of what later became Pride, outside the Stonewall Inn.
When Sylvia had to force her way onto the stage after being blocked by several transphobic administrators and was then booed by the crowd, she delivered a stormy speech denouncing the “men and women that belong to a … middle-class, white club” for abandoning trans people and ignoring STAR’s efforts to not only support homeless LGBTQ people but also to provide critical support and resources for LGBTQ people in jail.
“I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help, and you all don’t do a goddamn thing for them …. They write [to] STAR because we’re trying to do something for them …. The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white, middle-class white club. And that’s what you all belong to!”
Marsha and Sylvia’s final fighting years
Sylvia took the betrayal very personally and later attempted suicide, dropping out of politics until the 1990s. Marsha remained politically active, however, continuing to organize Pride demonstrations. After discovering she was HIV-positive, Marsha began organizing with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1985 and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, which fought back against anti-LGBTQ cultural attitudes and an intransigent medical establishment that seemed willing to let LGBTQ people die from AIDS complications and blame them for it.
Marsha died in 1992, and although the NYPD neglected for years to investigate her death, trans activists and historians pursuing the matter determined she was likely killed by the mafia in retaliation for her efforts to free Pride celebrations from their control. Their efforts are chronicled in the 2017 film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Sylvia reentered politics not long before Marsha’s death; the two were now venerated at Pride as movement elders and given a place of prominence at demonstrations. Sylvia even spearheaded the re-foundation of STAR in 2001, with the T changed to Transgender, as that word had come to encompass many gender-nonconforming identities, including people who had previously called themselves transvestites and transsexuals.
In one of her final interviews before she died in 2002 of liver cancer, Sylvia noted that despite her and Marsha’s status as icons of Pride, the trans community as a whole had, at that time, remained in a secondary position in the protest:
“But until my community is allowed the respect to march in the front, I will go march with my community because that’s where I’m needed and that’s where I belong. And yes, I’ll wear my big sash that says ‘Stonewall.’ And people are gonna ask. And I’m gonna tell why; because this is where the Heritage of Pride [referring to the group that organizes the march] wants to keep us. You see, I don’t pull no punches. I’m not afraid to call out no names. You screw with the transgender community and Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries will be on your doorstep …. The trans community has … allowed the gay and lesbian community to speak for us. Times are changing. Our armies are rising and we are getting stronger. And when we come a-knocking, they’re going to know that you don’t fuck with the transgender community.”
A legacy to embrace as we continue the struggle
Marsha and Sylvia dedicated their lives to winning not just equal rights for trans people within a capitalist society but to winning liberation from the capitalist system for all working and oppressed people. Because of their tireless dedication and that of so many others like them, our movements have been able to forge a unity of struggles that makes us immeasurably stronger. In one of her final speeches, Sylvia urged, “We must continue to fight this government because this government is the one that’s going to keep us divided at all times.”
When former U.S. President Donald Trump took office and empowered a new cadre of right-wing reactionaries, they opened a massive new offensive against the working class and used trans rights as a wedge to try and divide the working class against itself. From banning trans people from serving in the U.S. military, to passing ‘bathroom bills’, to the massive attempt to rewrite the language of the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health & Human Services to totally erase the existence of trans and intersex people, the U.S. capitalist state has tried to roll back decades of victories won by the LGBTQ+ community.
A major new line of attack has targeted the rights of transgender children by criminalizing gender-affirming medical care for trans kids and seeking to ban trans girls from competing in women’s sports. These cruel bills try to position the inclusion of trans women as a violation of cisgender women’s Title IX anti-discrimination protections, and would make suspected trans people prove their birth-assigned sex through invasive body searches and the furnishing of medical records on demand.
Only by overthrowing the capitalist system and the various forms of oppression it relies on and maintains, and by building a socialist society where the needs of people come first, can these victories be forever secured and trans people be truly free to lead safe and fulfilling lives free from discrimination, prejudice, and violence.
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