Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Guiding Stars

Transgender history is filled with examples of transgender people helping each other survive.  These projects of mutual support are some of our community’s most powerful forms of resistance.  Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are two such revolutionaries whose thinking can guide our movement.  Together, Rivera and Johnson founded the organization STAR, which remains an example of the power of community building.  This article serves as a brief introduction to Rivera and Johnson’s lives and work and an introduction to the aspects of transgender history that I will be discussing over the upcoming months.

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

Sylvia Lee Rivera was a Puerto Rican transgender woman who spend her life fighting for liberation alongside her dear friend Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman.  Abused by her grandmother, Rivera left home at age ten and began to live on the streets of Greenwich Village.  There, she found a community of queer and transgender people, including the formidable Johnson.

Rivera and Johnson met on Halloween night in 1963.  Rivera was with a group of Latina queens when she spotted Johnson.  Rivera wrote, “This one queen named Louisa snatched Marsha’s wig.  Well, Marsha wasn’t going to have it.  When she caught up to Louisa up on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue she beat the living daylights out of her.”[i]  Later, Johnson introduced herself to Rivera and took her out to eat.[ii]  Johnson was six years older than Rivera and already accustomed to life on the streets.  She was happy to share her resources and show the younger queen how to survive.  This sort of generosity was common for Johnson, who always looked out for her sisters and other people living on the streets.

Rivera said, “Marsha would give the blouse off her back if you asked for it. She would give you her last dollar.  She would take off her shoes.  I’ve seen her do all these things.”[iii]  Johnson’s generosity made her well-known in Greenwich Village.  In fact, she was so famous for her kindness that she was known within the New York City LGBT community as a living saint.[iv]  This characterization, however, obscures Johnson’s politics.  She was committed to caring for her community as a form of political solidarity.  Her practices of mutual support would become the basis of Johnson and Rivera’s political activism.

By the time of the Stonewall Rebellion, Rivera and Johnson had been friends for seven years.  During that time, they often lived on the streets in Greenwich Village and sometimes made money through sex work.  They were regularly harassed by police officers, arrested and imprisoned.  Both experienced sexual violence while locked up.  While incarcerated, Johnson was forced to undergo medical treatment which likely negatively impacted her health.  These experiences led Johnson and Rivera to adopt a radical politic that centered the needs of transgender women of color living on the streets and performing sex work.

Rivera and Johnson at Stonewall

Rivera said: “We always felt that the police were the real enemy…I always believed that we would have to fight back… I just didn’t know it would be that night.”[v]  On the night of the Stonewall rebellion, an event that is remembered ever year through Pride celebrations, Johnson was celebrating her birthday at the Stonewall Inn.  She had invited Rivera to her party.  The Stonewall Inn was bar that catered to LGBT cliental, including many street youth and a smaller number of transgender women and other gender nonconforming people.  Rivera and Johnson both knew that the bar, like other establishments that catered to the LGBT community, was raided regularly.  The night of Johnson’s birthday, however, proved exceptional.

When the police arrived at the Stonewall Inn shortly after midnight, they began the routine of the bust.  Rivera described it this way: “They [the police] came in; the lights went on.  People ran for the bathrooms and got rid of their drugs. We stopped dancing. People started pairing off with someone of the opposite sex to try to make it look as ‘normal’ as we could.  And here the law walks in and it’s, ‘Faggots here, dykes here, and freaks over there.’  The queens and the real butch dykes were the freaks. Then we were proofed.  You had to have on three articles of clothing that accorded to your gender.  That was a law.”  That night the bust itself was indeed typical, but the cops found that the patrons of the Stonewall were in no mood to cooperate.

Tired of constant police harassment, Johnson and Rivera were angry.  When a police officer demanded that Johnson show her ID, she responded by throwing a shot glass at a mirror and yelling “I got my civil rights.”  Johnson’s friends in the New York gay rights movement cited her action as one of the causes for the riot that followed.

When police officers ordered the Stonewall patrons out into the street, they did not disperse as usual.  Instead, a crowd grew.  When the cops began making arrests, the crowd surged forward to pull their friends out of police wagons.  Soon, the police retreated to the Stonewall Inn and barricaded themselves inside.  Outside, protesters began to throw bricks at the building.  A riot broke out.  Sylvia Rivera claimed that she threw the second Molotov cocktail.  Several journalists, observers, and participants in the riots noted and trans femmes and other gender nonconforming people were among the first and fiercest resisters.

Reflecting on the riots, Sylvia Rivera said, “It was beautiful, it really was . . . you could tell that nothing could stop us at that time or any time in the future.”[vi]  She was right.  The Stonewall Rebellion, while not the first LGBT anti police riot, came to be remembered as the beginning of the gay rights movement.  However, the important roles in the rebellion played by transgender women of color, like Rivera and Johnson, were maligned, denied, obscured, and forgotten.

Rivera and Johnson and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries

Following the Stonewall Rebellion, both Rivera and Johnson became important participants in the burgeoning LGBT movement.  Neither received a warm welcome in the gay organizations that sprung up after Stonewall.  Soon, they began their own organization which they named Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.  The goal of STAR was revolution.  Their method was projects of mutual support for trans people living on the streets and in prisons.  Rivera and Johnson created STAR House, a community by and for their sisters.  They also raised money to provide bail and legal support to imprisoned trans people.  Together, they articulated a vision of liberation that challenged racism, transmisogyny, capitalism, and ableism.

Learning from Rivera and Johnson

Rivera and Johnson’s thoughts and examples provide much from which we can learn today.  In fact, I’ll be discussing their lives for the next few months because I have so much to say.  However, to tide you over until then (or in case this is the only article about Rivera and Johnson that you ever read), here are a few lessons we can learn from STAR:

It’s powerful when transgender people support each other:  Through STAR, Johnson and Rivera created a community of transgender people who stuck together, shared resources, protected each other, and envisioned a radically different world.  By sharing living spaces, food, and other necessities, they created room for transgender women to heal, learn, imagine, and value each other.  This space was the source of their power as organizers.

Truly revolutionary organizations are led by their most vulnerable members. Transmisogyny, racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression must be resisted at their intersections:  STAR was led by transgender women of color who experienced violence and injustice because they were members of multiple oppressed communities.  Rivera and Johnson’s experiences of transphobia could never be separated from their experiences as women of color, poor people, and people with disabilities.  STAR was able to articulate a radical vision and take care to bring it into being because it was informed of their own experiences of oppression.

Respectability politics can’t free us, but self-love can be transformative:  STAR’s approach to liberation was at odds with that of the emerging mainstream gay and women’s rights movements.  STAR loudly and proudly proclaimed that would not and could not assimilate into capitalist society.  Instead of pursuing a narrow civil rights agenda, they demanded a restructuring of society.  They didn’t hesitate to confront state power directly and they were unashamed to welcome sex workers, drug users, and other criminalized communities.  When we examine the legacy of STAR, we find that this strategy had lasting effects on the people of STAR and on our larger society.

Through STAR, Rivera and Johnson challenged the systems of oppression that endanger the lives of transgender women of color.  Their examples remain relevant to our movements today.

[ii] Rivera, “Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” 44.

[iii] Ibid., 45

[iv] Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Remembering Stonewall.”

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