In the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Greenwich Village gay club the Stonewall Inn. Let’s set the scene. Gay clubs were much more than a place to get a drink or look for love. The 1960s, and the decades that came before it, were not exactly accepting of LGBT people. Being queer wasn’t only societally unacceptable, it was illegal. Same-sex relations between consenting adults was illegal in NYC until 1980 and you could be arrested for not wearing at least three articles of “gender-appropriate” clothing. I’m going to go out on a limb and say men in dresses found themselves on the receiving end of that one much more often than women in slacks. Understandably, LGBT people flocked to gay bars and clubs, refuge where they could socialize and be themselves openly. You still weren’t safe, though. The New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down gay bars, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.” These regulations were overturned in 1966, thanks to the effort of strident activists, but things as simple as holding hands with someone of the same sex was still illegal, so police harassment of gay bars continued.
There was another player in the game, the Mafia. The mob saw profit to be had in catering to the displace and disenfranchised gay clientele; by the mid-1960s, the Genovese crime family controlled most of the gay bars in the Village. In 1966, they purchased Stonewall Inn, which had been a bog-standard bar and restaurant, renovated it on the cheap, and reopened it as a gay bar. Stonewall Inn was registered as a private “bottle bar,” which did not require a liquor license because patrons were supposed to bring their own liquor. Club attendees had to sign their names in a book to maintain the club’s membership facade. Police initially left the Stonewall alone, by dint of regular bribes from the Genovese family. The police didn’t hassle the patrons *or the owners, which means the family could run the club as they saw fit, which meant as cheaply as possible. The club lacked a fire exit, there was no running water behind the bar to wash glasses, though there was plenty of water in the drinks, and the less said about the bathroom facilities, the better. Drugs sales and use were de riguer. To further maximize profits, the Mafia reportedly blackmailed the club’s wealthier patrons who wanted to keep their sexuality a secret.
Nonetheless, Stonewall Inn quickly became an important Greenwich Village institution. It welcomed drag queens, who were often ostracized from other gay bars. It was a haven for many runaways and homeless gay youths, who panhandled or shoplifted to afford the cover charge. And it was one of the few gay bar left that allowed dancing. Raids were still a fact of life, but corrupt cops would tip off mob-owned bars before the raid so owners could stash the alcohol they were selling without a liquor license and hide any other illegal activities. The NYPD had actually stormed Stonewall Inn just *days before the riot-inducing raid.
When police raided Stonewall Inn on the morning of June 28, it came as a surprise—the bar wasn’t tipped off this time. Armed with a warrant, police officers entered the club, roughed up patrons, and, finding illegal liquor, arrested 13 people, including employees and people violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute — female officers would take the patrons into the bathroom to see if their genitals matched their outfit.
So you’re shunned by your family and society, told that who you are inside is wrong, you finally find somewhere where you can be with people who understand you, even if it is a filthy dive, then this happens? Fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and neighbors became increasingly agitated as the events unfolded and people were aggressively manhandled. At one point, a male officer hit biracial lesbian drag king Stormé DeLarverie over the head as he forced her into the paddy wagon. “Do something!” she yelled to the crowd, though she hardly needed to. A few bricks and bottles later and a full-blown riot erupted. The police, a few prisoners, and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the crowd attempted to burn down. The riot squad was able to get the people out of the building and the fire department doused the flames, but they couldn’t squelch the heat. Protests, sometimes involving thousands of people, continued for five more days.
Popular history tells that Marsha Johnson was one of the first, if not the first, person to throw something, but Johnson herself later said that the riot was already in full swing when she arrived. Similarly, Rivera delivered a speech in 2001, clarifying, “I have been given the credit for throwing the first Molotov cocktail by many historians but I always like to correct it. I threw the second one, I did not throw the first one!” Detailed research after the riots found that Storme DeLarverie not only shouted to the crowd, but punched the cop who was manhandling her. This “first punch” is considered the inciting moment that motivated others to fight back against the police. In 2008, when DeLarverie was asked why she didn’t come forward and take credit for her actions, she answered, “Because it was never anybody’s business.”
Contrary to another reductive misbelief, the Stonewall uprising didn’t start the gay rights movement, but it was a galvanizing force for LGBT political activism, leading to numerous gay rights organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the site of the riots—Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks—a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay and human rights. There is already a monument to the Stonewall Uprising, in a park across the street from the bar, but the four figures, two male and two female, are all painted white, obfuscating the enormous contributions of trans women or people of color like Johnson and Rivera, who were in the vanguard of the gay rights movement.
Marsha P. Johnson was recognized by being herself and fearing no judgment for dressing and living as a woman, even as she struggled to survive living on the streets of New York. Born in New Jersey in 1945 as Malcolm Michaels, Marsha began dressing in girls clothes as a child, which did not go over well in their conservative Christian family. After high school, Marsha moved to Greenwich Village and legally changed her name. If you asked what the P stood for, she would say “Pay it no mind.” That was also what she would say when people began to pry into her personal business. In New York, Marsha struggled to make ends meet, often ending up homeless and supporting herself as a prostitute. She also had to contend with mental health issues and constant police harassment. Still, she found joy as a drag queen amidst the nightlife of Christopher Street. Marsha scoured thrift shops to make all her own costumes and quickly became a prominent fixture in the LGBTQ community as a “drag mother” to helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth. She even toured internationally with the Hot Peaches drag theater company, but she always came back to the Village. Marsha was an eccentric woman, known for her flamboyant hats and jewelry which ensured she stood out in public. Her sense of style and pronounced self-assuredness even caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who included her in his “Ladies and Gentlemen” photo series.
It was through the drag community that Johnson met Sylvia Rivera. Born Ray Rivera in 1951, of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, Sylvia lived most of her life in or near NYC. She was abandoned by her father early in life and became an orphan at three years old when her mother committed suicide. Sylvia was then raised by her Venezuelan grandmother, who disapproved of her effeminate behavior. After the grandmother caught Sylvia wearing makeup in fourth grade, she kicked Sylvia out of her house. Fourth grade. Sylvia was 11 and homeless. Almost inevitably, she became a prostitute. Things began to look up for her when she was taken in by the local community of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia.
Despite all of her own hardships, Sylvia was always more concerned for the welfare of others. Her activism began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through Vietnam war protests and second-wave feminism. As someone who suffered from systematic poverty, drug addiction, and racism, Sylvia used her voice for unity, sharing her stories, pain, and struggles to show her community they are not alone. She amplified the voices of the most vulnerable members of the gay community: homeless youth, gay inmates in prison and jail, and transgender people.
Sylvia and Marsha founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries or STAR. STAR was a radical political collective that also provided housing and support to homeless queer youth and sex workers, some of the most vulnerable members of the community. Rivera and Johnson were the “mothers” of the household. STAR is considered by many to be a groundbreaking organization in the queer liberation movement and a model for other organizations. Rivera got the idea for STAR during a near-week-long sit-in to protest the cancellation of dances that had been planned by The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, who were organizers of the first Gay Pride Parade. These dances were meant to be fundraisers for legal, medical, and housing needs of the gay community. “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time,” Sylvia said in an interview. “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.” Together with the Gay Liberation Front, STAR hosted a fundraising dance to raised enough money for the to purchase STAR House, a 4-bedroom apartment in a run-down building in the East Village without electricity or heat. Rivera and Johnson worked hard to get STAR House into shape and to keep “their kids” fed and sheltered. They kept STAR House alive the same way they kept themselves alive, through sex work, but they were only able to keep it open for about a year. Sex work was a dangerous profession in ‘70s New York, not that it’s particularly safe today. During one encounter, Marsha was shot, the bullet was so close to her spine that she would be paralyzed if they removed it. Marsha spent the rest of her life suffering from intense back pain thanks to the round lodged in her.
STAR itself would only *officially continue for two more years, but Sylvia and Marsha never gave up their fight. They fought for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act to stop discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and the exercise of civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation. It was defeated in 1971, 1983, and 1993, ultimately finally passing in 2002, 31 year years after it was first introduced. Their next large action was to join other activists in the campaign for Intro 475, a municipal bill which Gay Activists Alliance helped introduce, and which sought protections against sexual orientation discrimination. Many queer and trans people criticized GAA for ignoring protections for trans individuals, which they believed was an intentional move to make the bill more palatable for WASPy lawmakers. Trans-exclusion within the queer community became a major issue when the gender-non-conforming people and drag queens were relegated to the back of the
1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade as well as being excluded from the stage. Rivera and fellow queen Lee Brewster stormed the stage during a feminist activist’s speech. Rivera shouted “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!” criticized other gay liberation activists for their assimilationist agenda, and led a chant for “Gay power”. The feminist speaker took the mic again, decrying drag as misogynist and demeaning. After the rally Rivera chose to leave the movement for years, moving to upstate New York. “We died in 1973, the fourth anniversary of Stonewall, she wrote in “Queens in Exile, The Forgotten Ones.” “That’s when we were told we were a threat and an embarrassment to women because lesbians felt offended by our attire, us wearing makeup. It came down to a brutal battle on the stage that year at Washington Square Park, between me and people I considered my comrades and friends.” The war doesn’t end just because you leave and STAR was resurrected in 2001 under the new name Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries after the June 2000, murder of Amanda Milan, a trans-woman who was by all accounts minding her own business, waiting for a cab. Sylvia continued to work to advance the fight for the transgender civil rights bill in New York City and State and to fight for self-determination for all gender non-conformists under her death from liver cancer in 2002.
Marsha had died ten years earlier in 1992. Her body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. She was 46 years old. How she got there, though, is a mystery that may never be answered to the satisfaction of those who cared for her.
“She cared about the community and making a change,” former Village Voice columnist and NewNowNext columnist Michael Musto said of Marsha, with whom he was friendly. “She wasn’t a party girl. She was in bars a lot, but that was part of her being part of the community.” Friends say Johnson was acting normally when they last saw her around Greenwich Village two days before her body was found. Cruz says people told her Johnson was being chased the night she disappeared, although authorities have not commented on this. When her body was found, police quickly ruled the death a suicide, something that outraged many of those who knew her and said she never would have taken her own life. Many point to the fact that Johnson was found with a bruise on the back of her head as evidence that she might have been attacked,but a former medical examiner not affiliated with Johnson’s case concluded that the discoloration could have come from her body decomposing in the water.
As the AIDS epidemic picked up steam, Johnson, who was herself HIV-positive, became a prominent activist with the AIDS Coalition, protesting the high cost of drugs to help treat the disease known then on the street as “gay cancer.” Those who claim Marsha took her own life use her medical history as a basis for their argument, that the pain from the bullet in her back has become unbearable and her HIV diagnosis depressing.
Randy Wicker, Johnson’s roommate at the time of her death and fellow activist, recalled seeing where her body had been placed after it was pulled from the river. “As she laid there, her blood soaked into the pavement,” Wicker said. “There was Marsha’s blood and everything, where her body had lain on the asphalt.” It was there a makeshift memorial sprung up to Johnson, flowers dotting the ground. Her body was cremated and the ashes were spread in the Hudson River off the Christopher Street Pier.
For months afterward, activists pushed for a more thorough investigation. Five months after her body was found, the outpouring reached fever pitch. Among the voices was Tom Duane, then a city council member and later the first openly gay New York state senator with HIV, demanded justice for Johnson, meeting with investigators in an effort to convince them to reopen the case.
“Her death deserved the most exhaustive investigation,” Duane said in interview, adding that the case “was also unusual because it was a very rapid determination. We were strong in our position that there needed to be more investigative work because even if Marsha was not world-famous, she was important to the LGBTQ community and the downtown community.” It was 20 years before police reopened Johnson’s death for a second look in 2012. In the intervening years, speculation ran rampant, the uncertainty fueling wild conjecture. Maybe Johnson was killed in a mafia hit, some said. Maybe she tripped and fell into the river as she was heckled, wondered others. She could even have slipped between the boards of the then-dilapidated pier, possibly while fleeing from an assault; witnesses claim she was being harassed the night she disappeared.
Her death was changed from “suicide” to “undetermined” after the public pressure mounted on authorities. But the New York Police Department maintains there is not enough evidence to indicate foul play in the case, which they closed again in 2013. “NYPD detectives conducted a thorough and exhaustive investigation into this cold case,” a police spokesperson said in a statement. “The NYPD Cold Case Squad looked into the case in 2012. The cause of death was changed from Cause of Death: Drowning / Manner of Death: Suicide to Cause of death: Drowning / Manner of Death: Undetermined. The case is now closed,” the statement concludes.
But for Marsha’s friends, that’s not enough. They continue to press for more to be done.
Those who knew Marsha P. Johnson remember her determination. “She was the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement,” transgender activist Mariah Lopez. “I am carrying on the legacy started by two homeless trans people. It is a group of trans activist who do the work and answer the phones in a grassroots way. We help those in hospitals and in prison,” Lopez said of STAR today. “Sylvia and Marsha couldn’t envision the world we live in today and STAR cannot die.”
And that’s… In the years since Johnson’s death, New York City has undergone drastic changes. The grittiness of Johnson’s Greenwich Village is gone, replaced by posh restaurants, expensive bars and high-rise apartments. The pier where Johnson’s body was laid out has been repaired. Gay bars are now open to all who want to come. “Marsha left behind a legacy that people could be themselves,” said the bartender at Stonewall during the riots. “You see it now. Drag queens that are performing in clubs just jumping cabs, take trains, but she was the beginning.”