MARSHA P. JOHNSON (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992)
“Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Marsha P. Johnson is the mother of the gay liberation movement. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, an AIDS activist with ACT UP, and one of the prominent figures in the vanguard of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. She was also a co-founder of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) along with Sylvia Rivera.
An icon of New York’s gay nightlife and art scenes, Johnson modeled for Andy Warhol and performed drag with the troupe Hot Peaches. Marsha was beloved by her community, and was known as the “mayor of Christopher Street.” Marsha initially called herself “Black Marsha” but later changed her drag name to Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson came from the Howard Johnson’s restaurant on 42nd street, and the P stood for “pay it no mind,” which was Marsha’s standard answer when folks inquired about her gender. Johnson was a mother to houseless gay, trans and gender nonconforming kids living on the street. She provided food, shelter and clothing at the first shelter for gay and trans street kids, called S.T.A.R. House.
Following the Stonewall Uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front. She marched in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in June, 1970. Shortly after the 1992 Pride Parade, Johnson’s lifeless body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled her death a suicide, despite a suspicious wound to the back of her head. Desperate testimonials from Johnson’s friends and community members insisting that she was not suicidal were ignored. Several witnesses even testified that they saw Johnson harassed by a group of “thugs” who shouted homophobic slurs as she ran. Police dismissed the case, and Johnson’s friends scattered her ashes over the river. In 2012, activist Mariah Lopez succeeded in getting the NYPD to reopen Marsha’s case as a possible homicide. This year, the New York Times published Marsha’s much belated obituary.
SYLVIA RIVERA (July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002)
“We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.”
Sylvia Ray Rivera was an American Gay Liberation and trans rights activist. Sylvia was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. She also co-founded S.T.A.R. with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Born in NYC of Latinx (Puerto Rican and Venezuelan) descent, Rivera was orphaned at 3 years old. She began living on the streets at 11. In order to survive, she engaged in sex work. Because of her experiences, she was a lifelong advocate for trans women of color, drag performers, street kids, and those surviving under systemic poverty.
Rivera’s activism began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through the anti-Vietnam war movement and the second-wave feminist movements (mid-1960s). A fixture at the Stonewall Inn, Rivera was present for the Stonewall Riots of 1969 where gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, drag queens, trans folx and street people rose up against a discriminatory police raid . Rivera was also involved in Puerto Rican and African American youth activism, particularly with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.
Rivera fought for a voice for herself, and for people of color, poor queer fox, and the trans community. In the last 5 years or her life, Rivera renewed her political activity. She gave many speeches about the Stonewall Uprising and reasserting trans folxs’ legacy at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ movement. Sylvia Rivera died February 19, 2002 at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, due to complications from liver cancer. In 2015, a portrait of Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery.