Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera identified themselves as transvestites. Not until the late 1960s would the Queer community begin to use the word “transsexual” to describe themselves. The word “transvestite” expressed a common truth that both women shared: being between sexes and otherwise known as third-gender.
The Stonewall riots started on June 28, 1969. Historians remembered this date as the start of gay activism. Suddenly, people like Johnson and Rivera became the “other” in an already marginalized community. Their identity threatened the wholesome image that gay people strived to attain in the public eye.
In The Stonewall Reader, writers shared many stories both about third-gender people. Each one expressed the shame that revolved around transvestites and drag queens. In particular, the chapter “Craig Rodwell” documented Rodwell’s challenges as a gay man in New York City.
Rodwell opened a gay and lesbian bookshop at 291 Mercer Street, New York called The Oscar Wilde Bookshop. The bookshop only sold people stories that depicted homosexuality as a “good” thing. Gays and lesbians depicted themselves without objectifying their sexuality. Rodwell gave people the opportunity to enlighten themselves about the gay community, but not the Queer community.
“I excluded books with certain key words: third sex, twilight world, perversion – nothing about that. I wanted to depict homosexuality as basically good.”Craig Rodwell
However, third sex people like Johnson and Rivera who neither identified themselves as male nor female had their voices silenced because of the decisions made by those in the Queer community. Like Rodwell, many in the Queer community ignored the plight of third-gender people in an effort to bring homosexuality into mainstream society. Despite their treatment, Johnson and Rivera continued advocating for everyone within the Queer community.
In 1970, Johnson and Rivera co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. Their activism helped many people find a temporary home, protecting them from violence and police brutality. However, STAR disbanded three years after its founding in part because of a lack of funds. STARS financial instability represented a deeper shame in the Queer community and a conscience disregard of third-gender persons.
For example, Rivera noted every year since the Stonewall riots, members of the trans community were moved further and further to the end of the line. Rivera acknowledged this displacement in a speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973.
I have been to jail. I have been raped. And beaten. Many times! By men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter. But do you do anything for me? No. You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!Sylvia Rivera
It seemed that Johnson and Rivera sacrificed everything to gain respect from their brothers and sisters in the Queer community even while their very existence ran counter to the efforts to bring homosexuality into the mainstream.
Their self-acceptance as two trans-women of color ignited the flame of enlightenment for the Queer community today. In 2010, the term “genderqueer” became popularized by news media outlets. Those in the Queer community started to reimagine a world that included non-binary people like Johnson and Rivera. Trans-stories populated television shows like Pose and The L Word and books like the Nemesis Series by April Daniels. Still, trans-lives in the real world faced oppression, suicide, and murder.
Sadly in 1992, Johnson’s body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Several people saw Johnson being harassed by thugs prior to her death. Police ruled her death a suicide despite witness statements; however, Johnson’s official cause of death has been disputed. A recent documentary, about the death and life of Marsha P. Johnson, chronicles the curious circumstances surrounding her death and ongoing investigative efforts to find truth and justice for Johnson. But this narrative of injustice for trans-people should not be the only one that people know about today.
Trans-people deserve a more prominent place in history than the Queer community has historically refused to offer. With the current focus on inclusionary efforts within the Queer community, perhaps then Rivera and Johnson and others like them will finally get the notoriety and appreciation that they so richly deserve.
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Benjamin P. Gallagher