This week starting tomorrow marks the 53rd anniversary of what many regard as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement: the Stonewall Rebellion (also known as the Stonewall Uprising). You may have heard the name before, particularly a few years back when the park outside the bar became the first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and history in the summer of 2016. For those who are perhaps unfamiliar with the events of June 28 - July 3, 1969, here is a brief summary: The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in NYC’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police early in the morning on June 28th. The police began arresting the bar’s patrons, targeting those who were dressed in a manner that did not correlate with their biological sex. The spark that lit the flames of rebellion that night occurred when an unidentified butch lesbian was roughed up by an officer, which prompted everyone around to begin resisting the police and fighting back against the homophobia, transphobia, and police brutality to which they had constantly been subjected. The uprising lasted for five nights, but its impact would forever change the trajectory of the fight for queer liberation. While there are countless figures we have to thank for fighting for our rights, this post will focus on three individuals whose stories are centered around the Stonewall Uprising: Stormé DeLarverie, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson.
Stormé DeLarverie was a Black drag king and butch lesbian who was no stranger to arrest; Stormé had been arrested twice prior to 1969 due to the clothing she was wearing. During this time in NYC, the law required that everyone wore a minimum of three articles of clothing that correlated with their biological sex - yet ironically Stormé was arrested while wearing women’s clothing because the police thought her to be a drag queen. She was a self-proclaimed “guardian of the lesbians in the Village,” patrolling the streets of Greenwich Village with a concealed rifle to ensure the safety of lesbians and the homeless queer youth living there. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, Stormé was working as a bodyguard for the bar. As previously mentioned, the uprising began when a butch lesbian being arrested (most likely for breaking the NYC law on clothing corresponding to sex) was struck by a police officer. After being hit on the head with the officer’s baton, the person cried out “Why don’t you guys do something?” to the onlookers, which prompted everyone to start fighting back. While there is still speculation as to who this person was, many believe that it was Stormé who encouraged those around to begin resisting this police brutality. After Stonewall, Stormé continued to fight for queer liberation, as well as protected the streets of her from “ugliness” - her longtime friend considered her to be a “gay superhero.”
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson went hand-in-hand. Longtime friends and activists together until Marsha’s mysterious death, these two trans women of color were at the forefront of the queer liberation front in the 60s and 70s. Sylvia grew up on the streets of New York City, making a living as a sex worker and constantly trying to avoid arrest. Like Stormé, Sylvia was a fierce protector of those often overlooked by society, particularly the poor, the homeless, and trans people of color. After the Stonewall Rebellion, Sylvia helped her community in a variety of ways through her activism and advocacy. She, along with Marsha P. Johnson, formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group of transgender activists who brought attention to the issues they faced everyday in NYC as well as provided shelter to homeless transgender youth.
Marsha P. Johnson was another longtime advocate and activist for the queer community, always doing whatever she could to help the struggling LGBTQ+ youth in Greenwich Village. She was on the front lines at Stonewall, fighting back the police and demanding a stop to the mistreatment she and so many others faced daily; as a sex worker and trans woman of color, she was no stranger to arrest and abuse. Along with cofounding STAR, she was also a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969, one of the first groups of its kind in NYC, and worked with ACT UP as an AIDS activist from 1987 to her mysterious death in 1992. Marsha attended the first pride parade in the US, which took place a year after the Stonewall Uprising and was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. She was a fighter and advocate for all those around her, and, like Stormé and Sylvia, continued to demand equality until the day she died.
We celebrate pride month in June to remember the Stonewall Uprising and those who fought for our right to be our most authentic and free selves. While we may have a ways to go and some days it feels like we’re taking steps backwards, it’s important to recognize just how far we’ve come. So celebrate this month, and every month. If anyone tries to silence you, remember what the “P.” in Marsha’s name stands for: Pay It No Mind.
Marsha and Sylvia, c. 1990
Stormé, c. 1960Sources to read further: