A Note on Remembering Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

Early on in the Sexuality Studies course I’m teaching, we read some extracts from Harvey Milk’s writings, especially where he was defending gay teachers from campaigns that sought to eliminate them from the classroom. Harvey Milk’s work is memorialized – his speeches have been recorded and published for example – but the work of other LGBTQ+ campaigners from the same era do not necessarily receive the same memorialization. Consider the work, for example, of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. 

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were key organisers in the Gay Liberation Movement, which was galvanized by the Stonewall Riots. The riots occurred on June 28, 1969, when the NYC Police raided the gay club, the Stonewall Inn. The resulting week of protests were not simply triggered by this particular raid, but by a pattern of  police harassment. There were still laws about sexuality at this time which discriminated against LGBTQ+ people, and gay bars were targets for policing. The Gay Liberation Front sought to change the anti-LGBTQ+ laws and city ordinances. Johnson and Rivera worked on these campaigns, and set up STAR (“Street Transvestite (later Transgender) Action Revolutionaries) for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, but they are not always remembered.

Sylvia Rivera’s 1973 speech, “Y’all better quiet down,” shows tremendous courage in the face of transphobia and hostility from the crowd, which actually seems to change by the end of speech.

In response to their stories, we might ask to what extent are the rights secured for LGBTQ communities mainly benefitting white bourgeois subjects? Is this still happening now? Mogul, Ritchie and Whitloch in Queer Injusticego so far as to suggest that “LGBT people need to deeply question whether institutions rooted in control and punishment of color, poor people, immigrants, and queers can ever be deployed in the service of LGBT interests without abandoning entire segments of queer communities to continuing state violence.”

To find out more about Stonewall, you might like to see the video below, and there is also an interesting video discussing a film account of the Stonewall riots, considering issues like the representation of Johnson and Rivera.