Who were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera?

10.09.2020 / Timely

It is fitting then, as the Black Lives Matter”- protests sweep the globe, that we shall first tell a story about gay and transactivists Sylvia and Marsha, who lived and worked in New York. They were active during the Pride movement’s early years in 1960’s and 1970’s. During that time homosexuality was defined as a mental illness in United States. Police harassment and brutality was rife toward sexual and gender minorities. Discrimination and segregation were widespread.  Many families abandoned and threw their children, who belonged to sexual and gender minorities, out to the streets.  

Marsha P. Johnson (1945- 1992) was an Afro-American gay man, a drag artist and a human rights activist. Already early on during his childhood, he began dressing up in girly clothes. Immediately after finishing his school, he moved to New York, to Greenwich Village. Living there homeless and penniless he ended up selling sex. Security and understanding he found in the local trans community.   

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) was a Latin American gay liberation and transgender rights activist and a famous community worker in New York. His childhood was tragic; abandoned by his father, his mother dying early on and despised by his granny.  At the age of 11 he ended up living in the streets as a child prostitute. He was discovered and taken care of by the local Drag Queen community, who named him as Sylvia.  

Marsha and Sylvia were both prominent activists during the early years of LGBTQ+ movement, especially during the Stonewall riots in 1969 and during the 1970’s. They set up together e.g. the STAR, “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries”, an activist organisation. The STAR provided support and shelter for homeless youngster’s belonging to sexual and gender minorities.  They decided to rent premises for the STAR, so that vulnerable young people were able to socialise and sleep overnight in a safe environment. The STAR organised also lessons for reading and writing. Marsha and Sylvia financed the STAR, the rent and all other activities, by doing sex work in the streets.  

You can read more about the STAR in here: https://www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house

More about Stonewall riots and the early years of the gay liberation movement can be discovered in the following documentary. It illuminates the harsh reality where people belonging to LGBTQ+ communities lived in New York fifty years ago.  This documentary is also a tribute to human rights activist who acted as role models for us and for the future generations. It sheds light to the huge transformation process that was initiated by all these magnificent people featured in this documentary.      

Stonewall Forever – A Documentary about the Past, Present and Future of Pride (21 min) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjRv7dJTync 

Ps. InFebruary 2020, the Mayor of New York renamed the East River State Park in Brooklyn, The Marsha P. Johnson State Park. He also announced that a statue will be created in honour of Marsha, to be unveiled in 2021.