Washington, June 28th, 2019. On June 28th, millions of people around the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Stonewall is considered a historic event for the LGBTI movement in the world, and is named after an event that took place in a gay bar located in New York called Stonewall Inn.
At that time, many North-American states treated homosexual relationships as crimes, and in New York people were forced to wear clothes according to their biological sex. Bars could not even sell drinks to homosexuals or anyone who would challenge cisheterossexuality. Many police raids used to happen in which owners, employees and customers would be arrested.
On June 28th, 1969, police entered the Stonewall Inn bar and began arresting employees and customers. However, instead of simply submitting, on that day the people decided to resist. Customers started throwing coins at the policemen, resisting the very common police raids. Then the revolt intensified and even Molotov cocktails were thrown at the door.
This unexpected reaction of people who were tired of all the repression of that time began a series of protests in the following days. A year later, these people organized the first Pride March. However, by telling this story you can risk making some figures who led those episodes and who were extremely important for the history of the LGBTI movement invisible. This is the case of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
Silenced Voices: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson
Sylvia Rivera was one of the emblematic figures in the revolts started at the Stonewall Inn, and is recognized as one of the activists who were in the front line of the riots, being essential to the agitation and mobilization of the protesters.
Sylvia was born in 1951 in New York. She was poor, Latina and a sex worker. Her parents were two immigrants from Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and she suffered abuses by the police all her life. She was abandoned by her father in the first years of her life and her mother committed suicide when Sylvia was only 3 years old. She started living on the streets when she was 11 years old.
Sylvia was a close friend of Marsha P. Johnson: black, transgender, poor and a sex worker. Born in New Jersey in 1945, she arrived in New York at the end of the 60s. Although very little is known about her childhood, it is known that Marsha was a great political activist: she would shout in the streets, mobilize marches, give interviews and just like Sylvia, she would be constantly criminalized.
Both Rivera and Johnson were at the front line of the Stonewall resistance processes, but they were more than that. A year after the Rebellion, Johnson and Rivera founded the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which provided shelter, food and clothing for some 50 trans people living on the street in conditions of poverty. Marsha and Sylvia supported this project with the money from their own sex work. However, in an interview in 1989, Rivera says that when she and Marsha asked for help from other organizations in the community made up of teachers and lawyers (white and upper middle class) that could help with some resources, those people turned their backs. There was nobody to help them.
In fact, as the LBGTI movement would grow, mostly gay men, usually white, would assume leadership and ostracize trans people like Johnson and Rivera, because they believed that figures like them, with all their unusual clothes, on the one hand, could bring them more disrespect to the community and, on the other hand, would make difficult the argument that there was no difference between gays, lesbians and heterosexuals.
The apex of the tension was in the March of 1973, when Rivera was booed while she reminded that, were it not for the drag queens, there would be no gay liberation movement and that they were the front line of the resistance.
For an intersectional pride
The story of the involvement of people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in the Stonewall Riots highlights how the LGBTI community cannot be seen in a homogeneous way, as if all experiences were the same and, above all, as if rights reach the LGBTI population in the same way once achieved. They don’t. More than that, this story explores the limits of alliances inside the LGBTI community, which cannot use trans people only as a bridge to conquer rights or status.
Besides that, Marsha and Sylvia embody intersectionality in their lives, evidencing the importance of considering several social markers to think about the processes of constructing identities, such as race, class, nationality, ethnicity, identity and expression gender, sexual orientation, among other axes of oppression.
Johnson and Rivera give us the opportunity to reflect that, rather than just including, for example, references to gender in race debates and vice versa, intersectionality should be a tool to make a commitment to experiences, knowledge, struggles and agendas policies that emerge from the resistance to the various axes of domination and oppression. This is even for evident for those who are in the lower spheres of recognition of humanity – as was the case of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and continues to be the case of so many black and Latin trans persons, who continue to figure as the victims of many human rights violations.
In these 50 years of the Stonewall Riots, Race and Equality wants to renew our commitment to the resistance of people whose lives are marked by oppression based on their race, identity or gender expression, sexual orientation, class or nationality, and we take this opportunity to invite the entire LGBTI community to engage in a struggle for equality that does not close its eyes to those who do not enjoy white, gender, male and class privileges or any conditions that allow them to experiment a humanity that is not experienced by all. The struggle for equality cannot leave behind those who need it the most.