#QueerHeroes Day 1 – Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé Delarverie
I can’t stress enough that anyone telling you they know definitively how the Stonewall Riots began should be met with skepticism. Everyone present those nights saw the same picture from a different angle. I’ve talked with people who were there only for them to directly contradict each other. So much of it is legend or lost to history, the effect is what matters. These three are some of the people who began the revolution that resulted from the riots.
Marsha P. Johnson insisted that she didn’t begin the Stonewall Riots, as is widely believed. She joined the riots later in the first night, after they had begun. She was seen crawling up a lamppost where she then dropped a cement block onto a cop car.
With Sylvia Rivera, Johnson formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which focused on getting resources to homeless queer youth in the early 70s. The two worked together toward trans liberation and mobilization for the rest of their lives. They were met with backlash from many cis gay people in the movement, who said their ostentatious nature made them look bad. Toward the end of her life, Rivera was frustrated at the movement’s emphasis on marriage and military service, feeling they’d strayed from their radical roots.
Stormé Delarverie was a butch lesbian who, in her youth, rode horses in the Ringling Brothers Circus and toured the country as a drag king with the Black performance troupe, the Jewel Box Revue.
On the first night of the riots, a woman matching Stormé’s description was being led roughly through the crowd by police. She began punching the cops and encouraging others to fight back.
She would later say:
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
Into her 80s, she would patrol the lesbian bars of Christopher street with a pistol, ready to fuck up anyone who messed with her “baby girls.”
I want to emphasize what actually happened at Stonewall: bar patrons began throwing change, rocks, and bottles at police until the police were forced back inside the evacuated bar.
Protestors began breaking the windows of the bar and attempting to set it on fire.
The cops who raided the bar contacted the tactical police force, who came in full riot gear to disperse the crowd.
Instead of cowering, trans girls and femmes and drag queens formed a kick line and began approaching the riot squad, mocking them with chants.
Stonewall was absolutely anti-police. It was violent. It was destructive. And it was liberating.
The riots marked a turning point from so-called respectable protests, in which organizers imposed traditional dress codes and forbade shows of same-sex affection, like holding hands. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front emerged with unapologetic demonstrations and unmistakable anger.