American History · biography · history

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Activists

This month I wanted to write an article about two figures who made such an impact, yet have been forgotten through time. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were icons of the LGBT and transgender movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

Forsaken transgender pioneers recognized 50 years after Stonewall

In the mid-20th century, it was still difficult for homosexuals to be open in the world. It was even more difficult for transgender individuals. Those in the LGBT community were ostracized from society. Society still did not want to acknowledge their existence. Most employers excluded and denied opportunities for those of the community. Some were sent to mental institutions to go through shock therapy to “cure” any “unnatural” thoughts. Many had no where to go and were unable to obtain employment. They ended up on the streets after running away or being abandoned by their own families.

This is the world that Marsha P. Johnson entered after graduating high school with $15 dollars to her name. She immediately left her home in New Jersey to move to New York City in 1963. In her hometown, Johnson was not accepted as a transgender female. She experienced harassment by males and in a 1992 interview she stated that she was a victim of sexual assault. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1966 and found a community of people who accepted her. She became a part of the transgender community and participated in drag.

As an open transgender individual, it was nearly impossible to find work. Johnson was living on the street. She would sleep at the movie theaters and even under the tables of the flower vendors. Yet, despite the hardship she lived, she became known as St. Marsha to the people of the transgender community. She was a very brave person. People remembered her for always having a positive attitude and a kind and generous spirit. She would give away her last dollar for someone in need, she would give away clothing and jewelry, and, most importantly, she would provide encouragement and happiness to those who were down on their luck.

Marsha P. Johnson - Stonewall, Quotes & Death - Biography
Marsha P. Johnson

Johnson was very creative with the little means she had. She would use flowers to create floral arrangements to wear on her head, created drag outfits out of thrift store finds and donated clothes, and eventually she would become an entertainer.

Sylvia Rivera was another important figure in New York City. Rivera was born in New York City and was of Puerto Rican descent. She was an orphan living on the streets but found a home in the transgender community. At a young age, she joined the Gay Activists Alliance and fought not only for gay rights but for the inclusion of transgender individuals in the movement. Rivera and Johnson met in Greenwich village and formed a strong friendship.

Throughout their lives in Greenwich Village, both Rivera and Johnson were harassed by law enforcement. They were often arrested and locked up. They lived on the street and sometimes worked as sex workers. Harassment by law enforcement was common for many people of the transgender and LGBT community. There was a bias against them that prevented them from being who they truly were.

In June 1969, The Stonewall Inn, which was known as a popular gay bar, was raided by police. Bars like the Stonewall Inn were important to LGBT individuals as they were places they could be themselves and be accepted by those who were like them. The Stonewall was also one of the few gay bars that allowed drag queens to enter. The Stonewall was often raided. The lights would go out and everyone present had to show identification. Those in drag or without identification were arrested immediately. They were arrested if they were not wearing the required to wear three pieces of “proper gender” clothing. Kissing, dancing, and holding hands with someone of the same sex was also still illegal.

Stonewall riots - Wikipedia

Yet, on this particular night, enough was enough. It is said that Marsha P. Johnson was the one who started the rebellion. Supposedly, throughout the bustle of the raid, Marsha threw a shot glass into a mirror and shouted, ” I got my civil rights!”.  With this inspiration and resistance against the police, other patrons began to follow. They were tired of being treated terribly and manhandled. The crowd began to throw items at police and eventually barricaded themselves in the bar.  After the police dispersed this crowd, for the next few days riots would continue to flare up in in the area. These riots opened the way for many LGBT movements to begin and on its anniversary, the first gay pride parade was held. The story of Johnson’s involvement may have been exaggerated over time, but it is important to the impact of the Stonewall Riots.

Johnson and Rivera would go on to found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970. This was a way to assist transgender youth who were homeless and  living dangerous lives on the streets. Both of these women knew the hardship that young LGBT people felt and the violence they experienced from intolerant people and police.  They also noticed that the current gay liberation movement turning a blind eye to assisting the transgender youth.  Sylvia and Marsha created this organization to provide housing and food for those who needed it and gave them a safe haven. Despite having so little, the two found ways to pay the rent to support their STAR home.

Unfortunately, STAR did not last quite as long as the two envisioned due to economic issues and rent increases, but it was influential to the movement and the first LGBT youth shelter in the United States. The organization and its founders would serve as inspiration for future activists.

Stonewall at 50: Transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and ...

STAR had its own manifesto when it founded in 1970. Below is a copy of what it said which was pulled from Stephan Cohen’s book, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: ‘an Army of Lovers Cannot Fail’ :

The oppression against Transvestites of either sex arises from sexist values and this oppression is manifested by heterosexuals and homosexuals of both sexes in the form of exploitation, ridicule, harassment, beatings, rapes, murders.

Because of this oppression the majority of transvestites are forced into the street and we have formed a strong alliance with our gay sisters and brothers of the street. Who we are a part of and represent we are; a part of the REVOLUTIONARIES armies fighting against the system.

    1. We want the right to self-determination over the use of our bodies; the right to be gay, anytime, anyplace; the right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand; the right to free dress and adornment.
      2. The end to all job discrimination against transvestites of both sexes and gay street people because of attire.
      3. The immediate end of all police harassment and arrest of transvestites and gay street people, and the release of transvestites and gay street people from all prisons and all other political prisoners.
      4. The end to all exploitive practices of doctors and psychiatrists who work in the field of transvestism.
      5. Transvestites who live as members of the opposite gender should be able to obtain identification of the opposite gender.
      6. Transvestites and gay street people and all oppressed people should have free education, health care, clothing, food, transportation, and housing.
      7. Transvestites and gay street people should be granted full and equal rights on all levels of society, and full voice in the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people.
      8. An end to exploitation and discrimination against transvestites within the homosexual world.
      9. We want a revolutionary peoples’ government, where transvestites, street people, women, homosexuals, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and all oppressed people are free, and not fucked over by this government who treat us like the scum of the earth and kills us off like flies, one by one, and throws us into jail to rot. This government who spends millions of dollars to go to the moon, and lets the poor Americans starve to death.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE
S. T. A. R.

Rivera and Johnson continued to be activists in their community. They often organized and participated in protests for gay rights despite the hostility against transwomen from others in the movement. At Pride March in 1973, Rivera was blocked from speaking. She stole the microphone away and, to a chorus of boos, she shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”

Marsha P. Johnson would perform at a drag revue called Hot Peaches. The artist, Andy Warhol, took notice of Marsha and included her in a silk-screen portrait as part of his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson was also very active in fundraising and assisting those who were suffering from AIDs in the 1980s. Marsha herself had the disease.

In 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. Her death was officially declared a suicide by the authorities with very minimal  investigation. Many of her followers and family believed that her death was not a suicide, but a possible homicide. There are reports of her being followed and she had been the victim of violent attacks prior to her death. Her case was reopened in 2012 and is still being investigated.

LGBTQ pioneers Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson to be honored
Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera continued the fight until her death in 2002. She supported the Transy House which was founded in 1995 by two transwomen (Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Goodwin). A descendant of STAR, it provided a safe place for transgender individuals who were homeless or had been kicked out of their homes. It continued until 2008. Rivera continued to push for more trans individuals to become involved in the LGBT movement and continued to give speeches at Pride events around the world. She helped in the fright for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill (gender identity and gender expression is a human right) and the New York State Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act (prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, etc.).

In 2019, it was announced that Marsh P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will have a monument built in their honor in Greenwich Village. This was during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This monument will be to honor their work in the early LGBT movement.

I greatly admire both of these individuals and the work they did. They went through so much hardship, yet continued to fight for a cause they believed in and continued to help others before themselves. They were so influential to the LGBT movement, yet I never learned about them in school.  I hope this post will bring their work to the attention of others and I encourage further research into their lives.

 

Sources:

Documentary:

Frameline Voices-Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson (This documentary features one of the last interviews by Johnson and interviews from friends/those who knew her)

 

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson which was directed by David France and screenplay by David France and Mark Blane. This documentary can be found on Netflix.

Book:

The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: ‘An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail’ by Stephan Cohen, 2007.

Web:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-york-city-monument-will-honor-transgender-activists-marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera-180972326/

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/z3enva/star-house-sylvia-rivera-marsha-p-johnson

Transy House

The Unsung Heroines of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/594aq8/marsha-p-johnson-happy-birthday-marsha-transgender-rights?utm_source=stylizedembed_vice.com&utm_campaign=z3enva&site=vice

https://www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house

http://web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/1969/revolutionaries.html

https://zagria.blogspot.com/2017/09/sylvia-rivera-part-iii-street.html#.XuIrpkVKiUk

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/12/transgender-women-heart-stonewall-riots-are-getting-statue-new-york/

https://legacyprojectchicago.org/person/sylvia-rivera

https://legacyprojectchicago.org/person/marsha-p-johnson

American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

100 Years: Detroit and Prohibition

 

2020 marks 100 years since prohibition became law in the United States on Jan 17, 1920. The 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. In the 1820s-30s, a temperance movement gained traction and quickly began to grow. This movement started with religious organizations, but over time other groups of citizens were drawn to it.

Women and those of the suffrage movement were a big part of the temperance movement. To women of the era, alcohol was one of the main reasons their families became disrupted and they believed it tied into the high poverty rates. They believed it corrupted one morally and split families apart. Some men, who were the breadwinners at the time, would drink away their regular paycheck which left the household wanting. Women also felt abuse at the hands of husbands who came home worse for drink and felt it was time to take their stand against this behavior.

“Woman’s Holy War” Library of Congress

The Temperance movement was also a way for women to enter the political sphere and have their voice be heard. Temperance became the largest political movement by women in the 19th century. It wasn’t just women and religious groups though; factory workers also saw the advantage of prohibition as it would lessen work-related accidents and create a safer environment. Yet, prohibition ending up creating more problems than it solved. Continue reading “100 Years: Detroit and Prohibition”

American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

New Decade, New Goals, and Anniversaries

2020! We have entered into a new decade and it feels like a clean slate. What will happen in the next ten years? How will we change in the next ten years and what will we accomplish? I find it interesting to ponder these questions.

In 2019, I am most proud of the amount of traveling I did. I traveled overseas to Europe for the first time and was able to experience much of the history I read about first hand. I traveled to the west coast of the United States for the first time as well. I already have booked a trip to Scotland with a friend for 2020 and hope to explore even more! The cover photo is a picture of me taken in Zurich, Switzerland.

Returning to the present, I am proud of the work I did on the historynavigator blog in 2019. My goal was to become more consistent and create a post every month. Though I missed two months (one of those months was consumed with my travels to Europe and the other was just laziness), I was still more consistent than 2018. This year I hope to do better and make all 12 months. It is definitely difficult to find the time to do the research and even just figure out topics with work, life, and changes happening. This year, I want to make time to think of these things in advance and start my reading in advance. Is there any topics that you would be interested in me researching ?

Continue reading “New Decade, New Goals, and Anniversaries”

American History · biography · Detroit/Michigan · history

The Italian Hall Disaster and the Copper Strike of 1913

In this post I want to bring attention to the Christmas Eve Italian Hall Disaster. This event is a forgotten piece of history to those outside of the local area. This story takes place in the early 1900s during a time where big corporations were booming and there were essentially no restrictions on how an employer could choose to treat their work force. It begins with local workers who became fed up with the way they were being treated and realized that they should be worth more to their employers. With great sacrifice to many union families, a strike begins. Unfortunately, it will end in a Christmas tragedy, but there will be a legacy that these families left behind. It should not be forgotten.

Continue reading “The Italian Hall Disaster and the Copper Strike of 1913”

American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800? Continue reading “Humboldt and the Natural World”

American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

Woodward Avenue: The Backbone of Detroit

Woodward Avenue is one of America’s most iconic roads. The road 27 miles that connects Detroit River to Pontiac, Michigan and was once the main way to connect the suburbs to the main city. What makes it so special?

It is the home for many firsts in America: the first paved road, the first four way stoplight, possibly the first ice cream soda mixed by Sanders, and the first road where a ticket for street racing was written (March 1895). In 1963, thousands marched and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr gave a precursor to his “I have a Dream” speech. It is the home to the famous “Dream Cruise” where thousands of classic cars owners come to cruise, socialize, and show off their vehicles. It is also just an important part of Detroit culture; it is a landmark. The road was also important to the auto industry. The auto industry grew up and expanded on this road. It truly is the spine of Detroit.

Continue reading “Woodward Avenue: The Backbone of Detroit”

American History · Detroit/Michigan · history

Code Word: “Midnight”

“Midnight” was the code word for one of the final stops of the Underground Railroad. By the time the former slaves arrived at “Midnight” they must have been filled with a sense of relief after surviving miles and miles of dangerous travel. Dawn was right around the corner. At this time, the country was teeming slave catchers. After the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, a new popular profession was created. This law gave the slaveholders the ability to seek out and have their runaways returned. The law of 1850 expanded this and allowed the capture of fugitives slaves anywhere in United States held territory. It did not matter if the fugitive was north of the Ohio River border (1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River), they could still be caught and returned. If they made it to Midnight (though not danger free) they were just a few miles and a ferry ride from freedom. Have you guessed where this was?

Image result for detroit underground railroad
Gateway to Freedom Monument, Detroit, Michigan

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American History · history

The Declaration of Independence and its Legacy

This week celebrated one of the most important events in American history. Wednesday, July 4, was the anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and, after spending some of the week in Boston, I find myself full of the Revolutionary spirit! I wanted to create some blog posts this month that highlight some of the key events leading to the break of the American colonies from England.

I came to a realization while traveling in Boston that in current time we don’t truly realize how radical the events of the Revolution were. The rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and having a government that is run by the consent of the people are just what is expected. That did no exist in the world that the Declaration of Independence was born into. The American colonies were there for the benefit of the parent country first and their own needs were secondary. These figures in our history were truly risking their lives for something they did not know would work at all and I admire that. At the time, Britain, and even the world, believed these “upstart colonists” were doomed to fail. Britain was the greatest power in existence and they had the advantage. When the British looked at the colonist they saw untrained and undisciplined farmers while they had a professional army. Some in Parliament even viewed the future Americans as “lazy”. The British also knew that the colonists could not finance a war as they had no navy and no way to manufacture supplies in large quantities.

Image result for american revolution

Continue reading “The Declaration of Independence and its Legacy”

American History · biography · history

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist

Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and was closest to her youngest sister, Tennessee. She grew up in a very rural area and her parents were considered “undesirable” in society. Her father was a con man and her mother a religious fanatic. Victoria would learn the valuable trade of fortune telling and how to be a medium through her mother. Victoria had to drop out of school after only three years of elementary school in order to earn income for her poor family. She earned this through fortune telling. The family was exiled from Homer after her father burned down their gristmill to try and cash in on the insurance policy. From this moment on Victoria spent much of her time traveling with her family attempting to earn money. Through her difficult childhood, Victoria learned to be independent and find strength within herself.

Image result for victoria woodhull

Continue reading “Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist”

American History · art history · european history · history

Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL

In the 20th century, 11,000 wooden crates were brought across the Atlantic in order to rebuild one of the most beautiful (and oldest) buildings. I visited Miami this weekend and was able to tour this amazing place. I was astounded at the beauty and overall peaceful feeling while in this ancient Spanish Monastery. It is most likely the oldest building in America and I felt I needed to share its history (and my pictures!).

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Image may contain: indoorImage may contain: plant, tree, table and outdoor

Currently this church is known as the St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church, but it was originally created in 1133 in Sacramenia, Spain. The construction was completed in 1141 and the Monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was built in the Cistercian Romanesque style and was located in a mainly Muslim area of Spain during this period. It would have originally contained some defensive structures (as the Christians and Muslims where at war during this period). This monastery also contains two of the only three known telescopic windows from the medieval period that exist today (pictured below). These are placed above the altar Continue reading “Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL”