The Lives of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will be immortalized in a monument down the street from the Stonewall Inn for their work as transgender activists. Here's what you need to know about them. Special thanks to Making Gay History - The Podcast.

Honoring Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in 1945 in New Jersey. In 1963, she moved to New York City with “$15 and a bag of clothes.” Ray Rivera, who would later take the name Sylvia, was born in 1951 in the Bronx, NY. She began living on her own at 10 as a child sex worker. Rivera and Johnson met on Halloween night in 1963. Both drag performers, they faced consistent harassment — particularly from the police.

On June 28, 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn — a gay bar in Greenwich Village igniting six days of protests. Many legends have grown around the event. There's been a persistent myth that Marsha P. Johnson threw the first shot glass, which she herself said didn't happen. She said herself in an interview with Eric Marcus that she didn't arrive at the Stonewall Inn that night until 2:00 a.m. By then things were already in full effect. The Stonewall riots became heralded as a turning point of the LGBTQIA movement. In 1970, Johnson joined Rivera in founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), to advocate for young transgender people. STAR did a lot of street action, and they also ended up having several apartments, that they would use to house, they called them transvestites at the time.

Rivera became involved with the Gay Liberation Front. But as she says as she was pushing back against the white LGBTQIA establishment to fight for rights for all, the organizations pushed the two activists out. Rivera, who attempted suicide after giving that speech, left activism, and New York, in 1973. In the mid-1970s, Johnson became a muse to Andy Warhol. In the 1980s, she joined the AIDS action group ACT UP. On July 6, 1992 her body was pulled from the Hudson River.

Her death was quickly ruled a suicide, then revised to an unexplained drowning. Many close to her think she was murdered. Her case was reopened in 2012 and remains open. After Johnson’s death, Rivera struggled with addictions. But, by 2001, she was sober, and marching in pride parades. In 2002, she died of liver cancer. On May 2019, the City of New York announced plans to build a statue honoring the lives of Johnson and Rivera.