Amplifying Voices Who Changed History: The Trans Women of Color Behind Stonewall

Melanie Biscuso

Melanie Biscuso

Pride Month is celebrated each year in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City on June 28, 1969. The event became the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ liberation movement.

Many are familiar with the story of how a violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn—a gay club located on Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village—sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents that led to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement. News of these protests spread around the world, inspiring others to join protests and activist groups to fight for equality.

I believe it’s important to explore the legacy of the Stonewall Riots through an intersectional lens of liberation for all oppressed people, which begins with putting the spotlight on the lesser-known narrative that the uprising was initiated by trans and gender-nonconforming people of color.

The Stonewall Inn today, Greenwich Village, New York City

Trans Activists & Revolutionaries: Righting Revisionist History 

You may not recognize the names Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but these pioneering transgender activists and lifelong friends were part of the vanguard that resisted police during the Stonewall Riots and emerged from the front lines of the uprising as key leaders in the gay liberation movement.

Pictured beneath an umbrella, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson lend their voices to a gay rights rally in New York City during the 1970s.

Born in 1945 in New Jersey, Marsha P. Johnson was an outspoken Black trans rights/gay rights/AIDS activist and drag performer during the late 20th century. The “P” in her name famously stood for “Pay it No Mind,” which was her stock reply when people asked about her gender or sexuality. Of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent, Sylvia Rivera was born in New York City in 1951 and worked as a trans rights/gay rights activist and drag performer.

Following the Stonewall Riots, the pair would ultimately go on to co-found S.T.A.R., the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which offered housing to homeless transgender youth and trans women of color. S.T.A.R. is now considered a groundbreaking organization in the queer liberation movement and a model for other organizations. Johnson died in 1992, and Rivera died in 2002.

While the Stonewall Riots certainly represent an awakening for an entire generation of LGBTQ+ activists, there is an ongoing problem with revisionist history and the erasure of trans women of color from the story. For example, the 2015 movie Stonewall revolves around a white, cisgender, male protagonist and expunges the political contributions of the trans and gender-nonconforming people who stood on the front lines that night, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. This, to me, raises a larger issue.

Throughout her life, Marsha P. Johnson was a tireless advocate for all marginalized communities.

For most of history, trans people and people of color have been largely excluded from both the gay rights and women’s rights movements, despite the fact that they’re the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to gender and sexuality-based discrimination. As we celebrate Pride Month this year and into the future, I think it is vital that we recognize and amplify the voices of marginalized people who changed history in their fight for equality. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are two of those voices.

These largely unsung heroines are now set to be immortalized in a planned monument to be erected close to the site of the Stonewall Riots in the heart of Greenwich Village. According to the City of New York, the statue installation will be the first permanent public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world. It will also serve as a reminder of the existence and persistence of trans and gender-nonconforming people who have historically been omitted from “official” narratives about the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

It’s hard to believe that 52 years after the Stonewall Riots, that lack of visibility is still being fought, as transgender people of color—the very group who helped start the LGBTQ+ movement—face disproportionate instances of violence and multiple forms of oppression through racism, transphobia, sexism and homophobia.

While Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were integral figures in the Stonewall Riots, we need to remember that it was just one event in their lifelong commitment to ending oppression for all marginalized communities.

Image Sources:

Stonewall photograph by Johannes Jordan – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Gay rights activists at City Hall rally for gay rights” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1973.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Kady Vandeurs and Marsha P. Johnson at gay rights rally at City Hall” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1973.