How Marsha Johnson inspired the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which led to the first Gay Pride March

Michael Eli Dokosi Feb 18, 2020 at 03:00pm

February 18, 2020 at 03:00 pm | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

February 18, 2020 at 03:00 pm | History

Marsha P. Johnson via Netflix

Some heterosexuals feel they are being gagged against speaking and writing unflattering things about gays. They assert the sledge hammer is unleashed to kill the proverbial fly leading to job losses and for some lucrative deals.

It is not to say homophobic comments should be entertained. However, it underlines the power that gays and related people now enjoy.

It wasn’t always so though. An incident is often cited as altering the oppressive condition gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and intersex people found themselves.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York triggered a series of activities which culminated in the First Gay Pride parade in 1970.

Despite living destitute, Marsha quickly became staple at the Stonewall Inn bar on Christopher Street, being one of the first drag queens to ever appear there
Despite living destitute, Marsha quickly became staple at the Stonewall Inn bar on Christopher Street, being one of the first drag queens to ever appear there

Given homosexual acts remained illegal in every American state except Illinois by 1969, enthusiastic police officers were raiding bars and restaurants to ‘out’ gay workers and patrons.

So it was business as usual when police once again raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in New York City’s Greenwich Village that served as a haven for the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community. The bars operated by the mafia in New York with the police on their pay books often blackmailed wealthy gay patrons by threatening to ‘out’ them.

Often the affected were embarrassed to fight back but on the night of June 28, 1969 something changed. Members of the city’s LGBT community decided to fight back.

In 1960s America, men could be arrested for merely dressing as women. These are just two of almost 50 rounded up at a Manhattan ball in 1962. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
In 1960s America, men could be arrested for merely dressing as women. These are just two of almost 50 rounded up at a Manhattan ball in 1962. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Stonewall was packed on that Friday night when eight plainclothes or undercover police officers (six men and two women) entered the bar. In addition to the bar’s employees, they also singled out drag queens and other cross-dressing patrons for arrest. In New York City, “masquerading” as a member of the opposite sex was a crime.

More NYPD officers arrived on foot and in three patrol cars loading Stonewall employees and cross-dressers inside.

By the early morning of Saturday, the operation was ongoing with the police intent on shutting the inn for good. Homeless or young gay men who viewed the Stonewall as the only safe place in their lives were anxious about the new development.

In that mix, transgender women Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera resisted arrest. Bottles were thrown at the police from the crowd which was ever growing. Some started taunting the officers, yelling “Pigs!” and “Copper!” throwing pennies at them while others slashed the police vehicle tyres.

One year after Stonewall, the uprising was marked with a new demonstration – Christopher Street Liberation Day. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
One year after Stonewall, the uprising was marked with a new demonstration – Christopher Street Liberation Day. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

By 4 a.m. on June 28, 1969, the police facing a hostile crowd retreated and barricaded themselves inside Stonewall bar. It took the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF), the city’s riot police to liberate them. There were no deaths nor critical injuries.

Despite having been torn apart by the cops, the Stonewall Inn opened before dark the next night choosing not to sell alcohol.

More supporters showed up, chanting slogans like “gay power” and “we shall overcome.” The police came on the scene ostensibly to restore order but tear gassed members of the crowd.

From June 29-July 1, 1969, Stonewall became a gathering point for LGBT activists. With the heavy handedness of the police, the activists seized the momentum with “homophile” organizations like the Mattachine Society being replaced by radical groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).

Marsha P. Johnson, born a male who became a self-identified drag queen was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front. She co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera.

The gay rights advocate and prominent figure in the Stonewall Riot was a popular figure in New York City’s gay and art scene. She modeled for Andy Warhol eventually becoming an AIDS activist with ACT UP.

Stonewall Inn
An unidentifed group of young poeple celebrate outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn after the riots.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945 to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta Claiborne. She began wearing dresses at the age of five but faced harassment from neighborhood kids. She endured a sexual assault by an adolescent boy, noting she remained asexual until leaving for New York City at 17. She landed at Greenwich Village in 1966 and upon meeting gay people, finally felt it was possible to be gay and came out.

Johnson variably identified herself as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen). She was also a sex worker.

Curiously in 1973, Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the gay pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee because they “weren’t gonna allow drag queens” at their marches. Their response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade.

By 1966, Johnson lived on the streets and engaged in survival sex. In connection with her sex work, Johnson was arrested many times.

Johnson battled mental health acknowledging she first experienced it in 1970. Shortly after the 1992 pride parade, Johnson’s body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled the death as suicide but the cause was reclassified.

A large, painted mural depicting Johnson and Sylvia Rivera went on display in Dallas, Texas in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

On June 28, 1970, the First Gay Pride parade set off from Stonewall. Taking a leaf from New York’s example, activists in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago organized gay pride celebrations that same year. It will lead to gay rights movements in Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that the East River State Park, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York, would be renamed after Marsha P. Johnson.

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