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Masha P. Johnson, Stonewall, and the painful origins of the LGBT+ movement

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 11 de junio de 2022

Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall riots are considered a watershed in the LGBT+ movement.

All over the world, June has become Pride Month, and although nowadays, commemorations are more centered on joyous parades full of color to demonstrate the pride of the LGBT+ community, many have had to fight tirelessly and painfully to pave the way so new generations can live in a diverse world full of acceptance, something that hasn’t been fully achieved yet.

Diversity has been a constant in humanity and even nature. Still, despite the mounting evidence, for millennia, the status quo has persecuted any other identity that isn’t binary. The LGBT+ movement can be traced back through all this time, in one way or another. Resilience, resistance, and fight, have been a constant in the lives of those who haven’t felt part of that binary status, but the movement as we know it today and the celebration of Pride as we commemorate it today, is often linked to a particularly painful episode in history, the Stonewall riots.

After such a long time of open persecution, on the first hours of June 28, 1969, members of the LGBT+ community decided to riot during a police raid on a popular gay bar in New York called Stonewall. The brutality shown by the authorities sparked an impetus for the movement to the point that LGBT+ history is often divided into ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Stonewall riots.


With the turn of the century, the world felt they were reaching new modernity, a new reality sparked by the technological improvements the Industrial Revolution introduced. This new world, for many, represented a chance to dump outdated social beliefs, and thus, several movements endorsed diversity.

One great example is the Harlem Renaissance movement in New York that dated from 1917 to 1935. This movement didn’t only promote black culture as it had never been seen before, but it also accepted and adopted diversity as one of its banners. Greenwich Village and Harlem, both in New York, became the perfect setting where the LGBT+ community felt somehow free to live their realities.

In a way, supported by the Prohibition era and a desire to defy the rules, tons of queer establishments were secretly opened in the areas giving birth to a whole new variety of entertainments such as drag. With the outbreak of WWII, the US somehow, forgot, at least at closed doors about their outdated persecution of queer people mainly because many decided to join the fight either on the fronts or through the production of war essentials.

But, let’s go back once again. In 1924, the first gay rights organization ever was founded in Chicago. It was called the Society for Human Rights and its purpose was to change laws that punished LGBT+ people for being who they were. The society soon disappeared after all of its members ended up being arrested. Still, it set a precedent that would spark many other organizations.

After the war, while the world was trying to recover, there was also an insistence on promoting a perfect lifestyle that, of course, didn’t include other identities or realities. As a response, in 1950, the Mattachine Society was created in Los Angeles. This society focused on recognizing there was an oppressed community that was essentially a persecuted minority. They also focused on providing support and ensuring gay rights all over the country; still, its main target was gay men. As a response, the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian-focused organization, was created in 1955.

These organizations attracted the attention of psychologists and sociologists from all over the world who wanted to jump in with facts from their study fields to demonstrate that diversity was something innate to humanity. But the world didn’t respond as openly as they thought. In the 50s and 60s, the government sparked an open war against the community by implementing laws that didn’t only punish diversity but also prevented them from having regular lives and decent employment opportunities.

It was in the early 60s when a government decision in New York would lead to what happened in Stonewall. The mayor of the city, Robert F. Wagner, was getting ready to host the 1964 World’s Fair. Wanting to give a “clean and perfect” image, he decided to get rid of all he considered degenerate. To do so, he revoked liquor licenses to bars that were known for being gay-friendly and had a special unit of undercover police officers whose job was to raid bars and arrest anyone they suspected was part of the community.

The Stonewall Riots

As you can imagine, it was under these police implementations that the Stonewall Riots happened. Stonewall was a small gay bar in Greenwich Village run by the Mafia. Ont he night of June 27, four undercover officers attended to bar to get some evidence. Outside the bar, the department of Public Morals Squad, as the unit was named, was waiting for the undercover officers for a signal so they could raid the place. The signal came in the early hours of the 28th from one of the public telephones of the bar.

Around 1:20 a.m., part of the small squad entered the bar and started arresting people; it’s estimated that there were around 200 people inside Stonewall. However, the raid didn’t go as smoothly as it had at other bars. Many of those who had been separated to be taken into the police precinct (mainly drag and trans people) refused to provide their identifications which would “demonstrate” their “real” identity causing a stir.

Those who hadn’t been arrested stayed at the place, and soon word spread, and crowds gathered in support even mocking the police. In a matter of minutes, around 600 hundred people gathered, and, being clearly outnumbered, the police force started pushing and kicking the crowds in a desperate attempt to show their power. In response, the crowd, which was mainly part of the community, started throwing garbage, rocks, and bricks toward the police and Stonewall. Soon, the once-iconic gay bar was lit on fire.

In a matter of minutes, the Tactical Patrol Force of the city arrived to aid their police folk arresting basically anyone on the street. By 4:00 a.m. the streets had been cleared. However, what had transpired on that evening wasn’t going to be forgotten quite easily. That June 28, Stonewall became a monument of LGBT strength. Graffiti with messages like “drag power,” “support gay power,” “legalize gay bars,” and “they invaded our rights,” appeared on the burnt walls of the Stonewall bar.

That same night a new riot started on Christopher Street, where Stonewall was. Some of the people who had avoided arrest returned to the scene to protest. That night the crowd rose to thousands of demonstrators. Just like the night before, the riots ended up in fires and broken windows. Again, the Tactical Patrol Force arrived and the riots ended a couple of hours later.

Riots continued for the next six nights; members of the LGBT+ community had had enough and wanted to make a change even if it had to be achieved through violence. A movement had sparked and one of the main faces of the movement was no other than Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender activist who tirelessly worked for the rights of the community.

Marsha P. Johnson

Considered a gay liberator, Marsha P. Johnson became one of the main figures behind the Stonewall uprising and following gay movements. She was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front and the radical group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R).

Even before Stonewall, Johnson was known as a very prominent advocate and protagonist of the gay scene in New York. Careless of the anti-queer laws that ruled New York, Marsha P. Johnson lived her public life freely even getting known by the people as the ‘mayor of Christopher Street’ one of the streets where the gay scene developed in the city.

Marsha P. Johnson never identify herself as transgender, probably because the term wasn’t popular around that time. Instead, she always claimed to be gay, transvestite, and a queen. The latter, of course, because she worked as a drag queen. The transvestite part of her self-identity came from her childhood since she would start wearing dresses at the early age of five. At the age of 17, she moved to New York with only a bag of clothes and worked waiting tables.

It was then that she became acquainted with ‘people of the streets,’ who would become part of her social fight. Her drag style was political and comical, and her lack of funds would make her fashion choices a statement she would be widely known for. She even got to model for Andy Warhol.

Johnson is often named as one of the figures that started the Stonewall riots. However, she always clarified that she wasn’t there when the confrontations started. Many remember her climbing to a lamppost and throwing a brick at a police car, but this actually happened on the second night of the riots. Still, as the activist she was, she became a very active protester during the riots and the following movements that gave birth to the LGBT+ movement we know today.

Throughout her lifetime, Marsha P. Johnson also became an activist for the AIDS support in the late eighties and early nineties and kept fighting to promote gay rights until her death in 1992. She was found floating in the Hudson River and although police immediately ruled her passing as a suicide, family and followers always believed she was a victim of a hate crime.

The aftermath of Stonewall and the birth of the LGBT+ movement

Weeks after the Stonewall riots, the Gay Liberation Front organization was created to advocate for sexual liberation. It was the first LGBT+ organization to actually use the word Gay on its name, showing they were no longer hiding. Unfortunately, unable to settle on how to proceed, the organization was dissolved just four months later. It was followed by the Gay Activist Alliance, which had a more political approach to LGBT+ rights than the Gay Liberation Front. Their main goal was to secure “basic human rights, dignity, and freedom for all gay people.”

Even after the disaster at Stonewall, the raids on gay bars continued all over the city. In 1970, one year after the Stonewall riots, massive protests were held across the US to commemorate the riots. In Greenwich Village, the march is known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, which gathered thousands and thousands of members of the community and allies, and became the prototype of the Gay Pride marches we celebrate today all over the world.

Stonewall was the watershed of the movement. A painful episode that showed that persecution and discrimination weren’t going to be accepted anymore, and a milestone in a history of acceptance and inclusion. If you’re planning on attending your local Pride march, think of all the violence endured decades ago so we can march freely. But also think of all the job that is still to be made to secure full acceptance of diversity, something innate in humanity.

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