June is a month when Pride is at the forefront of our minds. As we honor and celebrate Pride this year, Walker Sands’ LGBTQIA+ employee resource group is taking a brief look at its history. To fully understand this history of the LGBTQ+ movement in our country, it is important to become acquainted with two individuals: Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera.
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender activist born in New Jersey in 1945. She later moved to New York City, where she formed S.T.A.R — the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. While celebrated within her neighborhood for her positive attitude, generous spirit and captivating style, she was arrested numerous times by the NYPD, frequently homeless and often a victim of multiple forms of violence.
Sylvia Rivera was a fellow transgender activist of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent who co-founded S.T.A.R with Marsha. Her advocacy focused not only on those shunned by the mainstream elements of society, but also on those excluded within the LGBTQ+ community itself, often by white, upper-class gay men.
During the late 1960s, when Marsha and Sylvia were establishing themselves in New York, homosexuality and any other element of queerness was, by and large, illegal across the entire country. Rampant discrimination was not only permitted by law, it was commended socially and economically. At the same time, the U.S. was in the midst of several social and political uprisings, including the Civil Rights Movement, the counterculture phenomenon and large-scale opposition to the Vietnam War.
The culmination of widespread discrimination, ongoing aggressive police treatment and numerous sources of political and social unrest came to a head in 1969. LGBTQ+ businesses, including bars, remained unlawful as a gathering of homoseuxals was considered “disorderly conduct.” Many of these businesses were therefore run by organized crime. One such bar in Greenwich Village, called the Stonewall Inn, was owned and operated by the mafia. These bars were frequently raided by police, but on June 28, 1969, what was expected to be a “standard” raid at the Stonewall took a different turn.
Marsha was at the Stonewall Inn that evening, and as the NYPD began getting violent with fellow bar patrons while attempting to arrest her for violating the state’s “gender-appropriate clothing” statute, she and the other patrons began to actively defend themselves. Their push-back against the police gained momentum and prompted hundreds to gather in front of the bar and protest such unjustified treatment. This uprising lasted for several days and is known as the spark to the LGBTQ+ movement across the country.
On the one-year anniversary — June 28, 1970 — thousands marched from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what was called the “Christopher Street Liberation Day” and subsequently known as the first pride parade in the U.S. Since then, pride events have taken place every June across cities, towns and communities in the U.S. and beyond. Both Sylvia and Marsha marched in that first parade in 1970 despite being discriminated against within the community and discouraged from participating.
During the pride events of 1973, Sylvia spoke to a packed crowd at Washington Square Park about the struggles and mistreatment within their own community that has become an iconic reminder of how there is more to the LGBTQ+ movement than just the G.
As we strive to make our workplace more accepting and inclusive, as well as provide an opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard, it is important to remember the people who helped lay the groundwork to make this essential movement possible. For more information on Marsha, Sylvia and the LGBTQ+ movement on the whole, this Netflix documentary is a well-crafted portrait of their lives and the unaddressed questions surrounding Marsha’s violent and untimely death in 1992.