People in History: The Stonewall Rioters

Hundreds of people were involved in the riots which changed the queer emancipation movement from passive assimalism to angry activism. The actions of those hundreds were garnered by incitement from a brave few who first struck back.

Marsha P. Johnson

Screenshot-2017-06-26-21.56.21 People in History: The Stonewall Rioters

Wikimedia Commons

One of New York’s best known street queens, Marsha P. Johnson was inside the Stonewall Inn during the night of the raid, and has been credited by numerous witnesses as being one of the first to fight back when the police tried to separate the drag queens and inspect them to confirm their physical sex. Following the riots, Johnson became an established activist, co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation to advocate on behalf of homeless drag queens and runaways.

Often homeless herself, Johnson was a well-known figure among the Christopher Street piers homeless population, and with other STAR founders would take in homeless LGBT kids, especially transwomen of colour and young queens.Johnson and STAR co-founder Sylvia Riviera would hustle the streets to provide for their army of adopted offspring, and to prevent the kids from having to do the same. Later they founded STAR House, a shelter for homeless youth.

Johnson became a familiar figure at radical political meetings and gay liberation marches, and also began working with ACT UP. In the mid-1970s, Johnson was photographed by Andy Warhol and joined his drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches.

Shortly after the NYC Pride March in July 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River, just off the West Village piers. Despite bitter denials from her friends that Johnson was depressed or suicidal, and the fact witnesses had seen her being harassed near where her body was found shortly before her death, the police ruled the death a suicide. It took ten years of lobbying by Johnson’s friends and activists for the police to reopen the case as a homicide. The case has never been solved.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Screenshot-2017-06-26-21.57.01 People in History: The Stonewall Rioters

Miss Major at San Francisco Pride 2014. Wikimedia Commons

Another drag queen famous on the New York scene, Griffin-Gracy was also in the Stonewall Inn when it was raided. Chicago-born, Griffin-Gracy came out while still a teenager in the 1950s, and had been a familiar sight at the drag balls in the Windy City before moving to New York. When the police invaded the Stonewall, Griffin-Gracy joined Johnson in fighting back, but was struck on the head by the police early on, and taken into custody. She received a five-year sentence for her part in the riots. While imprisoned, a corrections officer broke her jaw.

After being released from prison, Griffin-Gracy moved to San Diago, where she volunteered with a local food bank, and later worked directly with homeless, incarcerated, or drug-addicted transwomen. While she was living in California, the AIDS epidemic hit the US, and Griffin-Gracy responded by providing healthcare and funeral services for those affected. In 1990 she moved to San Francisco, where she served with a number of HIV/AIDS organisations.

In 2003 she joined the newly-founded  Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). Today she is Executive Director of the project, which supports imprisoned trans* women, especially transgender women of colour.

Stormé DeLarverie

Screenshot-2017-06-26-21.57.43 People in History: The Stonewall Rioters

Wikimedia Commons

DeLaverine was credited with being the “typical New York butch” whose refusal to be arrested placidly galvanised the crowd gathered outside the Stonewall Inn into rioting. Born in New Orleans to a black mother and white father, DeLaverine toured the black theatre circuit through the 1950s-60s as MC and drag king  of the Jewel Box Revue.

The night Stonewall was raided, DeLaverine was arrested for flouting the law which stated women must wear at least three articles of feminine attire in public, and was escorted from the Inn in handcuffs. When she complained they were too tight, a police officer hit her over the head with a baton. She escaped the police’s grasp three or four times before being recaptured, bleeding from the head all the while. As she was being manhandled into the back of the police van, she shouted to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” Her words turned an agitated group into an angry mob.

It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience — it wasn’t no damn riot.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, DeLaverine worked as a bouncer for various lesbian bars in New York, and was Vice President of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. She also worked as a volunteer street patrol, and even when she was in her eighties she was still a familiar figure, patrolling the streets in search of troublemakers. In the words of her NYT obituary, “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero.” DeLaverine also organised and performed benefits for abused women and children. She died peacefully in her sleep, aged 93.

writing-with-pride-banner People in History: The Stonewall Rioters

Liked it? Take a second to support Kate Aaron on Patreon!
become_a_patron_button People in History: The Stonewall Rioters