Lavender & red, part 73
Stonewall combatants Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson—a Latin@ and an African American activist, respectively—took part in the early development of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the weeks after the 1969 Stonewall street battles. Both were self-identified drag queens.
While consciousness and attitudes toward transgender and transsexual activists was not uniform in GLF, the lesbian and gay front did not turn away trans people.
The Philadelphia GLF news letter COME OUT took the following written position in its August 1970 newsletter: “Gay Liberation Front welcomes any gay person, regardless of their sex, race, age or social behavior. Though some other gay organizations may be embarrassed by drags or transvestites, GLF believes that we should accept all of our brothers and sisters unconditionally.”
Rivera and Johnson were inspired by their experiences in the early militant gay liberation organizing and protests.
“STAR came about after a sit-in at Weinstein Hall at New York University in 1970,” Rivera explained to me, in an interview in 1998, four years before her death. The protest at NYU erupted after the administration cancelled planned dances there, reportedly because a gay organization was sponsoring the events. GLF, Radicalesbians and other activists held a sit-in at Weinstein Hall. They won the right to use the venue.
Rivera and Johnson saw the need to organize homeless trans street youth. Both Rivera and Johnson were themselves homeless and had to hustle on the streets for sustenance and shelter. “Marsha and I just decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids,” Rivera stated.
In 1970, the two formed Street Trans vestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
“STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time,” Rivera said. Shelter was a big problem for trans street youth. “Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. And you can sneak 50 people into two hotel rooms.”
The first STAR home was a parked trailer truck in an outdoor parking lot in Greenwich Village. Some two dozen STAR youth lived together in the trailer. One day, at dawn, Rivera and Johnson arrived at the trailer with food for all and discovered to their horror that their “home” was moving. Some 20 youth were still sleeping in the trailer as a trucker was driving it away. Most youth were able to leap out in time. One awoke to find herself en route to California. (Martin Duberman, “Stonewall”)
Rivera and Johnson decided that STAR needed a more permanent home. “Marsha and I decided to get a building,” Rivera told me. “We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars. We got a building at 213 Second Avenue.”
Together, they all figured out how to fix the electricity, plumbing and the boiler. They envisioned the top floor as a school to teach the youth, many of whom had been forced to leave home and live on the streets at a very early age, to read and write.
“We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent. We didn’t want the kids out in the streets hustling. They would go out and rip off food. There was always food in the house and everyone had fun. Later we had a chapter in New York, one in Chicago, one in California and England. It lasted for two or three years.”
Rivera and STAR also became a part of the Young Lords Party—an organization of revolutionary Puerto Rican youth. Rivera recalled, “[W]hen the Young Lords came about in New York City, I was already in GLF. There was a mass demonstration that started in East Harlem in the fall of 1970. The protest was against police repression and we decided to join the demonstration with our STAR banner. That was one of the first times the STAR banner was shown in public, where STAR was present as a group.
“I ended up meeting some of the Young Lords that day. I became one of them. Any time they needed any help, I was always there for the Young Lords. It was just the respect they gave us as human beings. They gave us a lot of respect. It was a fabulous feeling for me to be myself—being part of the Young Lords as a drag queen—and my organization [STAR] being part of the Young Lords.
“I met [Black Panther Party leader] Huey Newton at the Peoples’ Revolu tion ary Convention in Philadelphia in 1971. Huey decided we were part of the revolution—that we were revolutionary people.”
Rivera stressed, “I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist. … I’m glad I was in the Stonewall Riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought, ‘My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!’ I always believed that we would have a fightback. I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn’t know it would be that night. I am proud of myself as being there that night. If I had lost that moment, I would have been kinda hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people.
“Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.”
Next: Nationally oppressed activists form caucuses, organizations.