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Learn The Impact of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

This duo helped pave the way for safety and provided awareness for the LGBTQIA+ community. Their impact will forever be remembered and their contribution is incredible.

TW: Mentions of sexual assault, abuse, suicide, and gun violence.  


Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were pioneers during the AIDS/HIV crisis and advocated for transgender rights. Some historians describe Johnson a transgender woman even though the term transgender wasn’t commonly used yet. 

The “P” in Marsha P. Johnson stands for “Pay it no mind”. She coined this when questioned about her gender. Sylvia Rivera initially identified as a drag queen but later identified as a transgender woman, even though she despised labels. Together, Johnson and Rivera were a powerful duo who established the organization STAR and both contributed to the Stonewall riot. Before they became pivotal leaders in this movement, they were ordinary women who had rough upbringings. 

On Aug. 24, 1945, Marsha P. Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was the fifth of Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta Claiborne’s seven children. Marsha was assigned male at birth but enjoyed wearing clothes typically associated with girls. These clothes reflected how she felt internally but after being sexually assaulted by a thirteen year old boy, she felt pressured to stop dressing like this. After graduating from high school, Johnson moved to New York City with $15 and one bag of clothes.

1951 saw the birth of Rivera in New York City. Rivera was raised by her grandmother from Venezuela after her mother committed suicide when Rivera was only three years old. Rivera experienced severe amounts of verbal and physical abuse at home and at school; a result of her early on fashion and makeup choices. At the age of eleven, Rivera ran away from her abusive home and began working on the streets. 

Marsha made her living by being a sex worker; an insanely dangerous job resulting in many threats such as gun violence. Marsha was even shot once but still survived and went on with her life. She wanted to survive and her only option was this dangerous job. Her housing and income was unstable and she often slept in friends’ apartments, movie theaters, hotels, and cars. 

Marsha and Sylvia meant when Marsha was 17 and Rivera only 11 years old. Marsha became a prominent friend in Syvlia’s life and taught her many skills such as makeup, safety, and how to love yourself. Their friendship grew from there. 

They wanted to create safety and human rights for the LGBTQIA+ community. So much had to be done for their community and it only became more important during the AIDS/HIV crisis. Before this epidemic, Stonewall occurred in 1969 and the duo participated. Marsha was said to have thrown the first brick during the riot. The Stonewall Riots happened because of queer people being arrested because of suspicious charges. Both were leaders and valid participants in this riot and felt it needed to be done. 

Together they founded STAR. A group that provides refuge to young transgender people who have been rejected by their families. The two also started STAR House, a safe haven for young transgender people. STAR was one of the first initiatives to address the needs of homeless trans youth in New York and promoted gay rights.

Some agreed with the duo, while others despised them. Many murders and hate crimes occurred during this time period and continue to transpire today. It was extremely hard on Sylvia and Marsha. Marsha experienced multiple mental breakdowns and was hospitalized, despite having a very joyous personality and being very positive. Not only that, Marsha continued to get arrested. Both continued moving on and fighting for what mattered to them. 

Both kept fighting to the end of their lives. Sylvia Rivera died on February 19, 2002 due to liver cancer. Marsha P. Johnson kept working in sex work because that was all she could do: until, sadly, she was diagnosed with HIV. It wasn’t until July 6, 1992 that Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. Her death was originally ruled as a suicide, despite the NYPD’s lack of investigation due to Marsha being transgender and queer. The investigation into Johnson’s death was reopened by the New York Police Department in 2012.

For the rest of their lives, both women remained advocates for the rights of low-income queer and trans communities as well as people of color. Multiple statues and monuments have been dedicated to them and created to show their importance. They continue to inspire many to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and to keep working until this war for justice is over. 

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson both mean so much to me. Both of these women have inspired many queer youth to keep fighting for safety and justice. These two women experienced horrid things in their life yet continued to push forward and continue to fight for what mattered to them. I find their ability to keep moving to be incredibly inspiring and moving. These two leaders deserve more credit and recognition for all that they did. I hope that many continue to learn about their lives. I think the world needs more of this duo’s fearlessness, and so do I. 

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About the Contributor
Luca Hinesman
Luca Hinesman, Journalist
Luca Hinesman is currently a Sophomore at Community High School and a believer in buying expensive coffees. When not in CET rehearsals or mock trial practices, you can find them reading books about revenge, catching up on homework, or hanging out with friends. Luca is currently in their first semester with The Communicator and is excited to contribute their ideas this year!

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