“Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights . . . especially the women.” – Marsha P. Johnson
In the past half-century, the LGBTQIA+ community has made large strides in reaching equality through various legal victories and new legislation written into law. This pride month, like many that have come before, is a celebration of hope and love of all kinds, but many often forget to remember those who have worked tirelessly to assure that they could be standing here today, out and proud. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, countless Black women worked as LGBTQIA+ activists, whose contributions were made all the more significant by the fact that this was during a time when the Civil Rights Movement was still in full swing, and women had barely managed to make a dent in the gender barriers restricting them to traditional roles.
It’s time to remember the contributions that Black women made and stop hiding the problems they continue to face behind a thinly-veiled rainbow curtain. Three women played a large part in the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights. What were their names? Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and Stormé DeLarverie.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a pioneer of the LGBTQIA+ movement and fought for gay liberation throughout her life. Born in 1945 as a male-identifying person, she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, feeling as though there was something different about her throughout her life. Although her parents didn’t accept her, she grew up knowing that she felt more like a woman than her assigned sex.
When she turned 18, she promptly moved to Greenwich Village in New York and began living her life as Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a self-made drag queen. But make no mistake: with discrimination heavy, her day-life wasn’t as glamorous. As a black transgender woman, few career opportunities were available to her, and ultimately, she was forced to turn to prostitution and sex work to make money. This opened Johnson’s life up to unspeakable violence and left her in countless dangerous altercations, some involving firearms and, on one occasion, even getting shot. Despite this, Marsha became known as a “drag mother” for helping homeless LGBTQIA+ youth. Marsha was unapologetically herself, an outspoken and courageous woman.
She was undeniably a key player in the movement for equality, which was sent into full swing on one fateful June summer night in 1969. It was on this day that the LGBTQIA+ community chose to fight back after being endlessly harassed for years. The police had raided the Stonewall Inn for lacking proper alcohol licenses, as was the common excuse given to allow the clear abuse of power perpetuated by the force.
While many believe Marsha was leading the charge against the police that night, she later stated that she hadn’t arrived at the scene until later. After being on the scene, Marsha began her journey as an activist and attended protests and sit-ins to fight for gay liberation. A year later, she founded STAR (Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries) with her close friend and fellow transgender woman, Sylvia Rivera. They worked to create this organization with hopes that it would unite transgender youth and give them a place to call home while they were being targeted by the police. As she continues her activism and fight for transgender youth, many began to call her “Saint Marsha” for her endless generosity and hard-work in the fight for equality. On July 6th, 1992, Marsha P. Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, her death ruled as suicide by the NYPD police, although it was much more likely that she was a target of a hate crime for her transgender identity. It was a heart-breaking end to the fearless and tremendous life she had lived, helping young LGBTQIA+ youth and fighting so that one day, what happened to her may never happen again.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy knew exactly who she was from a young age, coming out as a proud transgender woman to her parents at the ripe age of 13. Unfortunately, after a psychologist, exorcism, and more than one prayer later, she was kicked out of her childhood home. She graduated from high school early and went to university at just 16, where she was once again kicked out for wearing dresses. This happened to her not once but twice.
Instead of being able to complete her undergraduate degree, she moved to New York and resorted to prostitution after being fired from many jobs for her gender presentation. It was around this time that she began to work in drag, often performing in drag revenues at night and frequenting bars where she could feel accepted and herself. One of these was the infamous Stonewall Inn. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy led the charge along with other transgender women who had finally decided that they were done being complacent while they were being persecuted just for existing. She was knocked out by a cop that night, but by that time, it was too late. A revolution had begun, and four nights of endless rioting were known in history to spark the LGBTQIA+ movement for equal rights. In the next decade, Miss Major was arrested for robbery and incarcerated twice again for wearing make-up and entering a bar that was known for inhabiting “deviants.” Miss Major went on to live a remarkable life filled with accomplishments, such as becoming executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) and being awarded the Social Justice Sabbatical Award from the Vanguard Public Foundation.
Stormé DeLarverie was a biracial lesbian woman who became known as a protector of queer youth in New York, likely because of the racial violence she experienced growing up. Raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, she was a biracial woman born to a black mother and a white father when anti-miscegenation laws were still in place. Knowing that she could not embrace herself in New Orleans, she moved to Chicago to become a singer as soon as she graduated high school.
Stormé began working as a drag king MC for the Jewel Box Review and often frequented LGBTQIA+ bars, such as Stonewall Inn. Many believe that Stormé was on the front lines that night the stonewall riots began, and even more, believe that she started the riot due to many eyewitnesses testifying that they saw a “butch lesbian” getting arrested by the cops. Regardless of the events that night, Stormé played a large part in the LGBTQIA+ movement and often advocated against anti-gay and anti-black prejudice. Stormé went on to be a part of the formation of the Stonewall Veterans Association and presided as the Vice President from 1998 to 2000.
Stormé’s legacy went beyond her activism. She was considered a vigilant protector of the community for her status as a bouncer, or bodyguard, for many LGBTQIA+ clubs. She walked around with a gun on her hip (hence the Butch Cowboy nickname) and made it known that if anyone wanted to mess with the queer youth of New York, they would have her to contest with. While Stormé died in 2014 due to long-term dementia, her legacy continues to live on today as the Butch Cowboy of NYC.
These three women left a lasting impact on the LGTQIA+ community, and they deserve to be remembered for their activism and hard work throughout their lifetimes. Historically, Black women are often overlooked and forgotten, and modern times are no exception.
In 2022, there have been 14 transgender deaths due to fatal violence, the “majority of [whom] were Black and Latinx transgender women”(Fatal Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2022). Black transgender people overall have higher rates of homelessness, coming in at “26%, two times the rate of the overall transgender sample and four times the rate of the general population,” according to the National LGBTQ Task Force. LGBTQIA+ women of color struggle to escape abusive situations due to cultural stigma, fear of harsh repercussions from law enforcement due to being a racial minority, and homophobia/transphobia that makes it difficult for them to find a safe space.
Black LGBTQIA+ women suffer from constant discrimination due to their race, sexual orientation, and gender. As Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, stated, “the prejudices don’t add upon one another, they multiple upon one another”(Rojas and Swales). It’s important to remember the origins of the LGBTQIA+ movement, which was led by countless brave LGBTQIA+ Black women who were fighting during a time in which their multiple identities made them targets for hate crimes in the past, and evidently still do. Too often, these individuals are left without support from the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community, and during this pride month we must take measures to recognize all of their hard work that led to where we are as a community today.