According to Erica Kay Webster, one of the last remaining trans persons who was at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, “We were all labeled Drag Queens.”
Three “drag queens,” who later became identified as transgender women, are Yvonne Ritter, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. All three are strongly associated with the Stonewall Uprising that took place the last weekend of June. Although these individuals had a role in the events of that night, so did hundreds of other gay men, lesbians and trans of all backgrounds.
Ritter was living at home in Brooklyn — known to her family as Butch — when she went to the Stonewall Inn to celebrate turning 18 on June 27, 1969. Coincidentally, also celebrating a birthday that day was an eccentric African American street person, Johnson, who turned 25 years old that day. Johnson was one of the city’s best known drag queens and street personality in the village. Once, appearing in court for prostitution, the judge asked her, “What does the ‘P’ stand for?”, and Johnson gave her customary response — “Pay it No Mind.” This phrase became her trademark for the rest of her life. Johnson, who suffered from schizophrenia, had a close friend — if not her closest — Rivera, who would turn 18 years on July 2.
Shortly after midnight, the sixth precinct police raided the Stonewall Inn and Ritter said she was “scared to death.” She was being arrested for being in drag, which was illegal in New York. Taken out of the bar and into a paddy wagon, she thought at the time, “’This isn’t happening.” Ritter was pushed in the police van which had “already more people than could fit.” When the police once again opened the doors to shove in more drag queens, Ritter took the opportunity to “skip out.”
Ritter didn’t get far in her black evening gown and black fish net stockings and black pumps before being spotted by a young policeman. The cop looked at Ritter and said, “Hey, you!” and detained her. Ritter pleaded, “Please, it’s my birthday, I’m just about to graduate from high school, I’m only 18,” and surprisingly the cop let her go. Ritter ran for the subway and all the way home she was “scared to death that my father would see me on the television news in my mother’s dress.”
For the next couple of days Ritter kept watching to see if there was anything on the news about the riot, but “there wasn’t and I graduated from high school without my parents ever finding out where I’d gone to celebrate my birthday.”
Rivera’s story was completely different from Ritter’s. She left home at age 10 in 1961 and hustled to survive on 42nd Street. “The early ’60s was not a good time for drag queens, effeminate boys or boys that wore makeup like we did. Back then we were beat up by the police, by everybody. I didn’t really come out as a drag queen until the late ’60s. I remember the first time I got arrested, I wasn’t even in full drag. I was walking down the street and the cops just snatched me.”
Where Sylvia Rivera was on the night of June 27 is challenged by several different accounts told by her over time and by eyewitnesses of the event. No doubt she was at Stonewall but whether it was the first night or the second seems to be a mystery. At least one Stonewall historian, David Carter, has put under question Rivera’s links with the Stonewall Inn protests, based on these contradictory statement and by testimony by early gay rights activists who said that Johnson denied that Rivera was present at the riots.
In some accounts Johnson was identified as one of the first to fight back in the clashes with the police amid the Stonewall riots. Others state that Sylvia Rivera was the first one to fight back and start the riot. Others claim a butch dyke took a swing at a police officer who was shoving her into the paddy wagon. As in many events that only take on significance years later, no one was there who recorded exactly how the riot unfolded. For any one faction to try to claim credit for starting the Stonewall riot is patently false. It was a spontaneous event fueled by many extraneous events all which led to different myths on how it played out.
Stonewall historian Martin Duberman in his 1993 accounting of the event places Rivera at the scene of the riot the first night. “From this point on, the melee broke out in several directions and swiftly mounted in intensity. The crowd, now in full cry, started screaming epithets at the police —”Pigs!” “Faggot cops!” Sylvia [(Ray) Rivera] and Craig [Rodwell] enthusiastically joined in, Sylvia shouting her lungs out, Craig letting go with a full-throated “Gay power!”
From Duberman’s research and interviews, Rivera was certainly at the center of the riot but it was the crowd that was screaming when she joined in. Rodwell who founded the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in 1968 would have certainly been a reliable witness as he would have known most of the characters in the village.
Ritter also said that Rivera was one of the people there and was mad and drunk. Though, as she was scared to death for her predicament, Ritter could not have been a totally objective witness, especially as Rivera and she became friends over the years.
Still others even reported that it was Johnson who was having a birthday party in the Stonewall Inn instead of Ritter. Others reported Rivera saying that when the riot began she was outside and went to get Johnson to take part in the uprising.
In Carter’s book he claims that Johnson was the person who “really started it” on the first night of the riots. It certainly could have been Johnson as one of many onlookers who was looking for a fight.
For the most part, Johnson had the same personality no matter how she was dressed, though there were also times when Johnson would assert a male identity. Those who knew Johnson’s schizophrenic personality said it would come out as a dual personality, known as Malcolm Michaels, who could “become a very nasty, vicious man, looking for fights.”
After Stonewall, in 1970, Johnson and her close friend Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Together they hustled tricks to provide food and clothing for young drag queens, trans women and other street kids who were living on the Christopher Street docks. Rivera’s experiences made her focus on advocacy for those who, in her view, mainstream society and the assimilation sectors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT/queer) communities were leaving behind.
In the 1980s Johnson continued her street activism as a respected organizer with ACT UP during the AIDS crisis. Together they were a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions.
As for Ritter, she began her transitioning after high school and went back to school to work on a bachelors in psychology, and later became a nurse. She was a tireless and dedicated worker taking care of gay men dying during the 1980s. After becoming sober, Ritter had less and less to do with Rivera and Johnson. In an interview she credited getting an education for getting her away from “the crazy girls.”
“That’s not to say that I’m better than anybody, it’s just my story,” she said. “I needed to stay away from some people.”