The riot began in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969. Some say it started with a thrown brick. Others say it was a tossed shot glass dubbed “The shot glass heard ‘round the world”. It happened at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, after years of police harassment and repeated raids on gay bars. A line had finally been crossed and the Stonewall Riots sparked the beginning of the modern LGBTQ movement.
There has been much discussion about the role transwomen played at Stonewall. Termed transvestites or drag queens or transsexuals at the time, two iconic figures emerged to spur on the movement. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were both at Stonewall and went on to fight for gay rights. Later, in the struggle for trans rights, their efforts often ran counter to the more staid gay rights movement. Marsha and Sylvia were passionate and boisterous and persistent in their fight.
Marsha P. Johnson was a beloved transwoman in the community and her suspicious death in 1992 roused public anger. Officially Marsha’s mysterious death was ruled suicide, but those who knew her were convinced otherwise. It all seemed far too convenient for the police to brush off her death with no real investigation.
A recently released film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix, 2017), tells the story of Marsha’s role at Stonewall and in the movement that followed. The film chronicles recent efforts by Victoria Cruz of the New York Anti-Violence Project and her quest to uncover the truth about Marsha’s death. But this story goes far beyond the death of Marsha P. Johnson. It links past violence toward the transgender community to the current epidemic of transgender deaths by violence each year and highlights the need to work toward ways to prevent such deaths.
Each year on November 20th we observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance as we take time to reflect on the deaths of transgender people. The first observance was in 1999, when Gwendolyn Ann Smith memorialized the murder of transgender woman Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts. Sadly, 20 years later, the anti-transgender hatred, prejudice, and violence toward those who are trans continues.
The American Medical Association has termed the violence against transgender women to be of epidemic proportions. “According to available tracking, fatal anti-transgender violence in the US is on the rise and most victims were black transgender women,” said AMA board member S. Bobby Mukkamala, MD. As a result of the alarming numbers, the AMA published a set of recommendations to help prevent anti-transgender violence (AMA, 2019). As reported by the Human Rights Campaign, transgender or gender-nonconforming violent deaths in 2018 totaled 26. So far in 2019 the death toll has passed 20. It is difficult to get an accurate count since many more victims were likely misgendered or deadnamed by the authorities and the media. Especially for transwomen of color, it is dangerous to be trans and out.
On this day of remembrance, we think about transgender people murdered as they simply tried to live their lives in a society still lacking acceptance and respect. We think about and honor the pioneers of the past like Marsha and Sylvia and others who have worked through adversity for trans rights. They are our heroes – people who have forged paths and have literally put their lives on the line for the movement. Today we reflect on the courage and the passion and the roles trans people before us have played in the ongoing struggle for trans rights and acceptance. And today let us pledge to continue their unfinished work as the torch is passed to a new generation. t
For additional information see: A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018, Human Rights Campaign; The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets, by Gayle E. Pitman (Abrams Books, 2019); The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (a Netflix documentary, 2017). t
Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held – both male and cisgender – privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.
- Laura Anderson is an educator, author, researcher, parent, and granddad. Her years teaching in public school classrooms as male provided the foundation for her more recent role educating future teachers. Living female for the past decade, she has come to appreciate the privileges she once held – both male and cisgender – privileges now replaced with the fulfillment of living as her true self.