How Transgender Women Of Color Led The Gay Liberation Movement In The Stonewall Riots

Exploring the history and the meaning of being an ally within the LGBTQIA+ community itself.

How Transgender Women Of Color Led The Gay Liberation Movement & Stonewall Riots Getty

I went to my first Pride March as part of the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and more) community almost 20 years ago in Burlington, VT.

Everything about the scene was new. At the time, I identified as a woman, a lesbian, and was still very new to owning my pride. I had no idea about the deeper meaning of LGBT Pride Month, how it started, the history of the Stonewall riots, or who a “Gay Pride” parade might include.


I had just moved to Vermont after graduating from college, and I didn’t know anyone except my girlfriend. I had just come out to family members — with pretty awful results — so I was new to rejection and discrimination, too.

I was craving what Pride had to offer but I was terrified to be there; I was almost afraid to be seen. After all, I had spent most of my life hiding this piece of myself. Now I was supposed to flaunt it? Celebrate it?

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Despite having hidden in the closet for 19 years, getting to know myself through a personal form of solitary confinement, it was hard to own something I didn’t know anything about.

The rainbow flags waved me in and gave me hope, and I took something that was mine to have — but something I had to understand thoroughly in order to keep.

At the time, I thought the rainbow was just a symbol of homosexuality. I thought Pride was meant to celebrate homosexuality and its varying degrees of expression. I saw leather, glitter, boas, G-strings, denim, and shaved heads. I saw girls kissing girls and boys kissing boys. I thought I was at Gay Pride. I thought I was celebrating.

But what? Holding the hand of my girlfriend in public? Being in a space that allowed me to be gay? Looking back, that is little to celebrate.


Pride did not start as a party, and Pride is about so much more than being gay.

Pride started with pain; to be fair, it continues with pain. The reason for Pride is hate.

When Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn was raided over 51 years ago to the day on June 28, 1969, it wasn't the first time police officers from the New York City Vice Squad Public Morals Division had stormed in and pushed people against the wall to inspect their bodies and outfits.

At the time, New York State law required that someone had to be wearing three articles of clothing that were appropriate to their biological sex.

These laws, at the time colloquially referred to as “anti-cross-dressing laws”, were common around the country.


As a report by PBS explains, these laws lasted far too long: “[A] person perceived as male who dressed in clothing customarily designed for women could technically be arrested in New York for 'impersonating a female' as recently as 2011 ... In effect, the anti-cross-dressing laws became a flexible tool for police to enforce normative gender on multiple gender identities, including masculine women and people identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming."

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Police knew Stonewall was a place to find the most marginalized LGBTQIA folks.


They did not know how much solace those queer folks found in that building, though, nor did they likely care. And they didn't know how dangerously close they were to a tipping point. But there is only so much oppression, fear, and abuse one person or one group can take.

There is still speculation about how or why the violence started during that particular raid at Stonewall, but I think the people there had simply had enough.

Historians agree that Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were two of the key players that night.

Both Rivera and Johnson were drag queens, transgender women of color and sex workers.

They fought back. They fought against. Even after both of their deaths, their fight continues.


A revolution was started by some of the most at-risk members of our community, yet the movement formed in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots was called “Gay Liberation”.

Little space was made for transgender and gender non-conforming folks in early organized groups like The Gay Activist Alliance and The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Even the term “Pride” was coined by a person with a stigmatized identity.

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Bisexual activist Brenda Howard was the woman who organized the first Pride March. A year after the violence at Stonewall, she assembled the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in 1970.


A few years later it was referred to as Christopher Street Gay Pride Day. And even 30 years later, I was calling it Gay Pride Month, which many people call it to this day.

I'm now aware that I was unknowingly excluding many others while wrapping myself in a blanket of colors meant to unify all members of the queer community.

In 1978, 10 years after Stonewall and shortly after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California, Gilbert Baker created that first rainbow flag.

Harvey Milk wanted something that created community. He wanted a visual representation of the fight for gay rights. He wanted a symbol of hope and unity.

The Pride flag absolutely created gay pride. It created safety. It created change. But change needed to happen from within, too.


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As the movement for gay and lesbian rights grew, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson continued working together. However, their work was done in parallel to, rather than along with, the Gay Pride movement. In some ways, it may have even been in conflict with the folks leading the charge.

In 1970, the two started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that provided shelter and support to queer and transgender homeless youth "not being taken into account by other early gay groups." They fought for those living with HIV/AIDS. And Rivera fought at the state level to be sure New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) was trans-inclusive.

It should not be forgotten that both fought to be accepted within their own community.


Rivera famously said, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned” when dealing with gay activists who refused to acknowledge transgender rights.

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The Pride March, like society, is still very much binary and cisgender. However, I am starting to see more visibility of people falling within the wide range of the human gender and sexuality spectrum.


Rivera and Johnson will soon be memorialized with a monument to be placed on permanent display in New York City.

Transgender folks proudly marched with bare chests, showing off their top surgery scars.

And it's been announced that grand marshals of the NYC Pride March 2019 (coming up on June 30) will include Monica Helms, a transgender activist, author, veteran of the U.S. Navy, and creator of the Transgender Pride Flag, as well as cast members from Ryan Murphy's TV series "Pose", considered "notable, and history-making, in its employment of numerous transgender actors."

The prominence of the transgender pride flag next to the rainbow flag during the Pride March is a sign that the conversation is expanding.


Pronoun buttons now sit next to ones that read feminist, queer, and fag. Queers with kids, queer kids, and queer-loving allies now line the route and march together instead of at one another.

Turns out I didn’t know much back in the days of my first Pride march, and I am still learning.

Pride is still not simply a celebration; it is an act of defiance.

I defied my own act of pride. I was not a woman. I was not a lesbian. I was not proud.

I have always been queer and nonbinary, but it took time to find those words and to own who I am. But even as a transgender person, I need to acknowledge my privilege of being white and presenting as masculine.


As a member of the LGBTQIA community, I had to earn my place and respect the work of those who came before me and those who are still suffering.

I have had to ask myself if I am embracing the IA+ folks carrying the pansexual, genderqueer, polysexual, and agender flags. Am I doing enough to support queer people of color, specifically transgender women of color?

It has been 50 years since transgender women of color inspired so many many in the Stonewall uprising, yet Black trans women are still being fatally shot or killed by other violent means in disproportionately high numbers.


Tragically, on July 6, 1992, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. She was just 46 years old.

Though her cause of death was originally ruled a suicide, many who knew her suspected she'd been attacked. The case was reopened in 2012 by trans activist Victoria Cruz, a staffer at the Anti-Violence Project in the hopes that the true cause of her death will finally be determined.

Some speculate she was murdered by bullies. Others believe it was the mob.

I am going to go out on a limb to say that the equal rights fire-starter was killed for the reasons she lived. Johnson died for being herself — and also for my ability for me to be me.


As new labels and a better understanding of gender and sexuality emerge, the LGBT community needs to be sure to embrace the QIA+.

Are we as a community checking our own biases? How are we fighting for queer and trans POC? Are we making sure the people carrying those new flags feel safe?

Even within the most marginalized groups, there is privilege and room for growth. Where I once hid behind the rainbow flag, I am now sorting through all of its colors, picking them apart and welcoming new spaces.

I am taking the hope the rainbow flag gave me and using it to advocate for myself in ways that will lift up anyone who doesn’t fit into a heteronormative society.


I want to be an ally within my own community. I can throw a brick with one hand while handing another to my queer family member.

I can only keep my newfound sense of Pride by building it up in somebody else who whose voice may otherwise not be heard by those who need to be listening.

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Amber Leventry is a queer, nonbinary writer and advocate. They have three kids, including twins and a transgender daughter. Amber’s writing appears on The Washington Post, Ravishly, Longreads, PopSugar, and The Temper, and they are a staff writer for Scary Mommy. Follow Amber Leventry on Twitter and visit their website for information on speaking engagements and LGBTQIA training sessions.