The third name given by eyewitnesses at the Stonewall riots for the person who may have thrown the legendary “first brick” was Zazu (sometimes “Zasou“) Nova — and if I had to put money down on one of them, this is who I would pick. The sad thing is, there’s just not a ton of information about her and her name is often left out of conversations about the riots altogether.
Nova was a transvestite (in the common lingo of the day) and a sex worker on the streets of Greenwich Village in 1969. Nova had given herself the title “Queen of Sex” and was known to carry herself as though she were actually royalty. Nova was a practicing Unitarian, and was said to be quite proud of having a religious upbringing. It was rumored Nova had spent time in prison for murder — and though it’s definitely true that she’d been in prison, the why is all conjecture.
Whether or not Nova was a murderer, she was definitely a badass. One anecdote shared in the book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter (and coincidentally one of the only places to get information on Nova or on Jackie Hormonafrom their lives before the riots) relates that she and a man named Martin Boyce were about to get jumped by five men, when she pulled a heavy chain out of her purse and chased the five men away.
Now, Zazu Nova was not inside the Stonewall Inn when the police raided it. But Nova frequently worked Christopher Street, and the raid drew quite a crowd. Nova was absolutely present at the start of the riots, and absolutely had the, let’s say, gumption to react to the police abusing Stormé Delarverie. She was later seen fighting alongside Marsha P. Johnson that first night — which might explain how some witnesses believed that it was in fact Johnson who threw the brick even though she wasn’t there yet.
It’s very difficult to find much about Nova following the riots. She became involved in the Gay Liberation Front that was founded after the riots. She was also a founding member of New York Gay Youth and was involved in Street Action Transvestite Revolutionaries, the organization started by Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — though I can’t find exactly to what extent. What became of her after those organizations fizzled out, I truly cannot find.
And that’s it. That is all that I could find about someone who may be one of the greatest heroes of the modern LGBTQ+ movement.
I wish this article was going to be longer, but I have honestly scoured the internet for more information on this person, and I have almost nothing. Nevertheless, Jackie Hormona contributed the Stonewall riots — and he should be acknowledged for what he did.
Rumors flurried about who began the actual riots outside the bar. Legend has it that a queen threw the first brick, right after Stormé Delarverie was forced into the back of a police wagon. In the confusion, eye witnesses recounted three different queens in that action — Marsha P. Johnson became the most popular of these names — probably because she was already the most well known, but by her own recounting of the event she wasn’t there yet. The other two were Jackie Hormona and Zazu Nova.
It’s honestly proven very difficult to get any other information about these two. Jackie Hormona’s birth name might have been Jack Daniel Whitehall (I say that because I saw that written not very definitively on a not a very reliable website, but it’s the only other name I’ve found.) Jackie was a sex worker who regularly hustled on Christopher Street. Though Jackie used a drag name, Jackie wasn’t exactly a drag queen — he wore subtle make up to enhance his looks. He had a reputation for being much more level-headed than the other queens — and moral. He would break up fights, he would stop the street workers from stealing from each other, but he also stood up against the police when they harassed the local street queens. But Jackie also had a reputation as being kind of a loner and keeping a distance from the rest of the queers on the streets of Greenwich Village, which is why there’s not a lot more information I can find.
Jackie was definitely at the riots on the first night. We know this because he appears in a very famous picture that I guarantee you’ve seen. In fact, it’s already been on this site once!
I will say, I don’t personally think Jackie Hormona was the one who threw the “first brick” (if that’s even a thing that happened and not just legend that came out of this) because most witnesses who were there and saw it claimed it was a drag queen. And while Jackie was certainly associated with drag queens, street queens, and transgender women, he would have been hard to actually mistake for one if you saw him throwing a brick. I think his reputation for standing up to the police led some people to believe, when they saw him there, that he must have started things off. Which is not unreasonable. Even if that’s not the case, though, I’m quite sure he jumped right in.
Jackie also became quite involved with the Gay Liberation Front that formed after the Stonewall riots. There are two pictures of him with GLF banners (both in this article!). After that I can’t find much of anything except that he may have been one of the victims of the AIDS epidemic.
Sometimes called “the Rosa Parks of the gay community,” Stormé DeLarverie was a butch lesbian who’s arrest is often credited as the moment that sparked the Stonewall Riots — despite being quite adamant that “it was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
DeLarverie was born in 1920 to a white man and a black woman — who worked as a servant for her father’s family. DeLarverie’s exact date of birth was never exactly known, so she celebrated it on December 24. (I’m not sure why you’d pick that if you’re given a choice, but I guess we can’t all have June birthdays…) As a kid, DeLarverie was bullied constantly. In her teenage years, she joined the circus — getting a job riding jumping horses for Ringling Brothers Circus, until she was injured in a fall and was unable to resume the work.
DeLarverie realized she was a lesbian around the age of 18. She entered into a relationship with a dancer named Diana, who she was with for about 25 years until Diana’s death in the ’70s. DeLarverie carried a photo of Diana with her for the rest of her life.
In 1955, began touring as the MC and the only drag king in the Jewel Box Revue — the first racially integrated drag show, appearing regularly at the Apollo Theater. Audience members would attempt to “guess the girl,” ultimately being surprised during a song entitled “Surprise with a Song” that the girl was actually DeLarverie, who was often sporting a mustache and a tailored suit. DeLarverie was noted particularly for having a strinkingly handsome appearance as a boy — which inspired a lot of other lesbians of the time to begin wearing traditionally masculine clothing as well. Her career as a performer would be explored in the 1987 documentary Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box.
DeLarverie continued performing with the Jewel Box Revue until 1969, becoming quite well known and influential in drag culture. 1969, however, was the year the most truly secured her place in queer history. DeLarverie was at the Stonewall Inn working as a bouncer when the police raid began in the early morning hours. Although resistance to the raid truly started inside the bar itself, the real riot on the street is often said to have begun with a woman many have identified as DeLarverie. She was brought out of the bar and through the crowd outside several times, but kept escaping — at least once by punching an officer (which she, according to friend Lisa Cannistraci, believed was the first punch of the riot.) At some point, DeLarverie was hit in the head by an officer’s baton and began to bleed from the wound — she struggled and complained that her handcuffs were too tight, before looking to the crowd and asking “Why don’t you guys do something?” At this point, the police officers picked up DeLarverie and hurled her into the back of the police wagon — and the crowd erupted. (It was at this moment that the legendary “first brick” was thrown.)
Now, it hasn’t been confirmed that DeLarverie was actually the woman that that story is about — but it has been absolutely confirmed that she was there and was one of several butch lesbians fighting against the police. In truth, it’s entirely likely that the above story did happen, and no one’s name but DeLarverie’s has ever been put forth for it, but there probably wasn’t just one inciting incident that sparked the riots — a number of things were happening simultaneously that cumulatively led to the uprising.
The riots transformed DeLarverie, who became a fierce activist and a protector of the LGBTQIA+ community afterwards. She had a state gun permit, and was known to patrol the neighborhoods around lesbian bars looking for intolerance or, as she described it, “ugliness” against her community. She was a regular staple at the Pride parades and rallies that followed after Stonewall, and also acted as a bouncer at several lesbian bars until she was 85 years old. Meanwhile, she also continued to perform, often putting on benefits for abused women and children and volunteered for queer organizations and charities as well.
She was also a well-respected member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, holding several offices there including Chief of Security and Ambassador. She also served as Vice President from 1998 to 2000.
In 2010, DeLarverie moved into a nursing home in Brooklyn. With dementia setting in, she did not know she was living in a nursing home but she retained her memories of the Stonewall Riots and her childhood. On June 7, 2012 Brooklyn Pride Inc. honored her at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, where they also aired the 1987 documentary about her. Two years later on April 24, the Brooklyn Community Pride Center honored DeLarverie “for her fearlessness and bravery.” One month — to the day — later, DeLarverie died in her Brooklyn nursing home from a heart attack at 94 years old.
DeLarverie led a long life, but her legacy with the LGBTQIA+ community will continue for many many years to come. Every time there is ugliness against this community, I hope you hear her asking that question that changed the course of history for queer people everywhere: “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.
Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.
Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)
Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.
Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside theGay Liberation Front— and with their next iteration, theGay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.
In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.
She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”
Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.
After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village
There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!
Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.
Although she regularly said her middle initial stood for “Pay it no mind”, Marsha P. Johnson proved to be a difficult person not to notice. Though Johnson is commonly referred to using female pronouns (she/her/hers) — and I’ll be doing that here — her actual gender identity is a bit of a mystery. She variously described herself as gay, a transvestite, and as a (drag) queen — though words like “transgender” really weren’t being widely used yet during her lifetime. My personal opinion is that she would probably identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary, but make your own judgments.
Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945 — one of seven children — and was named Malcolm Michaels Jr by her parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr and Alberta Claiborne. They were not, from all accounts, a particularly open-minded family and Claiborne was said to believe that being a homosexual was like being “lower than dog.” Johnson was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life.
At the age of five, Johnson began to wear dresses — but stopped because she was harassed and teased by neighborhood boys. Some time during this period, Johnson was sexually assaulted by a boy who was roughly the age of 13. In 1963, Johnson graduated from Edison High School and promptly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, and living on the streets of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
She also began to perform as a drag queen — initially going by the name “Black Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She was often recognizable for having flowers in her hair — something she began doing after sleeping under flower sorting tables in Manhattan’s Flower District. She usually had on bright colored wigs, shiny dresses, and long flowing robes. Marsha was known to be peaceful and fun, but there was a violent and short-tempered side to her personality (which her friends commonly called “Malcolm”) — leading some to suspect that she suffered from schizophrenia. Between her sex work and her occasional violent outbursts, Johnson claimed to have been arrested more than a hundred times.
When the Stonewall Inn began to permit women and drag queens inside, Johnson was one of the first to begin regularly visiting the bar. Some witnesses have even credited her with starting off the riots in 1969. Although this claim has certainly gained traction and become the popular version of events, she likely was not the woman who sparked off the Stonewall Riots by throwing the legendary “first brick” — this was also rumored, and was perhaps more likely to be Jackie Hormona or Zazu Nova by eyewitnesses — Johnson did have one particularly iconic, though unconfirmed, moment in the riots. She is said to have shouted “I got my civil rights!” and thrown a shot glass at a mirror. ( Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that started the riots, but Johnson herself disputed this. According to Johnson, word of the riots reached her and she immediately went to collect her friend Sylvia Rivera so they could join in — but Johnson was sleeping on a bench. According to Johnson, she arrived at about 2:00 am, forty minutes after the riots began. (I guess word traveled fast!) There are many reports that on the second night of rioting, Johnson climbed up a street lamp with a purse that was loaded down with a brick — which she dropped through the windshield of a police car. Though there’s a lot of stories about those riots, and a lot of confusion about the details it is very clear that Johnson was there and made a noticeable impact.
Although she’d been an activist before, Johnson became a real leader in the LGBT movements that followed the riots. In 1970, she and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — an organization that provided community support for transgender youth. She also joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall (and was, essentially, the creation of the Pride festivals we celebrate.) At one rally in the early 70’s, Johnson was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for –Johnson shouted into the reporter’s microphone “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Johnson once said, “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.” In 1972, she began to perform periodically with the international drag troupe Hot Peaches. She was also continuing to work as a sex worker, taking the money she (and Rivera) earned from that business to help pay the rent for the housing for transgender youth that STAR had established that year. Johnson also took on an active role mentoring all of the youth in their care, becoming a “drag mother” even to those who were not performers. Although STAR declined and closed in 1973, it was a groundbreaking organization and the shelter that it provided queer youth was truly revolutionary.
In 1973, Johnson also performed with the Angels of Light drag troupe — taking on the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in their production of “The Enchanted Miracle”. That same year both Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in New York’s gay pride parade — the committee organizing the parade felt that drag queens and transvestites brought negative attention and gave the cause “a bad name.” In response, Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.
In 1975, Andy Warhol took pictures of Johnson for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson’s success as an activist and a performer, as well as her regular appearances throughout the decade, earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”
By 1979, Johnson’s mental health was beginning to decline quite severely. Her aggressive side was coming out more often, and a Village Voice article called “The Drag of Politics” listed all of the Manhattan gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. In 1980, a friend named Randy Wicker invited Johnson to stay with him for a particularly cold night and the two remained roommates for the rest of Johnson’s life. This was — as far as I can tell — the first time Johnson had a permanent address since moving to New York in 1963.
In the 1980’s, Johnson began to work with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal, and was a prolific AIDS activist. She made this her primary focus for the last few years of her life. On July 6, 1992 — just after that years New York Pride festivities — she was found dead in the Hudson River with a large wound in the back of her head. The police ruled her death a suicide — despite pressure from the community and the fact that she had a wound in the back of her head. One witness had spoken of Johnson’s fragile mental health to the police — which was all the police, who had no interest in investigating a black queer person’s death, needed despite witness testimonies also describing Johnson being harassed by a gang. Another witness claimed to have heard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The police did allow Seventh Avenue to be closed so that Johnson’s friends could spread her ashes out over the river.
In 2012, an activist named Mariah Lopez was finally successful in convincing the police to re-open Johnson’s case and investigate it as a homicide. That was also the year that the first documentary about Johnson was released: Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. This documentary included footage from an interview that had been filmed only ten days before Johnson’s death. Fictionalized versions of Johnson also appeared in the films Stonewall (released in 2015) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (released in 2016.) In 2017, another documentary was released — The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — which followed the Anti-Violence Project’s Victoria Cruz investigating Johnson’s death on her own. Despite all of these tributes, it wasn’t until 2018 that the New York Times published an obituary for her.
Johnson — with her friend Sylvia Rivera — will be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village, near Stonewall. This is perhaps most fitting for Johnson, since she was quite insistent about moving the Stonewall monument from Ohio to Christopher Street in New York City in 1992 — famously saying “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”
Johnson may not have “thrown the first brick” at Stonewall, but she led the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in every other way. Randy Wicker said of Johnson that she “rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay”, while Rupaul described her as “the true Drag Mother.”
So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let’s all pay plenty of mind to Marsha P. Johnson — and to the other heroes who stood up that day and said “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Let me tell you about a remarkable woman from Italy who gave up everything to live her truth — Mariasilvia Spolato. She was born in Padua on June 26, 1935. She didn’t leave Padua for quite some time — remaining there until after she earned a degree in mathematical sciences.
Degree in hand, she departed for Milan with the plan to teach. She also became a part of the Italian civil liberation movements of 1968. By the following year, she had published a mathematics book, and begun to write for magazines — as well as publishing her own photographs and poems in magazines. She had earned a great deal of respect in a fairly short amount of time.
In 1971 she founded the Homosexual Liberation Front (FLO) — which would later merge with the Italian Revolutionary Unified Homosexual Front (FUORI) — and founded the magazine Fuori! with Angelo Pezzana. In 1972, she published her second book: The Homosexual Liberation Movements (not at all like her first book! Less math, more queerness! I haven’t read either but I’m sure this one’s a way better read.)
And then, on March 8 1972, she marched on Rome while carrying a sign that openly and defiantly declared that she was a lesbian — “I love a woman” it read. She was photographed, and the picture was published in a magazine called Panorama. This made Mariasilvia the first woman in Italy to publicly come out as a lesbian. The nation went absolutely nuts — Mariasilvia was dismissed from her teaching position by the Ministry of Education, who determined her to be “unworthy” and her family abandoned her. She was left homeless and jobless.
Mariasilvia was spent most of the rest of her life wandering through Italy, engaged heavily in activism. She spent many nights sleeping on benches, or staying in homeless shelters or with friends. She claimed half of the train conductors on the continent knew her, she traveled by train so frequently.
During the 90’s, after many years of this, she developed an infection in her leg that ultimately put an end to her travels. She was admitted to a hospital in Bolzano, and afterwards stayed in a newly opened homeless shelter for women that had recently opened there. In 2012, she was given a place to stay at the Villa Armonia nursing home in the same city. Mariasilvia was not eager to give up her freedom, and adamantly refused to do anything but sleep inside the nursing home for the first three years then. After those first years though, she warmed to the idea and began to participate in picking the movies for theme nights, having meals with the other residents, and taking pictures of them all. Eventually, she even gave the books she had been traveling with for decades to the nursing home’s library. She remained there until she passed away at 83 years old on October 31, 2018. She died still estranged from her family and, sadly, forgotten by many despite the momentous act that cost her so much.
So, as you may know if you’ve been reading these for a while, I’m a Rhode Islander through-and-through. And I love when I can do an article about local queer history. So that’s why I’m so happy to be sharing this story.
It starts in Cumberland, Rhode Island, in April of 1979. Paul Guillbert, a junior at Cumberland High School had been dating a senior at Brown University, Ed Miskevich. Guillbert sought permission from the principal, Richard Lynch, to bring Miskevich to his prom — Lynch denied the request, citing a concern that the pair might be endangered by the reactions of the other students. Guillbert attempted to move his request up the “chain of command,” but when they learned that Guillbert’s own father did not support him the School Board refused to allow Guillbert a public hearing. I suppose they thought that was the end of the matter.
But the next year, Guillbert’s friend Aaron Fricke — who had recently come out of the closet and begun dating Paul — asked to be allowed to bring his boyfriend to prom. Again, Lynch denied the request — claiming he was concerned that the other students might react violently and that might prove dangerous for Fricke and his “male escort” but also mentioned that approving the request would have an “adverse effect” on the other students, the school, and the town itself. Like Guillbert, Fricke was not satisfied with this response — and so, with the help of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, he went to court.
They were looking to file a preliminary injunction that would allow Fricke and his beau to go to prom together. They appeared in the United States Court for the District of Rhode Island. Judge Raymond J. Pettine presided over the case. The Court ruled that the school was violating Fricke’s freedom of speech — that “even a legitimate interest in school discipline does not outweigh a student’s right to peacefully express his views in an appropriate time, place, and manner.”
The Court also decided that threats of violence against Fricke would create a “heckler’s veto” — further violating his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Citing the 1968 Supreme Court case United States v. O’Brien, Pettine noted that the school had failed to meet the legal requirement to seek the “least restrictive alternative” before reaching its decision.
Going even further, the Court also stated that the school had created a second class of students by creating unequal policies between those who wanted to bring different-sex dates to the prom and those who wants to bring same-sex dates.
Having soundly won the case, Fricke and Guillbert attended the prom together on May 31, 1980. They were driven there by, according to People magazine, a “protective member of the Gay Liberation Task Force.” The media were outside the school in full force, which prompted Fricke to stick out his tongue at them on his way inside. The school — under the Court’s directions — had six security guards, rather than their traditional two, in order to ensure the safety of the two boys. Though they were definitely heckled, this was a very clear victory for queer teens throughout the United States. According to Fricke’s later writings about the event, the “contagious enthusiasm” of the B-52s song “Rock Lobster” helped dissipate the tensions when he and Guillbert hit the dance floor in a scene that sounds like it’s right out of a cheesy 80’s movie. I guess the 80’s really were like that.
Although this landmark case has made this a very clear-cut case for public schools — the issue has persisted. Fortunately for queer students unwilling to take “no” for answer, the legal precedent is pretty undeniable. As a result, more and more public schools allow students to bring same-sex dates to school dances. This case was cited against Murray High School in 2004, forcing them to reverse a decision regarding same-sex students at prom. Fricke v. Lynch was confirmed in 2010 in a law suit against Itawamba Agricultural School in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Aaron Fricke has gone on to become an accomplished writer and activist. His best known work — an autobiography entitled Reflections of a Rock Lobster — details his experiences leading up to the court case and subsequent dance. This book was adapted into a play by Burgess Clark, which was presented by Boston Children’s Theater in 2012 and 2013 — the first children’s theater production in the US to tackle LGBTQ+ rights issues. Fricke also worked with his father on the book Sudden Strangers: the Story of a Gay Son and his Father.
In 1994 — the same year Fricke received his associate degree from City College of San Francisco — he donated a collection of documents known as the Aaron Fricke Papers which include letters, files, notes, and even drafts of Rock Lobster and Sudden Strangers. I haven’t read these (I don’t think they’re available online, and I have yet to actually go to San Francisco) but I’m particularly interested in an undated file entitled “Gay Terms” and another item entitled “To Sir, Fuck You.”
As for what happened to Paul Guillbert? I know he kept in touch with Fricke at least until 1981 (because there’s letters in the Aaron Fricke Papers) but I haven’t been able to find anything else. I would assume no news is good news, that he’s alive and well and content in the part he played in securing the legal right of LGBTQ+ kids to take whomever they want to prom.