Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
So I may have been inspired by writing about Ronnie Kray recently, but I’ve also found a queer person who basically makes him look like an angel. She is none other than the Cocaine Godmother herself — Griselda Blanco Restrepo. The woman was basically a supervillain straight out of comic books. She was also known as “la Madrina,” “the Black Widow,” and “la Dama de la Mafia.”
Her story doesn’t even start particularly innocently — born on February 14, 1943 in Cartagena, Colombia. Her mother was Ana Lucía Restrepo and her father was Fernando Blanco. When Blanco was three years old, Ana Restrepo moved to Medellín — taking her daughter with her. It was only a few years later that she began her life of crime.
At eleven years old, Blanco kidnapped another child from a wealthy neighborhood and attempted to hold the kid for ransom — and, ultimately, shot the child. Before turning thirteen, Blanco had become an established pickpocket. At sixteen years old, Blanco ran away from home — in order to escape the sexual assaults from her mother’s boyfriend. Now living on the streets, and already familiar with crime, Blanco survived through burglary for the next four years.
Blanco entered into the drug business and rapidly rose to the top — thanks in part to her marriages to Carlos Trujillo (who she allegedly had killed after he was deported from the US) and Alberto Bravo. By the mid-70s, the cartel they’d created together rose to prominence. Bravo and Blanco had moved, using counterfeit passports, to Queens, New York. In 1975, Blanco and 30 of her underlings were indicted on Federal drug conspiracy charges — she and Bravo fled back to Colombia.
Shortly after that, Blanco realized there were millions of dollars missing from the business. She confronted Bravo about the missing money. She drew a handgun on Bravo — who answered by pulling out an Uzi. There was a brief gun battle — during which, Blanco managed to kill Bravo and his six bodyguards while only getting one superficial wound to her abdomen that she quickly recuperated from. With her business partner dead, Blanco now had complete control over her organization. With that power, she decided to thumb her nose at authority and move back to the United States — this time settling in Miami, Florida.
It’s not coincidental that her move to Miami also was about the time that Miami entered a series of extremely violent crime waves. I mean, it wasn’t all her but like, she was an important contributing factor. And these crime waves were so vicious, they’ve been called the “Cocaine Cowboy Wars” or the “Miami Drug Wars” — yeah, wars. And Blanco herself was known for her viciousness — she did things like force people to have sex in front of her at gun point. She murdered her husbands, business partners, business rivals, strippers, and even bystanders — including a kid who was only four years old.
But the fact that Blanco was so terrifying and so successful also gave her some freedoms most people did not enjoy in that time. She was very open about being bisexual, and hosted frequent orgies. She had a wealth of luxurious and glamorous possessions — including a gold and emerald MAC-10 machine pistol, pearls that had belonged to Eva Perón, and a tea set that the Queen of England had used. She was also a drug addict herself, using copious amounts of an unrefined cocaine substance called “basuco.” The drug addiction did weigh on Blanco’s health.
By the mid-80’s, however, Blanco’s violence had brought serious government attention to Miami that was beginning to unravel her organization — her family life wasn’t going so well either. In 1983, her third husband Darío Sepúlveda left her and relocated back to Colombia — kidnapping their child Michael Corleone Blanco. This was a big mistake — Blanco sent someone to kill Sepúlveda and bring the kid back to Miami to be with her. It was probably because of him that she decided she needed to stop the regular attempts on her own life, however, and in 1984 she fled Miami for California.
On February 17, 1985, DEA agents finally arrested Blanco in her California home, and she was held without bail. The Miami-Dade State’s Attorney Office was able to flip one of her subordinates, and gained enough evidence to indict her for three murders — however, a phone-sex scandal involving the star witness and secretaries in the D.A.’s office led to the case falling apart. Blanco continued running her cocaine empire from prison, with help from Michael.
In 2002, Blanco had a heart attack while imprisoned. At some point after that, according to her son, she became a born-again Christian. She was released from prison in 2004, and deported back to Colombia. She kept a low profile for several years, and then — after being seen at the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia — disappeared entirely until September 5, 2012. On that day, she was seen purchasing $150 worth of meat at a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia — with no explanation as to what she planned to do with that because nobody had seen her anywhere for five years — and then a middle-aged guy on a motorcycle showed up, walked into the shop, and shot her twice. Once in the head. And then he walked out, hopped back on his bike, and drove away. If that leaves you going “wait, what?” trust me, I can relate. But that’s what happened.
Blanco, of course, is legendary. She’s been mentioned in a multitude of rap songs, including twice by Nicki Minaj. She’s been featured in TV shows, including being the focus of an episode of Drunk History where she was portrayed by Maya Rudolph, and has been the focus of three movies in which she’s been portrayed by Catalina Sandino Morena and Catherine Zeta-Jones. There is also an HBO movie in development (since 2016) where Blanco will be played by Jennifer Lopez.
Griselda Blanco was definitely a bad person — but she was really good at it. And she pretty much obliterated any glass ceiling there may have been in the illegal drug smuggling industry. If you were to ignore what she was, y’know, actually doing, that would be pretty admirable.
I always say that you can find someone queer connected to virtually any major historical event. The American Revolution is no exception — and, in fact, without this person being queer, we would almost certainly have lost the war.
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was born in Magdeburg in the kingdom Prussia on September 17, 1730. His father was the Royal Prussian Engineer Captain Baron Wilhelm von Steuben and his wife Elizabeth von Jagdovin. In his childhood, his father went into the service of Empress Anna of Russia, and young von Steuben traveled with his father to his various posts. They returned to Prussia in 1740, where von Steuben began to a formal military education, taught to him by Jesuits. This education — despite being from a Roman Catholic order — left him extremely critical of the Roman Catholic church. This was probably partly because his parents were devout Protestants.
Although it’s said he participated in one of his father’s campaigns when he was 14 (in the War of Austrian Succession) Von Steuben did not formally join the Prussian military until he was 17. He served as a second lieutenant in the Seven Years War, suffering an injury in the Battle of Prague in 1757. By 1759, he was promoted to first lieutenant — and then, in August, was injured again. After he recovered he was given the role of deputy quartermaster for the generals headquarters. In 1761, he became the adjutant of Major General Von Knobloch (who — according to my real quick research, is now most renowned for having had von Steuben as his adjutant. Not the most illustrious military career, it seems.) They were taken prisoner by the Russians, but eventually returned to the ranks of the Prussians and von Steuben was later promoted to captain and became the aide-de-camp (personal assistant, basically) to King Frederick the Great. In 1762, von Steuben was one of 13 officers chosen for instruction by the Frederick the Great himself.
However, despite his great success, at the end of the war in 1763, von Steuben was unceremoniously out of a job. Later in his life, letters would point to this being due to an “inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy.” While that’s definitely vague enough for lots of interpretation, given later problems in his life, it is easy to speculate exactly what might have been going on — he probably needed to take the discharge in order to keep someone quiet about his sexuality.
The next year, von Steuben joined the service of Petty Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen — a little principality in Germany. He remained with the court until 1777 — earning himself the title of “Baron” along the way. He was the only member of the court to accompany his prince to France in 1771, hoping to borrow money. They returned to Germany in 1775 deeply in debt and with nothing to show for their efforts.
By 1777, von Steuben was pretty desperate for any sort of job where he could actually make some money. Fortunately, he’d impressed the Comte de Saint-Germain, Claude Louis, when they had met in 1763, and the count also believed that the Americans could really use someone with Prussian officer’s training. He summoned von Steuben back to Paris and introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress was certainly eager for von Steuben’s experience and training, but they were already running into morale issues among the men when they would hire mercenaries from other countries and immediately make them officers. Franklin could not offer von Steuben an officer’s pay (or really any pay), and von Steuben was unwilling to work for less — he rejected the offer to fight in America and headed back to Prussia.
Where he was immediately accused of engaging in homosexual acts with soldiers while serving in the Hohenzollern-Hechingen court. Although the accusations were never proven, von Steuben realized they would cost him any chance at furthering his career in Europe — and might land him in jail or worse. He returned to Paris — while rumors about his sexual activities made their way to the colonies in America ahead of him — and spoke to Franklin again. I’m not saying Franklin was being open-minded for the time, so much as he was just desperate to get a really skilled Prussian officer on board in the war. He wrote a letter to George Washington exaggerating von Steuben’s credentials (calling him a “Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s service”) — there is some debate as to if this was an unintential mistranslation, or if Franklin was trying to counter the damage rumors might have done to von Steuben’s reputation.
Whether or not Washington had heard the rumors is unclear, but there is some evidence that Washington was more open-minded about homosexuality than most people of the time. More to the point, Washington knew the Continental army was hanging by a thread and had even written that without “some great and capital change…this Army must inevitably…starve, dissolve or disperse.” So Washington was very eager to work with von Steuben, and since the baron had agreed to work — at least initially — without pay, the Continental Congress was also quite eager. They forwarded travel funds, and so on September 26, 1777 von Steuben boarded the ship the Flamand and set off for the colonies. They arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on December 1, 1777.
He and his companions — including Pierre Etienne Du Ponceau (who was probably his lover at the time) — traveled to Boston, and then to York, Pennsylvania where they met with the Continental Congress on February 5, 1778. There, arrangements were officially made — von Steuben would be paid for his service at the end of the war, if he survived and if the Americans won. He made the trek from York to Valley Forge, where conditions for the troops were pretty dismal after months of low supplies and an Inspector General who was a complete deadbeat. He was appalled at the conditions — though impressed at the American’s ability to withstand them — and immediately set to work whipping the Continental Army into shape. He did not speak English, but was fluent in both German and French which allowed him to communicate with some of the officers — Alexander Hamilton, Nathaniel Greene, and Captain Benjamin Walker helped translate for him. The former two also helped him write out his training program for the men.
Von Steuben was also appointed temporary inspector general of the camp. He examined the living conditions and their equipment, and set changes into motion regarding the layout of the camp and the sanitation of the camp. These changes included putting the latrines and kitchens on opposite sides of the camp, and having the latrines on the downhill side of camp. A hundred years later, the changes he made would be adopted as standard practice — but they had the immediate effect of improving the health and quality of life for the soldiers at Valley Forge.
His training methods were also a hit — soldiers found him both impressive and entertaining, and found renewed confidence in themselves as they quickly mastered the tactics and maneuvers he instilled in them. He hand-selected 120 men (who became Washington’s honor guard) and trained them — mostly by barking at them, with Benjamin Walker translating. At a certain point, he began insisting that Walker translate not only his orders but also his (many) curse words. These 120 men, in turn, each trained other units of soldiers, who went on to train others, until the entire camp was trained. He had the entirety of the troops at Valley Forge trained by the end of April — just a few months after his arrival.
Von Steuben also implemented a new policy ensuring that troops received training before they were placed in a regiment — using this system of progressive training to make sure that could occur. Although commanding officers were in charge of making sure this happened, they would select their best sergeants to actually perform the training of new recruits. If any of this is sounding vaguely familiar, that’s because this is the groundwork for how our military still operates today.
Washington was greatly impressed, and suggested making von Steuben the permanent inspector general for the army with the rank and pay of a major general. Congress approved this recommendation on May 5, 1778. With this new position, von Steuben became aware of the lack of records being kept about supplies sent to the troops — he insisted that exact records be kept, putting an end to what he called “administrative incompetence, graft, war profiteering” and saving the Continental army an estimated five to eight thousand muskets.
While at Valley Forge, he was known for throwing wild parties in his quarters — to be admitted, it’s said, the only requirement to be allowed in was that no one was permitted to wear pants. I guess he figured that he’d been hired for the job in spite of fairly public allegations regarding his sexuality, so he could be more open about things than he’d been in Europe. He also began long-lasting romantic relationships with Benjamin Walker and Major General William North. This was all particularly brave since the first ever discharge of an American soldier (Ensign Frederick Gotthold Enslin) for committing homosexual acts occurred at Valley Forge at the behest of Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr in March of that same year — after von Steuben’s arrival.
Von Steuben’s training program was truly put to the test for the first time on May 20, 1778 with the Battle of Barren Hill. The British army attempted to entrap the Continental army — and although they technically won the battle, the Americans escaped with only three casualties. The next major proof of von Steuben’s training was the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. However, the greatest proof of the strength of von Steuben’s training was undoubtedly the Battle of Stony Point which took place on July 16, 1779 — the Continental Army launched a surprise attack on a British camp, with unloaded muskets. The Americans won the battle using only bayonets — and the tactics von Steuben had taught them for the use of bayonets.
Von Steuben compiled his training program into a book called Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States — more commonly called the “Blue Book.” The Blue Book was the manual for the United States Army until 1814, and was stilled heavily referenced until 1846. And, as I said before, it laid out the groundwork for how we are still training the military (just with a lot fewer bayonets.)
In 1780, von Steuben was part of the court martial for Major John André — who was being tried for espionage in conjunction with the defection of Benedict Arnold. Afterwards, von Steuben traveled south to Virginia with Nathaniel Greene, and then took command of a 1,000 man militia whose job was, essentially, to ensure the troops would still be able to receive supplies and shipments while in the south. They fought in the Battle of Blandford in April of 1781, before joining with Nathaniel Greene as he campaigned in the south. Ultimately, this led them to bring 450 Continental troops to Lafayette. Von Steuben took ill at this point, and had to take a leave from his services to recover — finally rejoining the army just in time for the campaign at Yorktown (you know, the climactic siege that sealed Britain’s defeat. Gotta hand it to him, von Steuben had impeccable timing.) Washington split his troops into three divisions — giving von Steuben command of one of them.
So, anyways, as you may have heard, the Americans won the war. Von Steuben helped Washington demobilize the army in 1783, and helped to create a defense plan for the United States of America. In May of 1783, he oversaw the creation of the Society of Cincinnati. That same year, he was granted an estate in New Jersey — a place now called the Steuben House. The estate had suffered some damages in the war, and had been vacant for a few years, so von Steuben spent a great deal of money repairing it — despite not yet having been paid for his participation in the war.
He ultimately settled on Manhattan Island and lived, initially, with William North — who, along with Benjamin Walker, he had adopted. (That was — at the time — a fairly common way for gay people to get around the whole lack of same-sex marraige, and worked well in polyamorous situations like theirs too.) In 1785, von Steuben began to serve as the president of the German Society of the City of New York and the following year the New York legislature voted to make von Steuben a United States citizen. That same year, von Steuben wrote — under the alias “Belisarius” –encouraging Shay’s Rebellion by calling the government of Massachusetts an oligarchy. Shortly thereafter, North married a woman and moved into a home of his own. Whether not he continued his relationship with von Steuben while he was married is unclear but they did remain in contact.
No longer working in the military, Friedrich tried to be a businessman — without much success. In 1788, he determined that his estate in New Jersey had to be sold to pay off debts. Walker handled the sale of the property and saw to it that Friedrich’s debts were paid off. In 1790, Congress finally began paying out Friedrich’s pension — $2,500 a year (that’s roughly $69,604.08 in today’s value. Thanks Inflation Calculator!) With this helping to keep him afloat — and the assistance of Nathaniel Greene and Alexander Hamilton who helped him get a mortgage — he was able to move into an estate in New York state’s Mohawk Valley in Oneida County.
In 1791, he met a young John W. Mulligan, who had recently graduated from Columbia College and begun a relationship with Charles Adams (son of John Adams) and taken a job clerking for Hamilton. Charles and John lived together for two years, until John Adams made it clear that he would disown Charles if their “intense friendship” didn’t end. Friedrich offered that both could live with him — though only John accepted the offer. He took a position as Friedrich’s live-in secretary in 1793 and they began a romantic relationship. (John also seemed to have feelings for Benjamin Walker and William North — a happy little polyamorous relationship, as far as I can tell.)
Friedrich died on November 28, 1794 at his New York estate. William North and John Mulligan were with him. His real estate property and what money he had was inherited by North and Walker — Mulligan inherited Friedrich’s library and collection of maps, as well as $2,500. The estate is now part of the town of Steuben, New York — which was just one of several places named after him. A handful of military vessels have also born the Von Steuben name in his honor — including a German submarine (the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm) captured during World War I was renamed the USS Von Steuben, and in World War II the Germans named a passenger ship that they turned into a gunship the SS General Von Steuben.
Von Steuben Day is a holiday that occurs in mid-September every year and which celebrates German-American culture and contributions to the country — the New York Von Steuben Day Parade is one of the largest parades in New York City every year. Chicago also holds an impressive Von Steuben Day parade, which was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There is a also statue of him in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben is generally regarded as a hero in both Germany and the United States, without whom the American Revolution could never have succeeded. And while his importance to the war is absolutely significant, it seems to me that it’s important to recognize that he was also about as open as any queer person could be at the time — and that if he hadn’t been gay, he would never have left Europe to begin with, and the United States might still be British colonies.
There’s been a great deal of buzz this year about seeing Pete Buttigieg — someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community — doing so well in his campaign for the presidency. But what most of us don’t realize (and in fact, I didn’t even know until two weeks ago!) is that we’ve already had a queer person in the White House.
Okay, no, maybe not the President. But for sure, the First Lady Rose Cleveland. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was born in Fayetteville, New York on June 14, 1846 to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. She was the youngest of nine children — counting Stephen Grover Cleveland among her older siblings. They mostly called her “Libby.”
In September of 1853, the family relocated to Holland Patent, New York where their father was appointed pastor of Presbyterian church. He died a month later, after preaching only one sermon. (I hope it was a good one!) Rose, at seven years old, took on the task of taking care of their widowed mother. Grover Cleveland — sixteen years old at the time — decided he was going to support the whole family. (One teenager supporting a family of ten — my how times have changed!)
When she was older, Rose became a student at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. Afterwards, she became a teacher so she could support herself and her mother. (I guess one teenager couldn’t support a family of ten after all.) Later, she taught at the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana and a girls school in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
In the 1880’s, Rose went back to Holland Patent and taught Sunday school so that she would be able to take care of her mother, who’s health was not doing well. In 1882, Ann Cleveland passed away. Rose remained at their homestead for some time after this and continued to teach Sunday school. In one class, she gave a lecture in which she stated:
“We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”
And if that doesn’t sound like a great beginning to a coming out speech, I don’t know what does. But alas, we’re not there yet. In 1885, the unmarried Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States — and suddenly, Rose had another family member who needed her help. She took on the role of First Lady, including standing next to Grover during his inauguration. She lived in the White House for two years — and fulfilled the duties of First Lady, although she found them to be frustrating. She was not a woman made for high society — she was fond of intellectual pursuits, and did not care much for fashion. The public’s infatuation with her dresses irked her, as did her inability to go to a public market. There were some perks however — her book of essays entitled George Eliot’s Poetry was a bestseller based almost entirely on her name recognition.
Eventually Grover married Frances Folsom, and Rose was able to leave the White House and actually, finally, do some things for herself! She became president of the Collegiate Institute in Indiana and also contributed to a magazine called Literary Life. In April of 1890, at 44 years old, she entered into a romantic and undeniably sexual relationship (the first of her life, that I can find) with a 33 year old widow named Evangeline Marrs Simpson who she had most likely met in Florida months earlier. However, six years later, against Rose’s urgings, Evangeline married Henry Benjamin Whipple. Although the women kept in touch after this, they were definitely not as…. let’s say intimate as they had been. Rose left for Europe shortly after the wedding, and did not return to the United States for three years.
Whipple died in 1901 and the pair reignited their relationship. In 1902, they traveled to Italy — and in 1910, they moved there. Evangeline told her caretaker at her home in Minnesota not move anything. They established a home for themselves in Bagni di Lucca, in a house shared with Nelly Erichsen. Rose and Evangeline contributed a great deal to the community there, including establishing an orphanage. They also worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and helped move refugees displaced by the war to Bagni di Lucca. During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Nelly contracted the illness. Rose took care of her, ultimately contracting the illness herself as a result. They died within days of each other.
After Rose’s death, Evangeline wrote “The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”
When Evangeline eventually died in 1930, she was buried next to Rose in Bagni di Lucca. It’s been said that, to the two of them, Italy represented the ultimate freedom to be themselves.
The letters Rose sent to her lover remained in Evangeline’s Minnesota home — untouched by the caretaker (who was way more obedient than I would have been) until they were gathered together with other papers and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. The implication that there could have been a lesbian relationship was too much for them, so they hid the letters from the public until 1978. Rose’s letters have now been compiled into a book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.
An important fact about the Stonewall uprising is that things were pretty chaotic. There were things going on inside the bar, outside the bar, and more than a few participants — at least initially — were intoxicated. Despite Craig Rodwell‘s best efforts, the riots were pretty much ignored by the press. So a lot of what we know has had to be cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts. One of the most knowledgeable of those accounts comes from Danny Garvin.
Danny Garvin was born on March 1, 1949. He grew up in New York, raised as a Roman Catholic by his two Irish immigrant parents — Michael Joseph Garvin and Mary Theresa Kelly Garvin. In his youth, like all of the boys of his neighborhood, he was a member of a gang — the Ramrods. Garvin’s mother died while he was very young, and he was mostly raised by his father — who returned to Ireland when Garvin was 17 years old, after enlisting his son in the United States Navy.
Working as a Navy cook, stationed in Brooklyn, Garvin began coming out of the closet. Coming out proved quite difficult, especially given his religious upbringing. Drunk and off the base one night, Garvin sought out the only other gay man his age that he knew of — but he was soundly rejected. Reeling, Garvin attempted suicide and then called a psychiatrist who told him to admit himself to Bellevue Hospital. The Navy transferred him to St. Albans Naval Medical Hospital.
This presented a very serious dilemma — if he talked about his actual problems with the Navy, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would make him unemployable to most reputable businesses. Finally, Garvin signed a document stating that his psychological breakdown was rooted in his mother’s early death, and he was honorably discharged. He was discharged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1967 — roughly two weeks after he had turned 18. Deciding he needed to celebrate, he ventured to the only gay bar he knew off — Julius’. When he was there, he was told about a new bar opening up around the corner: the Stonewall Inn.
Although on his first visit, Garvin was mostly shocked to see men dancing together, he became a regular and even dated the main doorman (“Blonde Frankie“) for a time. Though he was initially living on the streets and hustling for a living — an experience he would carry with him the rest of his life — he ultimately found his way into living in what David Carter describes in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution as a “gay hippie commune.” Garvin began smoking pot, and started selling LSD at Stonewall.
On the actual evening of the Stonewall riots, however, Garvin was not inside the bar. He’d planned to spend the night at a new gay club called Danny’s. (Like we wouldn’t all always be at any bar we could pretend was named after us, right?) He bumped into Keith Murdoch and the two went back to the commune to smoke weed and get it on. After that, they decided the night was still young and they wanted to go out dancing — and that’s when they found the riot.
By the time they got there, the crowd was attacking the police wagon and the police had barricaded themselves inside the bar. A group had ripped a parking meter out of the ground and were using it as a battering ram to get inside. Garvin jumped in, egging on the crowd, jeering at the cops, and generally protesting — but he avoided partaking in any of the violent action, partly because he considered himself a pacifist but also largely so he could avoid going to jail and thereby publicly outing himself — and ruining any chances he had at a career. He watched the infamous chorus line that had mocked the cops trying to clear the streets — and the brutality with which the police broke it up.
Like virtually everyone else involved in the riots, Garvin was changed by the experience. He became a proud activist, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parades (which would later become the Pride parades we now know and love). He was a roommate to activist Morty Manford, and encouraged Manford to come out to his parents — who would then found PFLAG. In the early 80’s, Garvin gathered together a group of gays from AA to march in the Pride parade as a group called Sober Together.
Always an advocate for homeless queer youth because of his experiences on the street, Garvin became a very involved volunteer for the Ali Forney Center in New York City after it opened in 2002. But perhaps his most important role in these later years was as a witness to history — he was interviewed by David Carter for his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — which was released in 2004. He began appearing in documentaries, especially about Stonewall and the gay rights movement, in 2008. Most famously he appeared in the 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising where he summarized the importance of the riots:
“We became a people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet, you know, what organizations we were going to be or how things would go, but we became something I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto, that I couldn’t grab onto when I’d go to a subway T-room as a kid, or a 42nd Street movie theater, you know, or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, which I didn’t have before. There was no going back now…. We had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.“
Throughout his work as a witness to Stonewall, Garvin befriended several other “Stonewall veterans” including Martin Boyce and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. When President Barack Obama mentioned Stonewall, Garvin began a correspondence with him — impressing upon him the need to continue fighting for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. In his initial letter he wrote, “I still have not gotten to dance that dance I started 44 years ago. The big joyous ‘I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance’ yet.” Obama invited Garvin as a special guest to the White House’s Pride celebration on June 30, 2014.
However, Danny’s final years were plagued by health problems. He suffered from COPD, caused by years of smoking, and also developed liver cancer. He passed away on December 9, 2014 at 65 years old. While he may not have gotten to finish that “I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance” that he dreamed of, his work for our community helped get all of us that much closer to it.
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.
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 Rivera 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!”
Jemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)
Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.
On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.
The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.
These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)
In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.
The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)