Line of women standing in front of wall mural that says "bloom"
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

The 2019 Women’s History Month theme is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence.”  The theme honors “women who have led efforts to end war, violence, and injustice and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society.” When I think of what sort of women might be on that list, some of the first ones that come to mind are people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Both women were at the Stonewall Riots, a catalyst for the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn was the one of the few bars in Manhattan where people of the same sex could dance with each other without police harassment, and became a haven for drag performers. On June 28, 1969, the bar’s patrons clashed with police officers in a raid. It was not a nonviolent event, but rather resistance in reaction to the violence long perpetrated against the LGBTQ community. The patrons fought back, setting off what we now know as the modern LGBTQ movement.

Marsha P. Johnson, smiling with flowers in her hair
Marsha P. Johnson, image from Wikipedia

Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, a sex worker, a drag performer, and an African-American. A founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Johnson co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera, and was an AIDS activist with ACT UP. American drag queen and TV personality RuPaul has called Johnson an inspiration, describing her as “the true Drag Mother.” The term transgender was not in wide use in Johnson’s lifetime; she usually used female pronouns for herself, but also referred to herself as gay, as a transvestite or simply as a queen. A model for Andy Warhol, she battled severe mental illness and was, for much of her life, effectively homeless. Read more about Marsha in this obituary published on The New York Times for their “Overlooked” series.

Sylvia Rae Rivera sitting in a chair
Sylvia Rivera, image from Wikipedia, photograph by Valerie Shaff, circa 2000.

Sylvia Rivera was a queer liberation and transgender rights activist, a drag queen, and a Puerto Rican American. She advocated for drag queens and other gender non-conforming people. She was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, and co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. with her close friend, Marsha P. Johnson, an organization that focused on giving shelter to queer, homeless youth. Rivera had a special place in her heart for queer youth, having herself been a homeless sex-worker at a very young age.

Rivera and Johnson started STAR House in order to assist the homeless in the gay community, with a focus on LGBT people of color. Rivera explained in 1998, “Marsha and I decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids. We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent.” Though Rivera was only nineteen herself, she became like a mother to many of the residents at STAR House, and she and Johnson helped to form a home and family for those who needed it most, (

In addition to being one of the first trans youth shelters, S.T.A.R. was also one of the first political organizations for transgender rights in the world. Today the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) is named in her honor, a non-profit organization that “works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.” Rivera worked tirelessly her whole life for a more inclusive and intersectional approach to LGBTQ activism.


More about trans women in history:


CSU Campus Event of Interest:

Trans Day of Visibility
Monday, March 25th (the first Monday after Spring Break)
6-8PM in the LSC Grey Rock Room
Speaker: Alok Vaid-Menon

“ALOK (they/them) is a gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and educator. Their eclectic style and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. They were recently the youngest recipient of the Live Works Performance Act Award granted to ten performance artists across the world. In 2017 they released their inaugural poetry chapbook FEMME IN PUBLIC. They have been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker and have presented their work at 400 venues in more than 40 countries,” (