United We Stand?

In May 2019, New York City announced plans to create a statue to transgender political activist Marsha P. Johnson who had taken part in the Stonewall Uprising and contributed to a range of LGBTQ political movements.

Eric Marcus, creator and host of the Making Gay History podcast, brings us an interview with Marsha P. Johnson and her room mate, the mainstream gay political activist Randy Wicker.


Lonely Jazz Trumpet by Colin Willsher

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Nathan: So today on BackStory we’re chasing the long term impact of the Stonewall uprising.

Speaker 2: In May 2019, New York City announced plans to build a new monument to two transgender women political activists.

Nathan: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were long time campaigners for gay and transgender rights. The monument will sit just a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn in New York. BackStory’s friend Eric Marcus, presenter of the podcast, Making Gay History, interviewed Marsha P. Johnson. He found her living in New Jersey alongside an activist from the establishment wing of the gay right’s movement, Randy Wicker. Here’s an extract from that interview. Marsha speaks first.

Marsha Johnson: Well guys, I winded up being at Stonewall that night. I was having a party uptown and we were all out there. And Ms. Sylvia and Rivera and them were over in the park having a cocktail. I was uptown and I didn’t get downtown until about 2:00. Because when I got downtown the place was already on fire and there was a raid already. The riots had already started and they said the police went in there and set the place on fire. They said the police set it on fire because they originally wanted the Stonewall to close so they had several raids. And there was just Tiffany and oh this other drag queen that used to work there in the coat check room, and then they had all these bartenders.

Marsha Johnson: And the night before the Stonewall riots started, before they closed the bar, we were all there and we all had lined up against the wall and they were all searching us.

Eric Marcus: The police were?

Marsha Johnson: Yeah they searched every single body that came here because the place was supposed to be closed, and they opened anyway. Because every time the police came, what they would do, they would take the money from the coat check room and take the money from the bar. So if they heard the police were coming, they would take all the money and hide it up under the bar in these boxes out of the register. And you know, and sometimes they would hide it like under the floor or something.

Eric Marcus: So what did-

Marsha Johnson: So when they got … by when the police got in all they got was the bartender’s tips.

Eric Marcus: Who went to the Stonewall?

Marsha Johnson: Well, at first it was just a gay men’s bar. And they didn’t allow no women in. And then they started allowing women in. And then they let drag queens in. I was one of the first drag queens to go to that place. Because we were sitting … when we first heard about this, and then they had these drag queens working there. They didn’t never arrest anybody at the Stonewall. All they did was line us up and tell us to get out.

Eric Marcus: Were you one of those that got in the chorus lines and kicked their heels up at the police? Like Ziegfeld Follies Girls or Rockettes?

Marsha Johnson: Oh no! No, we were too busy running over cars and screaming in the middle of the street because we were so upset because they closed that place.

Eric Marcus: What were you screaming in the street?

Marsha Johnson: Huh?

Eric Marcus: What did you say to the police?

Marsha Johnson: We just was saying no more police brutality and oh, we had enough of police arrests in the Village and other places. Oh, it was a lot of little chants we used to do in those days.

Eric Marcus: Were there lots of people hurt in Stonewall that night during the riots?

Marsha Johnson: They weren’t hurt at the Stonewall. They were hurt on the streets outside of the Stonewall because people were throwing bottles and the police were out there with those clubs and things and their helmets on, some riot helmets.

Eric Marcus: Were you afraid of being arrested?

Marsha Johnson: Oh no, because I’ve been going to jail for like 10 years before the Stonewall. I was going to jail because I was originally up on 42nd Street. And every time we go on out to hustle all the time, they would just get us and tell us we were under arrest.

Eric Marcus: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Randy Wicker: See I’ve … Stonewall, I shouldn’t start on this note, but it puts me in the worst night because for the time Stonewall happened, I was running my button shop in East Village, and for all the years in Mattachine, and you see the pictures of me on TV, I’m wearing a suit and tie and I had spent 10 years of my life going around telling people homosexuals look just like everybody else. We didn’t all wear makeup, and wear dresses, and have falsetto voices, and molest kids, and were communists and all this.

Randy Wicker: And all of the sudden Stonewall broke out and there were reports in the press of chorus lines of queens kicking up their heels at the cops like Rockettes, we are the Stonewall girls. I thought, it was like Jesse Jackson used to say, “Rocks and windows don’t open doors,” I felt this, I was horrified. I mean, the last thing to me that I thought at the time, they were setting back the gay liberation movement 20 years, because I mean all these TV shows and all this work that we had done to try to establish legitimacy of the gay movement that we were nice middle class people like everybody else and adjusted and all that. And suddenly, there was all this, what I considered riffraff, and I gave a speech. I was asked a speech.

Eric Marcus: [inaudible 00:25:56].

Randy Wicker: I was asked to speak at the Electric Circus which was a major … [inaudible 00:26:06]. Marsha you just got me. Where are you going? What were you doing?

Marsha Johnson: It’s trying to gagging.

Randy Wicker: Oh she’s outside.

Marsha Johnson: Yeah, come on sweetie.

Eric Marcus: I’ve got the … here it is. It’s up here. The little a …

Marsha Johnson: Cookie.

Eric Marcus: I’ll find-

Marsha Johnson: Watch out. [inaudible 00:26:23].

Randy Wicker: God you’re so dumb.

Marsha Johnson: You think so?

Eric Marcus: Okay, you were saying about Stonewall.

Randy Wicker: Yeah I was saying I was running my shop in East Village, the button shop, the big hippie shop and when this happened I was horrified because it was civil disorder. Somewhere I saw a picture from the Stonewall, and it had a big sign up from the Mattachine Society, which was one of my base groups. It said the Mattachine Society asked citizens to obey the poli- … Not obey the police but to respect law and order. To act in a lawful manner. In other words, the Mattachine itself was basically a conservative organization, and they asked me to speak at the Electric Circus.

Randy Wicker: And I got up and said that I did not think that the way to win public acceptance was to go out and form chorus lines and drag queens kicking your feet up at the police. And I was just beginning to speak, and one of the bouncers of the Electric Circus found out that it was a gay thing that the guy up there talking was gay and somebody standing next to him, he said to them, “Are you one of them?” And the guy said, “Yes,” and he began beating the hell out of him. And this riot broke out in the Electric Circus. And I remember driving him home because the kid was only about 21 or 22 years old and he said, “All I know is that I’ve been in this movement for three days, and I’ve been beaten up three times.” I mean he had a black eye, and a puffed up face, and serious damage.

Marsha Johnson: Uh-huh (affirmative). It was terrible.

Randy Wicker: But the thing was that you would go with the new thing and it shows that what my generation did, we built the ideology. Are we sick? Aren’t we sick? What are the signs to think back? How we’ve been brainwashed by society. We’ve put together when Lenin, I mean Karl Marx wrote the book. That’s what we did. But it literally took Stonewall, and here I was considered the first militant and a visionary near the gay movement, to not even realize when the revolution, if you want to call it, this thing that I thought would never happen, that a small nuclei of people would become a mass social movement was occurring. I was against it. Now I’m very happy Stonewall happened. I’m very happy the way things worked out.

Eric Marcus: So you mentioned an organization that Marsha and you are involved with. What was the name of-

Randy Wicker: Street Trans-

Marsha Johnson: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Ms. Sylvia Rivera.

Randy Wicker: Star.

Eric Marcus: What was that group about? What was it for?

Marsha Johnson: It was a group for transvestites.

Randy Wicker: It was a bunch of-

Marsha Johnson: Men and women transvestites.

Randy Wicker: It was a bunch of flaky transvestites living in a hovel and a slum somewhere calling themselves revolutionaries. That’s what it was in my opinion, now Marsha has a different idea.

Eric Marcus: What’s your opinion?

Marsha Johnson: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries started out as a very good group. It was after Stonewall, they started a GAA. Mama Jean DeVente, who used to be the marshal for all the parades, she was the one that talked Sylvia Rivera into leaving GAA because Sylvia Rivera who was the president of STAR was a member of GAA, and start a group of her own. And so she started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and she asked me would I come and be the vice president of that organization.

Nathan: Johnson continued her activism and became a member of Aids activist group, ACT UP. In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Her death was initially deemed suicide. But authorities later changed this designation to drowning from undetermined causes. The case remains open.

View Resources

A History of Stonewall Lesson Set

Download the lesson set.

In the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, police officers raided The Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York City. These types of raids occurred regularly and without incident at other gay bars and nightclubs in the city. However, on this night, patrons of the bar stayed outside and protested the police interference into their lives. Though this moment was not well-covered by the national media, it became a turning point in the fight for equal rights in the gay community. Many historians credit this demonstration as the spark that launched many different LGBTQ groups to form and start a more coordinated movement for equality. It also represents another challenge to the social and political status quo of the 1960s.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus the legacy of the uprising at Stonewall Inn. Because of the personal nature of many of the accounts presented, encourage students to focus on the events from a historical lens.