Hidden Figures - Women of the Movement

By Eboni Munn

Women of the LGBT rights movement

Let's shine a light on the historical women of the LGBTQIA+ movement. From veterans of the Stonewall movement to women who fiercely stood proud in the face of oppression, these seven women paved the way for generations to come.

• Marsha P. Johnson

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“Pay It No Mind”

Her infectious smile is most likely the first thing you notice in a sea of old photos. Born in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha would become a force in the LGBTQIA+ community when she moved to the West Village in 1967. With a personality to match her eclectic hats and bold jewelry, when asked what the “P” represented, Marsha would proudly beckon, “It stands for ‘Pay It No Mind.’” She became a fixture in the drag scene permeating through the city.

On the night of The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Marsha headed to The Stonewall Inn to celebrate her 25th birthday. It is reported that Marsha was one of the patrons who stood her ground and resisted the unrelenting attacks by police officers. "Marsha said 'I got my civil rights’ then threw a shotglass into a mirror, and that started the whole thing. It became known as the shotglass heard around the world,” reported David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.

Her legacy: Co-founder of STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries that fought for trans rights and inclusion, a figure in the the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and the Gay Liberation Front. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a documentary that centers Marsha’s legacy.

• Sylvia Rivera

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"I'm not missing a moment of this—it's the revolution!"

You might remember the iconic black and white photo of her hands stretched out to her sides with an assured look resting on her face. Sylvia Rivera was born in the heart of New York City in 1951. Born of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, Sylvia was an orphan at the age of three when her mother committed suicide. By age 11, Sylvia became homeless and she looked towards the gritty streets of Manhattan to provide support.

Sylvia was only 17 years of age when she stood assuredly on the outside of The Stonewall Inn. She is cited for being one of the first to throw inanimate objects in frustration with the flailing relationship between the community and the police. Sylvia is also known for scaling the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to interrupt a meeting about the New York City Gay Rights Bill that eliminated concerns of the trans community.

Her legacy: Co-founder of STAR, Gay Activists Alliance, and a groundbreaker for trans women of color.

• Stormé DeLarverie

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“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience—it wasn’t no damn riot.”

An eloquently dressed drag king whose baritone rivaled her male counterparts. Born in 1920 in the southern drawls of New Orleans, Stormé’s mother was African-American and also a servant in the house of her father, who was Caucasian. For over a decade, she toured the country performing as a male impersonator with The Jewel Box Revue. Stormé became the only female performer in a troupe of male performers.

Her involvement in the Stonewall Rebellion tends to shift depending on the source. Some accounts peg her as throwing the first punch at a policeman after being clubbed, thus starting the early buddings of the uprising.

Her legacy: Breaking race and gender barriers for the LGBTQIA+ community and a member of the Stonewall Veterans Association.

• Queen Allyson Allante

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“And I did fight back.”

While Allyson Allante was born in 1955 and raised in Long Beach, Long Island, she would become a part of history at the tender age of 14. By her accounts transcribed in Tapestry Magazine, Allyson attended The Stonewall Inn with other members of the Imperial Queens and Kings of Greater New York on the night of the rebellion.

“I was one of the ones, unfortunately, that [was] apprehended at the scene… And I did fight back,” recalled Allyson. Allyson would later be arrested on the first night of the riots.

Her legacy: Member of the Stonewall Veterans Association and the Imperial Queens and Kings of Greater New York. Allyson also appeared in the 1996 Stonewall film and became the only transgender person to speak at the New York City Council on Domestic Partnership Law in 1997.

• Sir Lady Java

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“I won the rights for Java to work—meaning, other impersonators could work also.”

Known for her popularity among men and women alike, Sir Lady Java was born in New Orleans in 1943 and transitioned at an early age with the support of her mother. When she moved to Los Angeles in her early twenties, Java was a force within the nightclub circuit and became associated with famous acts such as comedian Redd Foxx and singer/dancer Sammy Davis Jr. Her repertoire included singing, exotic dancing, and impersonations.

In a 2016 interview with Pasqual’s Eye and T. Porter, Java recounted the night LAPD descended into the nightclub to find her. “They came in and took me off stage. It was about 50 of them,” recalls Java. Under the city’s Rule No. 9 law, it was illegal to impersonate a member of the opposite sex by “means of costume or dress.”

Her legacy: Java orchestrated a rally in 1967 outside of Foxx’s nightclub and partnered with the ACLU to change Rule No. 9. Two years later, the law would be repealed.

• Lucy Hicks Anderson

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“I have lived, acted, dressed just what I am, a woman.”

There’s a distinct black and white photo of Lucy adorned in a stylish suit with an impeccably-dressed hat that sits just at the crown of her head. Her head is slightly turned and on her face, there’s a certain poise and in her eyes are pure charm. Lucy was born in 1886 in the little known town of Waddy, Kentucky. After entering grade school, she began wearing dresses and adapted to the name of “Lucy.”

Lucy became a successful businesswoman as a property owner—most notably, one of her properties operated as a brothel in Oxnard, California. When it was discovered that Lucy was born male, she and her husband were charged with perjury, stating that she committed when she signed on the dotted line of her marriage license. A jury would later convict Lucy and she was placed on probation for 10 years.

Her legacy: While on trial for perjury, Lucy would tell the jury, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman.”

• Major Griffin-Gracy

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“Our visibility is marvelous. Who knew it would turn out like this?”

Major is one of those living activists that you can’t help but be enamored by. Born in 1940, on the southside of Chicago, she participated in the local drag balls as a blossoming adult. Major or “Miss Major” as the community affectionately calls her, is a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion. She attended The Stonewall Inn with a girlfriend and is described to be one of the leaders of the uprising. Major was struck in the head and taken into custody by a police officer.

Four decades later, Major is still on the front lines fighting for trans rights, particularly those who have been a part of the prison system and are transitioning to life at home. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project.

Her legacy: Major’s legacy is an open-ended book. A 2016 documentary titled MAJOR! documents her strides as an African-American transgender elder with a lengthy history of fighting for trans women of color.