Stonewall: The Great Leaders Who Changed History

I didn’t know nearly enough about Stonewall leaders before this article—but now I do. And you can as well!

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The Stonewall uprisings lasted from June 28, 1969 to July 3, 1969. This was the first push for LGBTQIA+ rights in the U.S. It led to other protests and uprisings across the country trying to establish equality. We still aren’t there, but a lot has happened over these last 54 years.

While nobody really knows who officially started the Stonewall uprising, these five people were key to the movement and to the establishment of LGBTQIA+ rights.

1. Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was one of the two most prominent Stonewall leaders. Born in 1945, she was a Black transgender woman who identified as gay and a drag queen. She was most well-known for fighting for gay and transgender rights (especially for people of color), but she also advocated for people affected by AIDS and HIV, as well as homeless LGBTQ+ youth. She, along with Sylvia Rivera, led protests during the 6 days of the Stonewall uprising. Johnson continued her advocacy work until her death in 1992.

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She and Rivera created STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970 to support homeless transgender people. (It is important to note that “transgender” was not popularized until the early ’90s.) She also advocated for Black civil rights, and she advocated for people with HIV and AIDS during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s.

Johnson wasn’t just incredible because of all her advocacy work—she was a kind and loving person. She lived on the streets in NYC, surviving by panhandling and sex work, and she tried to protect street children from the same fate. Johnson always had a smile for everyone, and she looked out for others. She also was involved in the arts; she was a part of avant-garde theatre, and she performed a poem called “Soul.” Johnson was a wonderful woman, and I hope her legacy was remembered during pride month.

For more on Marsha P. Johnson, click here and here.

2. Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was the second most prominent leader during the Stonewall Uprisings. Born in 1951, she was a Latina woman who identified as a drag queen (and later a transgender woman) who fought relentlessly for transgender rights, particularly transgender people of color. She met Marsha P. Johnson in 1963, who took Rivera under her wing. She was 17 during the Stonewall Uprising, but she was deeply involved in the protests. Apparently, she didn’t leave or even sleep during these days, saying, “I’m not missing a minute of this—it’s the revolution!”

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Rivera was involved in both the peace movement and the Black Liberation movement before Stonewall, and her advocacy work continued after. She formed STAR with Johnson and worked with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Transgender people, despite being the front-liners in the fight for equality, were often ignored and excluded by white gay people, who were only interested in their own rights. The Gay Rights Bill passed in 1973 did not include transgender people—and Rivera understandably felt betrayed. In response, she gave an impassioned speech, “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in Washington Square Park in 1973. She was booed by the crowd, and she disappeared from advocacy until the 1990s.

She was a strong advocate for marginalized communities, and she didn’t take any crap from anyone. Rivera helped advocate for the poor, the homeless, transgender people, and more. She wasn’t afraid of getting arrested if it meant fighting for what she believed in—equality. She passed away from cancer in 2002, but her fighting spirit endures.

To read a great biography of Sylvia Rivera, click here. (It’s technically for children, but it’s very informative.)

3. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (more commonly called Miss Major) is a strong veteran of the Stonewall Uprisings. Born in 1940, she is a Black transgender woman, a human rights activist, and a community leader. She is still alive today and still advocating for people like her—trans women of color who experienced police brutality and/or were put in men’s prisons. There is a documentary about her called Major! that follows her life.

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She advocated for transgender people in the prison system, who were badly mistreated and had no rights. (She is a survivor of Attica State Prison.) Miss Major also advocated for veterans who had AIDS (they were not acknowledged by veterans’ hospitals) in the 1980s after a close friend got AIDS. She joined—and later became the executive producer of—the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project in 2003. She has been a part of many activist groups and remains an activist today.

Miss Major’s activism apparently started with the murder of a close friend called Puppy, a Puerto Rican trans woman; the police ruled her death a suicide. This blatant disregard for Puppy’s life spurred Miss Major into action to protect other trans women of color. She has done her best to create spaces where transgender people, especially transgender women of color, feel safe and welcome. She is kind and welcoming to them, and she has been affectionately called “Mama” because of it. Miss Major has fought trans erasure for decades: within the queer community, in prison systems, and in broader society. She has put in so much work, and it is a shame more people do not know her name.

For more on Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, click here.

4. Stormé DeLarverie

Stormé DeLarverie may or may not have been the first person to throw a punch at the first Stonewall Uprising. Born around 1920, DeLarverie was a biracial butch lesbian, gay rights activist, and drag king who loved to perform—from circuses to singing. She is best known for fighting for gay rights and patrolling the streets to protect those in the queer community. DeLarverie has been called the “Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ+ Community,” in part because of calling people to action and to fight back against the police. She continued doing both of these for decades, as well as working as a bouncer, an MC, and more.

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DeLarverie also had a large influence on fashion at the time. She started wearing suits and traditional men’s clothing on the streets, and other lesbians copied her. Some say that she had a great influence on women’s gender-nonconforming clothes at a time when unisex clothing was unacceptable. In fact, there was a three-clothing law in New York where every person had to wear at least 3 pieces of clothing that matched their gender, as cross-dressing was criminalized. DeLarverie, through bravery, started a trend that can be felt today.

DeLarverie was part of a famous drag show called the Jewel Box Revue. She was the only drag king, and the rest were drag queens. This show, and DeLarverie’s part in it, inspired gender-nonconforming and “gender-bending” styles today. DeLarverie is little known today, but her influence can be seen everywhere.

For more on Stormé DeLarverie, click here.

5. Zazu Nova

Zazu Nova may have been the one who threw the first brick at Stonewall (some say yes, some say no). She was a Black transgender woman, a sex worker, and an activist who fought for gay and trans rights. (I could not find a birth year for Nova.) She reportedly called herself the “Queen of Sex,” and she had no issues fending off transphobic people with a heavy chain she kept in her purse.

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Nova’s advocacy continued after Stonewall. She joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), was a founding member of New York Gay Youth (NYGY), focused on giving LGBTQ+ youth a voice, and worked with STAR to help trans people. She strongly believed in fighting for equality, and it showed in her activism work.

Very little is known about Zazu Nova, more so than the others on this list. She, like many other people, was purposely forgotten in queer history because she was Black, because she was transgender, and because she was a sex worker. Queer history has been largely whitewashed, and much about these heroes has been lost. But hopefully, we can preserve what remains.

For more on Zazu Nova, click here.


It is thanks to these women and to countless others, both within and outside of the LGBTQIA+ community, that we have the freedoms and rights we have today. The number of bills against LGBTQIA+ people, and specifically trans people, are mounting, but I believe in our strength. We cannot let what everyone did at Stonewall and beyond die out.

For more on Stonewall, click here.

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