➤ HISTORY MATTERS, from p.4 with the fact that Johnson’s birthday was actually in August. The important evidence, however, came from Marsha P. Johnson herself. When Johnson spoke to Eric Marcus for his 1992 oral history book, “Making Gay History,” she said that at the time of the Uprising Sylvia was uptown in a park. “The way I winded up being at Stonewall that night, I was having a party uptown,” Johnson told Marcus. “And we were all out there and Miss Sylvia Rivera and them were over in the park having a cocktail. I was uptown and I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock.” There are several other statements Johnson made to highly credible witnesses — namely, Randy Wicker, Bob Kohler, and Doric Wilson, all with deep and enduring ties to the LGBTQ rights movement — about Rivera not having been at the Uprising. In notes from a 1998 interview with Kohler, I wrote, “After we’d been talking a while [Kohler] looked at me and said that Sylvia Rivera was not at the riots and arrived downtown on the scene only two weeks later. He explained later in the conversation that Sylvia always hung out in Bryant Park uptown. He told me that Marsha would sometimes correct Sylvia on this, saying ‘Sylvia, you know you weren’t there.’” Significantly, even though Kohler told me Rivera was not at the Uprising, he made it clear he hoped I would portray her in my book as having been there. Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt told me that he and Kohler had discussed why he would say Rivera was there even though he knew that she was not. Lanigan-Schmidt said that Kohler told him he felt it was important so that young Puerto Rican transgender people on the street would have a role model. Kohler, in fact, recounted a discussion he had with Rivera when he agreed to back up her claims — at least to a limited extent. His recollection went like this: Rivera: Bob, will you back me on my having thrown the first Molotov cocktail? Kohler: Sylvia, you didn’t throw a Molotov cocktail! Rivera: Will you back me on my
Sylvia Rivera (right) collecting signatures for a Gay Activsts Alliance petition in 1970, in a story in Gay Power by Arthur Bell, who told Rivera his interview with her would make her a star.
having thrown the first brick? Kohler: Sylvia, you didn’t throw a brick. Rivera: Will you back me on my having thrown the first bottle? Kohler: I will back you on having thrown a bottle. Randy Wicker confirmed to me what Kohler said he had heard from Johnson. My notes on a 1998 conversation with Wicker reads, “He told me about Sylvia not being at Stonewall... Randy remembered Marsha P. Johnson telling him that Sylvia was not at Stonewall at the beginning of the night but later, as she was asleep after taking heroin uptown.” Doric Wilson, the theater legend and gay rights activist, told me of a conversation he witnessed shortly after Rivera had forced her way onto the rally stage during Pride in 1973. After famously haranguing the crowd, Rivera exited the stage and was going on about having been at Stonewall, when Marsha looked at Sylvia and said, “You know you weren’t there.” Wilson said that Rivera just became quiet at that point. The credibility of Rivera’s claim to have been at Stonewall was also called into question by the inconsistencies in her own accounts. In
one interview, she said the night of the Uprising was the first time she had ever gone to Stonewall, while on another occasion she said she had been there before. One of her accounts had her wearing female attire the night of the Uprising, while in another interview she said she wore male clothing. But it’s in Rivera’s explanation of why she became so violent at the Uprising that we find perhaps the most telling inconsistency. She told David Isay, “I had already done the Viet Nam, the civil rights, the women’s movement… fighting for everyone else, and here’s your chance… When the first bottle went by, it was, ‘Me, oh Lord Jesus, the revolution is here, hallelujah.” Rivera offered Marcus much the same account, saying, “Before gay rights, before the Stonewall, I was involved in the Black Liberation movement, the peace movement… My revolutionary blood was going back then.” But before she became famous as someone believed to have been on the front lines of the Uprising, Rivera offered a very different perspective on her activism. In a 1970 issue of the newspaper Gay Power, Arthur Bell profiled Rivera after she had been arrested on 42nd Street
for circulating a Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) petition. As Rivera told Bell her life’s story, she never mentions Stonewall nor any activism before 1970. Rather the story is of a sad life, made even sadder when in early 1970 her lover leaves her, sending Rivera to “the bottom of the hill.” Then, Rivera said, she learned of GAA’s existence, went to their meetings, and “liked what he [sic] heard. GAA became the big thing in his [sic] life… filling a void… giving Ray [sic] a reason for being.” Decades later, Rivera would tell interviewers about sitting around with other gay and trans people dreaming about a day when they could be free and that Stonewall was that long-dreamed of day of liberation. But in a written note from Rivera at the conclusion of Bell’s 1970 article, she wrote, “Well, girls, many of us were waiting for a group like GAA. I knew many of us when we used to talk about the day we could get together with other Gays and be heard and ask for our freedom and our rights. Well, sisters, the time and days are here and Gay Activists Alliance is here to stay.” The evidence, when looked at as a whole, suggests that Rivera was not at the Uprising but became involved with GAA in early 1970, as the beginning of a long career of activism. Over time, as she came to appreciate how celebrated an event Stonewall was and how much credit her friend Marsha P. Johnson received for setting everything off, Rivera began to say that she too had been there, tying her account to the already existing narrative about Johnson, who had woken her up on the first night of the Uprising to tell her about it. Rivera’s activism after Stonewall on behalf of transgender people and homeless youth deserves the community’s respect, but on the question of Stonewall, I share the view of historian Martin Duberman, who told me he found her “wildly unreliable.” Stormé DeLarverie: During my years of research, I worked hard to determine the reliability of the story of a lesbian fighting with cops on the sidewalk as the tipping point for the Uprising — and
➤ HISTORY MATTERS, continued on p.74 June 27 - July 3, 2019 | GayCityNews.nyc
Gay City News issue for Stonewall 50/ WorldPride, June 27, 2019