On a hot June night in 1969, the Stonewall Inn’s bright lights flashed on. Six officers rushed in, arrested the staff, confiscated the liquor, and rounded up the terrified patrons. All who defied gender norms were lined up, and trans women entered the restroom one by one for genital examinations. Meanwhile, gay men were allowed to exit the bar after showing identification.
Fed up over their mistreatment at the hands of the police, the crowd outside Stonewall grew rowdy. An officer assaulted an unknown lesbian while forcing her into a police van, and she shouted at the crowd to do something. All of a sudden, a barrage of pennies, bottles, and rocks showered the police.
Witnesses describe this moment as a turning point. The crowd used an uprooted parking meter as a battering ram, shattering the bar’s door. More people showed up, and crowds began to block the street. A group of gender-nonconforming street youth—largely comprised of people of color—formed a chain, singing “We are the Stonewall girls” while kicking their heels.
One of those people was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black self-identified drag queen. She climbed a lamppost in heels and a dress, dropping a bag of bricks through the windshield of a police car below.
Johnson wasn’t afraid of getting arrested. Due to her work in street prostitution, she had already gone to jail countless times. While Stonewall accounts are often muddled due to the chaos of the night, nearly every source remembers that she was right there leading the charge.
Johnson was poor, Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming, and she was deeply mistreated by society. Like many of the other individuals most active in the riots, she had little to lose.
In the end, trash cans burned, and the rioting lasted for another six days. Queer people had taken a stand, and the news reverberated far and wide.
A Different Perspective
As the weeklong riots raged on, Randy Wicker sat in his East Village button shop, horrified by what was going on. A champion of the gay liberation struggle, Wicker was consistently more radical than his peers.
In 1962, after a local New York radio station featured a panel discussion on curing homosexuality, Wicker had convinced the station manager to give him and a few other gay men equal airtime. The New York Times featured two separate articles on the segment. It was the first time that gay men were able to speak to each other, openly, on air.
Two years later, in 1964, Wicker led the first public gay protest at the New York City U.S. Army Induction Center, after a gay man’s private draft records were exposed, outing him to the public.
In Stonewall, Wicker saw the undoing of his work. Wicker focused his activism on convincing the public that gay men and women were, in his own words, “nice middle-class people like everybody else.”
Wicker publicly spoke out against the riots. “Rocks through windows don’t open doors,” he told an audience on July 6, 1969.
One year later, on the anniversary of the riots, a few hundred people began to march from the Stonewall Inn. The march was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, meant to draw attention away from the mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn. By the time the parade arrived at Central Park, the crowd numbered in the thousands and stretched for 15 blocks. They held hands, kissed, carried signs, and chanted together: “Say it loud; gay is proud.”
Marsha P. Johnson marched with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a group founded after the conservative Mattachine Society objected to the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. The GLF was a radical organization that identified ”with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers … all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy,” as told to RAT, an underground newspaper.
Randy Wicker walked alongside the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), an organization founded by members of the GLF who were uncomfortable with its radical agenda. Dissatisfied with the GLF’s racial and gender progressivism, the GAA billed itself as a “politically neutral” organization that fought exclusively for gay and lesbian rights.
As the crowd reached Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, the march turned into a celebration. “We were on top of the world. It was pure exultation,” one marcher wrote. “I was born homosexual. It’s beautiful,” said a young man wrapped in an American flag to a student’s camera. The Christopher Street Liberation March was the first LGBT pride march, and it started a movement that spread around the world.
A Rainbow Connection
A decade passed. Wicker opened a successful antique shop and wrote for The Advocate. Johnson opened America’s first LGBT youth shelter and became a minor celebrity, modeling for Andy Warhol.
By 1980, Johnson was homeless. Wicker’s close friend Willy Brashears, whom he described as “an adopted son,” asked him if Johnson could sleep over to stay warm. Wicker was initially hesitant, as he had previously advised Brashears to avoid hanging out with Johnson. Johnson slept on Wicker’s rug that night—and stayed for another 12 years.
During their time living together, Wicker and Johnson became deeply close friends despite their differences. Wicker later told Vogue: “That was the greatest blessing I had in life, having a roommate like Marsha.”
“Everyone loved Marsha,” Wicker told Vogue. “Her sense of humor could just pick you up off the floor. One day, I was depressed because a friend hadn’t invited me over for Thanksgiving. She came over singing, ‘Jesus loves me, how do I know? Because survival tells me so!’ I went from being totally depressed to roaring with laughter.”
Johnson took care of Wicker’s lover of 18 years, David Combs, when he fell ill with AIDS. She was by his side when he died in 1990. In those days, she spent much of her time grieving before a statue of the Virgin Mary at the Catholic Community of Saints Peter and Paul.
In 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Authorities ruled her death a suicide, but her friends, including Wicker, believed she had been assaulted. According to LGBTQ history book The Deviant’s War, Wicker transformed their shared apartment into a shrine of sorts after her death—showcasing photos, trans flags, and a poster of Saint Bayard Rustin.
Marsha P. Johnson has since become somewhat of a household name, with documentaries and profiles telling her story. Randy Wicker lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and continues to march in his wheelchair, protesting for transgender rights across New York City wearing a button bearing Johnson’s likeness.