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Trans Women & Sex Workers Were Behind The Stonewall Riot

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pride celebrations were postponed and sex workers found themselves struggling to survive — two big reasons to spend some time reflecting on the history of those in the most marginalized sectors of the LGBTQ+ community this Pride Month. Specifically, the transgender women of color and sex workers that have shaped Pride as we know it.

The People Who Influenced History

A few years before Stonewall, there was the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, which was a regular hangout for trans sex workers. The riot was ignited by an incident where a trans woman refused arrest from an overly-aggressive officer, and she threw a hot cup of coffee in his face. Incidents like this led up to the famous queer uprising at Stonewall in 1969, yet are largely forgotten, along with the activists involved — many of whom were sex workers. 

When police raided the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, two transgender sex workers of color – Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – were the first to fight them off. However, their legacies have continuously been whitewashed and erased in favor of more palatable retellings of the event in films and TV shows. 

Let’s get one thing straight: supporting sex workers is not an option, but a requirement for everybody who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community or ally.

After the riot, Johnson and Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that provided food and housing to homeless members of the trans community in the West Village, and they funded the organization largely through sex work. Rivera is quoted that sex work was “the only alternative that we have to survive, because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable.”

For the most part, this feeling hasn’t changed today. Because of widespread hatred, stigma, and systemic racism, trans women of color get turned away from jobs so often that many of them have no choice but to turn to sex work. QTPOC/disabled sex workers are still the target of so much structural violence and oppression. According to a study conducted by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, trans sex workers “are highly vulnerable to the risk of violence as they work and live at what can be described as an intersection of whorephobia and transphobia.” The stigma can also be enhanced by ethnicity, homelessness, disability, and HIV status. 

Lost Messaging Of Resistance 


Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

Pride doesn’t often feel like a protest. For many, it’s turned into a business that cashes in on music festivals and marches that people have to pay a fee to participate in. Companies funding these celebrations are the same businesses that discriminate against trans women, HIV positive people of color, and queer sex workers who opened the door for Pride to exist. 

Trans women and queer sex workers have expressed their discontent with the current state of Pride, because of how far it has strayed from its roots. “My Pride comes through protests, community, and action and these festivals based on exploiting and capitalizing off of my gayness are nonsense,” queer California dominatrix Mistress Bella Bathory states in an Instagram post.

The most marginalized groups in the LGBTQ community saying that they do not feel safe at Pride events is a problem, one that is largely disregarded by the most privileged sectors of our community. I refuse to let folks climb up the ladder of privilege without going back and pulling up their trans, disabled, and nonbinary siblings. If we are going to fight for the rights of same-sex couples to get married and enlist in the military, we must be just as fervent about fighting for trans people and sex workers to have full freedom and autonomy over their bodies, without having their work taken away from them. 

“Everything has its heyday, and then it gets gentrified and a lot of it is about relevancy,” nonbinary Seattle dominatrix Savannah Sly tells Her Campus. “I think that Pride is still very relevant because we are not in any way, shape or form over homophobia or transphobia, or any type of orientation discrimination.” 

Sly isn’t surprised about the tendency of white gay men to assimilate into heteronormativity. “They’re trying to advance the rights of many at the expense of a minority within their own community that has been leading the charge the whole time, specifically sex workers and trans people… Sex workers have rarely ever been able to depend on anyone else but themselves. And now all that practice is paying off.” 

How You Can Offer Support

The COVID-19 pandemic may have prevented Pride events from taking place last year, but it only served as a reminder that Pride is all year, and not just relegated to June. Equality will not be possible until the trans community can feel safe at these events, and sex work is decriminalized. Instead of putting all of your efforts into the month of June, focus on helping the marginalized groups year round. 

Here are organizations and fundraisers that provided monetary aid to the trans community and sex workers who struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, and continue to aid those in need now.

There are many ways that people can participate in helping the community during Pride month, but speaking out for the underrepresented individuals and donating to organizations that are funding support for them is vital. 

Studies Referenced:

The Needs and Rights of Trans Sex Workers. Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Isabel Corp

New School '21

Isabel Corp is a third-year Literary Studies major with a concentration in non-fiction writing at Eugene Lang College. Isabel writes about Sex and Relationships & Culture, and her writing can also be found in the blog of the non-profit LGBTQ+ organization, Family Equality.
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