Note: This article discusses mental health, suicide, and psychiatric care in ways that may be triggering for some readers.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were trans femmes of color and lifelong dear friends who fought in the Stonewall riots and led intersectional movements for liberation before the word “intersectional” was born—always at the vanguard. Now, at long last, they have begun to be honored for their role in our liberation. Most recently, the city of New York announced a statue in their honor for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. There was also a movie about Marsha on Netflix on 2017 (that was associated with some controversy) and there’s a ballooning number of articles and blog posts re-examining their legacy, like this one.
Image description: A screen shot of a news report from Fox 5 New York. Text on the bottom of the screen says “LGBTQ activists honored.” On the screen is a display of 2 artist’s renderings of Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson. They are red prints displayed on easels. Someone is walking by.
To whatever degree our present daily reality as queer and trans people holds freedom and safety (which is certainly variable based on identities, vulnerabilities, and circumstances), I think of these rights as gifts from our ancestors, some of whom are still with us.
Sylvia and Marsha are sadly not with us, and they fought hard to give us these gifts, demanding them from a white straight world and a white gay movement that often ignored and disparaged them.
They did not lead easy lives.
They met on the street when Marsha was 18 and Sylvia was 12. They were both homeless and engaged in sex work on and off from childhood, even as they mothered friends and movements. They co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which housed young trans folks who lived on the street and fought for their rights because, according to Sylvia “Marsha and I just decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids”; Sylvia co-founded the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance and supported the Black Panthers and Young Lords; and Marsha was involved with ACT UP!
Image description: A black and white photo of a young Marsha P. Johnson and others are carrying a banner down the sidewalk that says Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries
Words are complicated when it comes to the past, and so is who has the power to wield them, the power to name. Marsha and Sylvia didn’t use the word “transgender” to refer to themselves because they used the words of their time instead, like “transvestite” and “drag queen,” but they are now referred to as trans women because to us, those modern words seem to fit their identities. Yet there are other experiences more private that it is more complex to linguistically approximate today, more awkward to retroactively, anachronistically name.
So I will say what we know and try not to take any liberties.
According to Bob Kohler, a human rights activist and friend, Marsha P. Johnson would sometimes get picked up by the police for walking naked down the street, talking incoherently about her father and Neptune, and be “taken away” for a few months. She would return implanted with Thorazine and “would be like a zombie” for a month or so before returning to “the old Marsha.” Marsha herself said she had her “first mental breakdown in 1970.” Her nephew, Al Michaels, remembers her family taking her to the hospital during “spells.”
Caption: This clip of the documentary “Pay It No Mind” about Marsha P. Johnson, discusses her mental health.
Sylvia Rivera, according to her, had “a drinking problem,” used heroine, and attempted suicide at least twice in low periods.
Even though these facts are well-documented, they seem omitted from the mythology that is emerging about these remarkable people. Perhaps we don’t know what to make of them. As trans people, our very existence has been pathologized; maybe we worry it will invalidate us if our heroes also have pathologies of their own, if they struggled against internal pain as well as the forces of external oppression.
But one struggle does not erase the other. A brain that is hard to inhabit does not make the life it holds any less extraordinary. As Marsha herself said, “I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”
While I cannot speak to Sylvia and Marsha’s experiences or the words they used to describe them, we know broadly that trauma and marginalization are linked to the development of mental illness and substance use. Likely because of this, transgender people have high rates of mental illness and distress. According to the National Trans Survey, 39% of trans people experienced serious psychological distress in the month before the survey, with rates higher among trans people of color. Marsha and Sylvia may have been extraordinary, but in their struggles, they were like many of us.
And we know that the neurodiversity movement is so named because there is a wide spectrum of normal diversity that is possible for our minds and their workings, just as there is for our bodies, our attractions, and our genders. And sometimes trauma and mental illness offer “dangerous gifts,” carving into view a sliver of the world others can’t see.
In the absence of Sylvia and Marsha’s voices here with us explaining how they viewed their own mental health, I offer these frameworks so that we may build an understanding of them.
Image description: A black and white photo of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson standing under an umbrella at a protest behind a police barricade. Sylvia’s fist is raised.
Sylvia and Marsha already remind us of the beauty of our human wholeness, complexity, and messiness. As we hold these mothers of the movement in the light of our unfolding liberation, let us not leave this facet of them, or ourselves, in darkness.
So if we do not omit this part of their story—or our own—then how do we tell it?
We know Sylvia said that Marsha kept her alive, saving her life after a suicide attempt on the 4th anniversary of Stonewall, the night she was famously booed off stage at Pride. Marsha found her, got her to a hospital, and told her it was “not her time.” After Marsha’s mysterious death in 1992 caused Sylvia to lose stability and become homeless on the Christopher Street Piers, she somehow kept candles burning on an alter to Marsha inside her makeshift home (photo here). Sylvia said that meditating on Marsha and the Hudson river where her body was found kept her going through bouts of “hitting bottom” in her drinking.
So it seems that the story of their mental suffering is partly a testament to the revolutionary power of queer and trans love, its ability to soothe immense psychic pain and keep us here to fight alongside each other—which Sylvia said kept her going.
And although when I think of Sylvia and Marsha, I am always in awe of what they accomplished—the many movements they co-founded and participated in—their mental health challenges (my words, not theirs) mean that they probably took some time off. They probably worked with or through mental and emotional cycles that did not always align with the political moment. I bet sometimes they missed important protests and meetings: maybe Sylvia was hung over some mornings, and maybe Marsha was recuperating at the hospital or drowsy on Thorazine. Like so many people with mental illness, they likely came up against their own rhythms and limits they had to respect. Perhaps another status quo they challenged was the norm of endless, perfect productivity.
And still they founded movements. And still they gifted us freedoms. And still they bathed in each other’s friendship that transcended death itself.
These remarkable individuals have done a lot to liberate us all. And when I imagine them holding each other safe, resting, away from the front lines, I feel liberated by that too.