Marsha P. Johnson & Randy Wicker
Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker took dramatically different approaches to activism, but each left an indelible mark on the LGBTQ civil rights movement. To learn more about each of them, have a look at the information and resources that follow below.
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Despite a lifelong struggle with mental illness, homelessness, prostitution, and dozens of arrests, Marsha became a beloved figure in the LGBTQ civil rights movement beginning at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and continuing through the 1980s with ACT UP.
Read a 1970s interview with Marsha about STAR House, which she co-founded with Sylvia Rivera (featured in MGH Episode 01) in an excerpt from Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation by Karla Kay and Allen Young. This excerpt was posted by activist, writer, and filmmaker Reina Gossett. Marsha and Sylvia envisioned STAR House as a refuge for homeless LGBTQ youth.
The building on New York City’s Lower East Side where STAR House was located was owned by organized crime figure Michael Umbers, who was involved in the bank robbery that was used as the basis for the movie, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Read more about the robbery and Michael Umbers in this 1972 Village Voice article by Arthur Bell.
In this undated video posted by Randy Wicker, watch Marsha deliver a poem to an appreciative audience.
Watch a trailer for “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” a film about Marsha’s life, including the hours immediately before the Stonewall uprising. Read about the film in Grace Dunham’s November 19, 2015 article in the New Yorker.
The New York Times published a much-belated obituary (part of its series on “Overlooked” obituaries) about Marsha that provides an thorough overview of her life.
Randy Wicker was one of the most visible gay rights activists in New York City during the 1960s. He was born Charles Gervin Hayden, Jr., in 1938 in Plainfield, New Jersey. When he told his family about his involvement in the nascent gay rights movement they asked him to change his name. He chose Randolfe Hayden Wicker and came to be known as Randy Wicker.
Randy Wicker’s activism began in the late 1950s when he attended the University of Texas at Austin as an undergraduate. He spent the summer of 1958 volunteering with the New York City chapter of the Mattachine Society. Back at the University of Texas, he led a 1959 anti-censorship campaign in response to “virtuous vigilantes” who stripped newsstands of the “spicier men’s magazines to safeguard local youth,” and a year later was featured in an article in the university’s Texas Ranger magazine.
After graduating, Randy returned to New York and in 1962 formed his own organization, the Homosexual League of New York, because he felt constrained by the Mattachine Society’s low-profile approach to the gay rights effort.
In that same year, after a local New York City radio station featured a panel discussion with a group of psychiatrists about the sickness theory of homoseuxality, Randy persuaded the station manager to do a program with him and several other gay men. It was one of the first (if not the first) conversations of its kind to air on radio. You can read an account of that landmark event in an article by Jim Burroway published in “The Box Turtle Bulletin” on July 15, 2016.
To see an image of Randy’s 1963 Homosexual League of New York progress report, which includes newspaper clips from the mainstream media about the 1962 radio broadcast, click here.
In 1964, Randy famously led the first public gay protest at the New York City U.S. Army Induction Center after the confidentiality of a gay man’s draft records was violated. Earlier that year Randy appeared on the Les Crane TV show to answer questions about homosexuality.
After the Stonewall uprising Randy joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and in 1972 co-authored Gay Crusaders with Kay “Tobin” Lahusen (featured in MGH Episode 09 along with her partner Barbara Gittings).
I’m Eric Marcus. Welcome to the second season of Making Gay History.
In this episode you’ll meet two very different heroes of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. People I’d never expected to find in the same room.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Randy Wicker promoted the then radical idea that homosexuals should be accepted because they were just like everyone else. Randy led the first public protest against anti-gay discrimination in 1964 dressed in a coat and tie.
Marsha P. Johnson was Randy’s public relations nightmare—a self-described drag queen hustler with a long arrest record and a history of mental health issues who is best known for her role in the 1969 Stonewall uprising.
My plan was to interview Randy at his Art Deco lamp shop just a few blocks west of the Stonewall Inn. But Randy had other ideas. He suggested we go to his place across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey, where I could talk with Marsha, as well. I had no idea they were roommates.
When we get to Randy’s modest apartment, Marsha’s in the kitchen making dinner. After a few minutes, she walks into the living room. She drapes herself in a chair like a cat in slow motion and absentmindedly starts sorting through her shoulder bag. A frosted wig comes to the surface and then disappears and then comes back to the surface again.
Before I can get the wires to the lapel mics untangled, Randy is talking a mile a minute. He’s throwing off so much nervous energy that I wish to myself they’d offered me something stronger to drink than water.
I ask them both to sit still for a second so I can clip the mics to their collars. I go back to my chair, reach across to the cocktail table to my tape recorder, and press record.
Randy: Marsha’s the only one, she’s the only one everyone agrees was at the Stonewall riots. There were a lot of other people, but everyone agrees that Marsha was there, so…
Marsha: The way I winded up being at Stonewall that night, I was having a party uptown. 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, because when I got downtown the place was already on fire. And it was a raid already. The riots had already started. And they said the police went in there and set the place on fire. They said the police set it on fire because they originally wanted the Stonewall to close, so they had several raids. And there was this, uh, Tiffany and, oh, this other drag queen that used to work there in the coat check room and then they had all these bartenders. And the night before the Stonewall riots started, before they closed the bar, we were all there and we all had to line up against the wall and they was all searching us.
Eric: The police were?
Marsha: Yeah, they searched every single body that came there. Because, uh, the place was supposed to be closed, and they opened anyway. ‘Cause every time the police came, what they would do, they would take the money from the coat check room and take the money from the bar. So if they heard the police were coming, they would take all the money and hide it up under the bar in these boxes, out of the register. And, you know, and sometimes they would hide like under the floor or something? So when the police got in all they got was the bartender’s tips.
Eric: Who went to the Stonewall?
Marsha: Well, uh, at first it was just a gay men’s bar. And they didn’t allow no, uh, women in. And then they started allowing women in. And then they let the drag queens in. I was one of the first drag queens to go to that place. ‘Cause when we first heard about this… and then they had these drag queens workin’ there. They didn’t never arrested anybody at the Stonewall. All they did was line us up and tell us to get out.
Randy: Were you one of those that got in the chorus lines and kicked their heels up at the police, like, like Ziegfeld Folly girls or Rockettes?
Marsha: Oh, no. No, we were too busy throwing over cars and screaming in the middle of the street, ‘cause we were so upset ‘cause they closed that place.
Eric: What were you screaming in the street?
Eric: What did you say to the police?
Marsha: We just were saying, no more police brutality and, oh, we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places. Oh, there was a lot of little chants we used to do in those days.
Eric: Randy, were you at Stonewall then as well? Did you know Marsha?
Randy: No, no, I met Marsha, Marsha moved in here about eight years ago. I had met Marsha in 1973 as an Advocate reporter. The GAA people had freed her. It was, they locked up our gay sister, Marsha Johnson, but they went into the mental hospital and they snuck her out in an elevator and they ran out the door. Now the reason they…she was in the mental hospital is she took LSD and was sitting in the middle of either Houston Street or…
Marsha: There was no LSD…
Randy: …pulling the sun…
Marsha: What do you call that, umm?
Randy and Eric: Mescaline?
Marsha: No, what’s that other fierce stuff?
Randy: Bella donna?
Marsha: Uh, uh. Purple… purple passion or something?
Randy: But, anyway she was sitting in the middle and pulling the sun to the earth, but fortunately before the world ended and the sun hit the earth the paddy wagon from Bellevue came and took Marsha away to the mental ward and that’s how she ended up getting on SSI as a mental case, because they obviously saw, you know, she had a history of prostitution going back to ’62. And I had met Marsha.
I mean, when I did this article, this story, my impression of Marsha was that she was sweet, but you know, a little bit spacey. So when this boy I met at the Gaiety and he said… I said would you ever go to the Village? “Oh, yeah, I go to the Village and I run around with Marsha.” And he was a nice white boy and I said, “I don’t know that, you know, Marsha’s the kind of person that, you know, you should really be hanging out with.”
Well, to make a long story, this boy became like my adopted son. But he moved in, I guess, in January. And one… it was ten degrees and he said, you know, he said, “Marsha, you know, she’s out there, she doesn’t have any place to sleep. She didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. Couldn’t she come home and sleep on the rug?” And I said, “Willy,” I said, “are you absolutely sure she’s not gonna’ rip us off?” You know, I mean, I don’t…you know… And he said, “No, no she won’t rip us off.”
Well, Marsha came in, I guess, in ’79 or ’80 and began sleeping on the rug here. You know, I mean, I got to know her and like her and she became… And I’m a big Marsha fan now. It was so funny, ‘cause, I mean, I counseled Willy that Marsha wasn’t the kind of person you want to get involved with and run around with, you know.
Eric: And you’ve lived together now for eight years.
Randy: Yeah, yeah.
Eric: Now were there lots of people hurt at the Stonewall that night during the riots?
Marsha: They weren’t hurt at the Stonewall. They were hurt on the streets outside of the Stonewall ‘cause people were throwing bottles and the police were out there with those clubs and things and their helmets on, the riot helmets.
Eric: Were you afraid of being arrested?
Marsha: Oh, no, because I’d been going to jail for like ten years before the Stonewall I was going to jail ‘cause I was, I was originally up on 42nd Street. And every time we’d go, you know, like going out to hustle all the time they would just get us and tell us we were under arrest.
Randy: Drag queen hooker.
Marsha: Yeah, they’d say, “All yous drag queens under arrest, so we, you know, it was just for wearing a little bit of makeup down 42nd Street.
Eric: Who were the kinds of people you met up at 42nd Street when you were hustling up there.
Marsha: Oh, this was all these queens from Harlem, from the Bronx. A lot of them are dead now. I mean, I hardly ever see anybody from those days. But these were like queens from the Bronx and Brooklyn, from New Jersey, where I’m from. I’m from Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Randy: See, I, I, Stonewall, I don’t want… I shouldn’t start on this note, but it puts me in the worst light, because by the time Stonewall happened I was running my button shop in the East Village and for all the years of Mattachine and you see the pictures of me on TV, I’m wearing a suit and tie and I had spent ten years of my life going around telling people homosexuals looked just like everybody else. We didn’t all wear makeup and wear dresses and have falsetto voices and molest kids and were Communists and all this.
And all of a sudden Stonewall broke out and there were reports in the press of chorus lines of queens kicking up their heels at the cops like Rockettes, you know, “We are the Stonewall girls, and you know, fuck you police.” And this, I thought, you know, it was like Jesse Jackson used to say, rocks through windows don’t open doors. I felt this… I was horrified. I mean, the last thing to me that I thought at the time they we’re setting back the gay liberation movement twenty years, because I mean all these TV shows and all this work that we had done to try to establish legitimacy of the gay movement that we were nice middle class people like everybody else and, you know, adjusted and all that. And suddenly there was all this, what I considered, riffraff. And I gave a speech, I was asked to speak, I was asked to speak at the Electric Circus, which was a major, which was a major… Marsha, you just got me. Where are you going? What were you doing?
Marsha: It’s Carmen, wagging.
Randy: Oh, she’s outside?
Marsha: Yeah, c’mon sweetie.
[When Marsha gets up she forgets about the microphone and it pulls off her shirt. Eric and Randy search for the microphone’s foam cover.]
Randy: Watch out. God, you’re so dumb.
Marsha: You think so?
Eric: Okay, you were saying about Stonewall…
Randy: Yeah, I was saying I was running my shop in East Village, the button shop, the big hippie shop, and when this happened I was horrified because it was civil disorder. Somewhere I saw a picture from the Stonewall and it had a big sign up from the Mattachine Society, which was one of my base groups. It said the Mattachine Society asked citizens to obey poli… to not obey the police, but to respect law and order, to act in a lawful manner. In other words, the Mattachine itself was basically a conservative organization and they had a…
They asked me to speak at the Electric Circus and I got up and said that I did not think that the way to win public acceptance was to go out and form chorus lines of drag queens kicking your feet up at the police. And I was just beginning to speak and one of the bouncers at the Electric Circus found out that it was a gay thing, that the guy up there talking was gay and somebody standing next to him, he said to them, “Are you one of them?” And the guy said yes and he began beating the hell out of him. And this riot broke out in the Electric Circus. And I remember driving him home, because the kid was only about twenty-one or twenty-two years old. And he said, “All I know is that I’ve been in this movement for three days and I’ve been beaten up three times. I mean, he had a black eye and, you know, a puffed up face…
Marsha: Oh, how terrible.
Randy: …and, you know, no serious damage, but the thing was that you were dealing with a new thing. And it shows that what my generation did, we built the ideology, you know. Are we sick? Aren’t we sick? What are the scientific facts? How we’ve been brainwashed by society? We put together, like, you know, Lenin… I mean, Karl Marx wrote the book. That’s what we did. But it literally took Stonewall, and here I was considered the first militant and a visionary leader of the gay movement, to not even realize when the revolution, if you want to call it this, this thing that I thought would never happen, that a small nuclei of people would become a mass social movement was occurring—I was against it. Now I’m very happy Stonewall happened. I’m very happy the way things worked out.
Eric: Now you mentioned an organization that Marsha, you were involved with. What was the name?
Marsha: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Miss Sylvia Rivera.
Eric: What was that group about? What was it for?
Marsha: Ah, it was a group for transvestites.
Randy: It was a bunch of…
Marsha: Men and women transvestites.
Randy: It was a bunch of flakey, fucked up transvestites living in a hovel and a slum somewhere calling themselves revolutionaries. That’s what it was in my opinion. Now Marsha has a different idea.
Eric: What’s your opinion?
Marsha: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries started out as a very good group. It was after Stonewall, they started, they started at GAA. Mama Jean DeVente, who used to be the marshal for all the parades. She was the one that talked Sylvia Rivera into leaving GAA, ‘cause Sylvia Rivera who was the president of STAR was a member of GAA, and start a group of her own. And so she started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. And she asked me would I come be the vice president of that organization.
Randy: They had an apartment, they didn’t have the money to keep up the rent and they began fighting over who was using drugs or who was paying rent or who was taking whose makeup. And, I mean, it got to be pretty low life and pretty ugly…
Marsha: No, the building was owned by Michael Umbers, who was in jail. And didn’t Michael Umbers, when he went to jail, the city took over the building and they had everybody thrown out. But originally the rent was paid to Michael Umbers who went to jail, and Bubbles Rose Lee, Bubbles Rose Lee, who was secretary to STAR, she had all kinds of things [?] around the building and stuff, you know. So the city just came and closed the building down.
The dream of STAR House was to provide a safe place for street kids, but those kids were just a little younger than Marsha and Sylvia, who were in their early twenties and still had to hustle to survive.
Marsha died in July 1992. Her body was found floating in the Hudson River near the piers on the western edge of Greenwich Village. She was forty-six. The New York City Medical Examiner ruled her death a suicide, but Marsha’s friends believed she was beaten to death or accidentally fell in the river. They lobbied for a new investigation and twenty years after Marsha’s death, the District Attorney’s office agreed to reopen the case.
To learn more about Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker, please visit makinggayhistory.com. That’s where you can listen to all our previous episodes and also find photos and really interesting background information on each of the people we feature.
I’ve got a few key people to thank for making this podcast possible. Thank you to our executive producer, Sara Burningham, our co-producer Jenna Weiss-Berman. Thanks also to our audio engineer Casey Holford, our webmaster Jonathan Dozier-Ezell, our social media advisor Will Coley, and our head of research, Zachary Seltzer. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Myers.
A special thank you to Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, the men behind the LGBT History Instagram account who have so generously spread the word about Making Gay History. Be sure to follow them @LGBT_History. I learn something new from them every day.
Making Gay History is a co-production of Pineapple Street Media, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Season Two of this podcast is made possible with support from the Ford Foundation, which is on the front lines of social change worldwide.
And if you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe to Making Gay History on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
So long! Until next time!
This episode was revised in May 2018 to correct an error I made in the original version in which I said that Marsha P. Johnson had a drug problem. According to Randy Wicker, this was not the case.
So long! Until next time!