Stonewall 50 – Minisode 1 – Marsha P. Johnson & Randy Wicker
We’re bringing you this special Making Gay History minisode thanks to the generous support of Christopher Street Financial. Since 1981, Christopher Street Financial has been helping members of the LGBTQ+ community make their important life and wealth decisions. Learn more about Christopher Street Financial at christopherstreet.com.
To learn more about Randy Wicker and Marsha P. Johnson, click here to access the episode notes from our original episode featuring the two activists.
Eric Marcus Narration: It’s 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 2019—exactly 50 years since a police raid on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village sparked a series of riots. We’ve chosen this date and time to share first-hand accounts of the raid, the riots, and the revolutionary repercussions that people in New York City and around the world will be marking this weekend with celebrations and protests.
I’m Eric Marcus and this is the first of four Making Gay History bonus minisodes that we’re releasing on the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I like to think of this as a Pride weekend LGBTQ history playlist. Feel free to binge.
We’re able to bring you these very special extras thanks to the generous support of Christopher Street Financial. Since 1981, Christopher Street Financial has been helping members of the LGBTQ+ community make their important life and wealth decisions.
I want to share a conversation with you that I recorded in 1989 featuring a very unlikely pair of roommates: Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker. We first released this interview at the beginning of season two of Making Gay History, but we know thousands of you have found us since then, and maybe haven’t had the chance to explore our back catalog yet.
Randy and Marsha were only seven years apart in age, but they were from different generations… and different worlds. Randy had been at the vanguard of the pre-Stonewall homophile movement. Among other firsts, he organized and led the first ever public demonstration for gay rights—that was in 1964. Randy wore a suit and tie. Six years later, Marsha co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera while living on the streets of New York City in the wake of the Stonewall riots.
For the last 12 years of her life, Marsha lived with Randy. Sitting with the two of them in Randy’s apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, I got to hear two sides of the Stonewall story. A chosen family of two recalling an event that changed the course of history.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Randy Wicker and Marsha Johnson on Tuesday, January 24, 1989. Location is the home of Randy Wicker in Hoboken, New Jersey. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Randy Wicker: 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 P. Johnson: The way I winded up being at Stonewall that night, I was having a party uptown. And I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock. And we were all out there and Miss Sylvia Rivera and them were over in the park having a cocktail.
Cuz 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.
EM: The police were?
MJ: Yeah, they searched every single body that came there. Because, uh, the place was supposed to be closed, and they opened anyway. Cuz 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.
EM: Who went to the Stonewall?
MJ: 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. Cuz when we first heard about this… and then they had these drag queens working there. They didn’t never arrested anybody at the Stonewall. All they did was line us up and tell us to get out.
RW: 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?
MJ: Oh, no. No, we were too busy throwing over cars and screaming in the middle of the street, cuz we were so upset cuz they closed that place.
EM: What were you screaming in the street?
EM: What did you say to the police?
MJ: 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.
EM: Randy, were you at Stonewall then as well? Did you know Marsha?
RW: Marsha moved in here about eight years ago. Well, 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…
MJ: There was no LSD…
RW: … pulling the sun…
MJ: What do you call that, umm?
RW and EM: Mescaline?
MJ: No, what’s that other fierce stuff?
RW: Bella donna?
MJ: Uh, uh. Purple… purple passion or something?
RW: 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, I run around with Marsha.” And I mean 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 really became like my adopted son. But he moved in, I guess, in January. And one… it was 10 degrees and he said, you know, he said, “Marsha, you know, she’s out there, she doesn’t have anywhere to sleep. She doesn’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 one of… And I’m a big Marsha fan now. It was so funny, cuz, 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.
EM: And you’ve lived together now for eight years.
RW: Yeah, yeah.
EM: Now were there lots of people hurt at the Stonewall that night during the riots?
MJ: They weren’t hurt at the Stonewall. They were hurt on the streets outside of the Stonewall cuz people were throwing bottles and the police were out there with those clubs and things and their helmets on, the riot helmets.
EM: Were you afraid of being arrested?
MJ: Oh, no, because I’d been going to jail for, like, 10 years before the Stonewall, I was going to jail cuz 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.
RW: Drag queen hooker.
MJ: Yeah, they’d say, “All youse drag queens are under arrest,” so we, you know, it was just for wearing a little bit of makeup down 42nd Street. I used to go to Blue Bunny up on 45th Street.
EM: Who were the kinds of people you met up at 42nd Street when you were hustling up there?
MJ: 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.
RW: See, I, 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 10 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 20 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?
MJ: It’s Carmen, wagging.
RW: Oh, she’s outside?
MJ: 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.]
RW: Watch out. God, you’re so dumb.
MJ: You think so?
EM: Okay, you were saying about Stonewall…
RW: 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 the 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 21 or 22 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…
MJ: Oh, how terrible.
RW: …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 have we 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.
EM: Now you mentioned an organization that, Marsha, you were involved with. What was the name?
MJ: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Miss Sylvia Rivera.
EM: What was that group about? What was it for?
MJ: Ah, it was a group for transvestites.
RW: It was a bunch of…
MJ: Men and women transvestites.
RW: 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.
EM: What’s your opinion?
MJ: Street Transvestite 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, cuz 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.
RW: 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 lowlife and pretty ugly…
MJ: No, the building was owned by Michael Umbers, who was in jail. And then 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 [inaudible] around the building and stuff, you know. So the city just came and closed the building down.
EM Narration: Marsha P. Johnson remained a fixture of Greenwich Village life and a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights until her body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. She was 46. A police investigation ruled her death a suicide. After community pressure, the NYPD re-opened her case in 2012.
Randy Wicker is a very vibrant 81-year-old and still sharing vivid stories about his life in the movement.
Making Gay History is made possible by support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Calamus Foundation, Andra and Irwin Press, and Christopher Street Financial. Learn more about Christopher Street Financial at christopherstreet.com.
This podcast is produced thanks to an incredible team. You’ll find everyone who makes Making Gay History listed at makinggayhistory.com. That’s where you’ll also find full transcripts, archival photos, and extensive additional resources for all our episodes—mini and major.