As It Happens

Podcast unearths earliest known recordings of trans icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

When Brian Ferree found an old box of tape reels labelled "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries," he knew he had his hands on something special.

'It's really exciting to get to listen to them at such a young age,' says Making Gay History researcher

LGBTQ icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. (The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson/Netflix)


When Brian Ferree found an old box of tape reels labelled "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries," he knew he had his hands on something special.

Ferree, the archival researcher for the educational podcast Making Gay History, recognized STAR as an organization founded by pioneering transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in 1970 to help homeless LGBTQ youth.

The tapes were from a 1970 interview on New York radio station WBAI, and they feature what Ferree believes are the earliest known recordings of the pair. Rivera was 19 and Johnson was 25.

"I do think that people who are interested in them, who see them as icons and people to look up to, they're hungry for more information about them," Ferree told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It's really exciting to get to listen to them at such a young age speak for themselves, and not just read something that's been written about them."

Ferree had the tapes digitized, and they were re-aired for the first time on the podcast.

He found the recordings at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York while doing research for the podcast's episodes about the Stonewall Uprising. 

Johnson and Rivera were key players in the 1969 New York riots, which historians say ignited the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Johnson is often credited with throwing the first stone after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village.

Johnson died in 1992 at the age of 46. Police initially ruled her death a suicide, but her friends suspected foul play. Rivera died in 2002 at the age of 50 of complications from liver cancer. 

The tapes were recorded a year later by reporter Liza Cowan for the New York radio station WBAI.

The interview is both intensely political and deeply personal.

Johnson describes avoiding men for fear of violence, undergoing hormone treatment with the goal of having gender surgery, and facing serious repercussions for expressing femininity in public. 

"I started out with makeup in 1963-64, and in 1965 I was coming out more and I was still wearing makeup, but I will still going to jail just for makeup," she says. 

Brian Ferree, the archival researcher for the Making Gay History podcast, found the interview with members of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in a box, left, at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, then had it digitized at Swan Studios, right. (Submitted by Brian Ferree)

Rivera reminisces about wearing girls' clothing when she was a child, and laments her previous encounters with reporters who insisted on using her birth name and male pronouns. 

"This is very oppressive. Everyone calls me Sylvia. I've had the same name for nine years," she says. "It's not just transvestites that call me as Sylvia or treat me as 'she.' This is [how] people respect you. This is respect."

Ferree says Johnson and Rivera would have faced similar treatment inside the gay rights movement. 

"They were not ready for these larger gender politics," he said. "A lot of these organizations, they were still married to respectability and they wanted to gain gay rights by showing that gay people were respectable, and so they excluded those people that didn't fit that rubric."

It was meant to be a fashion interview

Cowan, now a 70-year-old artist, remembers producing the interview in December 1970 when she was just 20 years old using a nine-kilogram portable reel-to-reel tape recorder that she'd strapped over her shoulder. 

At the time, she says she was interested in clothing and how it affected the way people manoeuvred through their lives. 

"How can I find out how clothing affects people more than if I talked to people who are wearing clothing that they're not ordinarily supposed to be wearing?" she told As It Happens

In this June 26, 1994, photo, Rivera leads an ACT-UP march past New York's Union Square Park. (Justin Sutcliffe/The Associated Press)

Cowan came out out as a lesbian a year after recording that interview, she said. She went on to edit several lesbian magazines and covered many stories about the LGBTQ community. But at the time, she said, it was all new to her. 

She reached out to one of her colleagues, a gay man, who put her in touch with Johnson, Rivera and two others from STAR. 

"They all agreed to meet in this one apartment. So one snowy night, maybe a week later, I took the recorder down and trudged up the stairs of the old tenement building and talked to them," she said.

"I wanted to talk about about clothing, and they were willing to do that. But, of course, they were much more eager to talk about the political action they were recently involved in. And I thought, well, if that's where their passion is, then that's where the story is going to go."

Finding a precious treasure

When Ferree found the recordings, he says he felt like he'd stumbled upon something precious and delicate.

"I was so excited," Ferree said. "I had no idea what was on the tape, and I knew I wouldn't be able to listen to it right then, so I had to rein myself in."

The old reel-to-reel recordings were edited by hand, cut with razor blades and taped back together at various points. Terrified that he would inadvertently destroy the reels forever, Ferree took them to experts Swan Studios to have them digitized.

"The physical edits themselves busted apart as they rewound it, which scared me at the time, but apparently is very normal," he said.

"And they would just take the pieces of Mylar tape and glue [tape] them back together, and then they were nice enough to let me sit in, and I got to listen to it for the first time with everyone else in the studio as he recorded it."

A 1970 photo of Johnson handing out flyers in support of gay students at New York University. (Diana Davies/Reuters)

What emerged was a grainy and uneven recording, with music playing in the background. The hissing sound of old leaky pipes can be heard as Rivera and Johnson discuss their personal lives, gender politics and gay liberation.

"I think what makes Marsha such an amazing icon from the past is her ability to deliver the worst news while still sounding jovial in a way. She really had this joie de vivre that she kept up throughout her life," Ferree said.

"And what I think is also really lovely about listening to Sylvia in those days is her progression from using drag queen to using transvestite and then later she'll use transgender. But she really infuses all of these words with the same liberation politics, the same energy."

It would be years before Johnson and Rivera got their due as early pioneers in the movement. 

Even when Cowan donated the interview to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, she says she had no idea how important it would become. 

"Nobody knew who Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were," she said. "They were no more or less important than any of the other activists who were working, playing, organizing in New York at that time. I mean, I was way more famous than they were."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Brian Ferree produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.