Defying Expectations: Unsung Hero: Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riots


This lesson seeks to explore the Stonewall Riots, the media interpretation of them, and inclusion and exclusion in the LGBTQ movement through the life of Marsha P. Johnson, including the connections to the present day. Students will examine news articles from the time, reflections from trans activists, and explore the ways the impacts of intersectionality on the LGBTQ community. Through a set of activities, students will explore how Stonewall has been understood and some of the unsung heroes, ultimately seeking to ask why they were unsung. As a summative assessment, students will complete a writing exercise in which they seek to connect the debate over the film Stonewall to what they have learned in class and reflect on what they have learned.

  • One to two class sessions with homework
  • Students will independently complete a reading and watch a video to familiarize themselves with Stonewall Riots and provide an appropriate historical context
  • Students will examine news articles about the Stonewall Riots and determine bias, with a specific focus on gender.
  • Through a close examination of the written word students will see how women and trans activists sought to take back the meaning of Stonewall, and also examine how present-day textbooks in American history seek to whitewash history.
  • Students will read a biography of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and discuss the power of inclusion and exclusion in historical narratives.
  • Students will take a critical examination and reflectively write on the film Stonewall
  • Students should be familiar with the term intersectionality and the Stonewall Riots. A pre-lesson reading and video on the riots will help fill in any gaps of knowledge.


  • Pre-Reading from on Stonewall Riots
  • 3 Cops Hurt as Bar Raid Riles Crow (From New York Daily News)
  • 4 Policemen Hurt in Village Raid
  • Excerpt from Leo Laurence in the Berkeley Bard
  • Excerpt from Sylvia Rivera in Come Out!
  • Textbook Excerpt from the American Vision
  • Article by Natasha Schalffer on the “Unsung Heroes of the Stonewall Riots”
  • Summative Assessment

Prior Night’s Homework: Students will read and watch a video at the following link:

Ask students to reflect and respond to the following question:

In 2019, there are only two states that require LGBTQ history: California and New Jersey. Should all states make it mandatory?”


Do Now: With a partner, share your response to the homework question. A potential additional question could be, “Why have the 48 other states failed to pass mandatory LGBTQ history? 

  • Explain to students that they will be exploring the hidden voices of the Stonewall Riots and tension within the broader movement. Teacher should allow for time to explain the Stonewall Riots or allow for questions about them.
  • Break up class in half for Activity #1 (in handouts). One half of the class will read the New York Times and the other will read the New York Daily News. The questions at the bottom of the page can be discussed in a whole class format. Key points that should come up in the discussion based on the question are a lack of emphasis on police, no understanding for why the riot happen, only an assumption that men were involved, and no distinction or recognition of race.  A discussion about why the media focused on violence perpetrate on the police instead of the violence that committed would also be appropriate.
  • Teacher will break students into small groups for Activity #2 (in handouts). Each group will submit a response to the four questions.  Documents 1 and 2 seek to demonstrate how women and trans individuals contributed to the movement, but have been whitewashed by history. Document C focuses on the lack of emphasis on Stonewall in American education. Teacher Suggestion: A bonus activity could involve students sending a new excerpt to the authors of the textbook)
  • Teacher will showcase a video and reading on Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (Video link: Two potential questions for the video include:

     a) How did gender identity divide the LGBTQ movement?

     b) What challenges to trans people of color face today?


Students will complete the reading and answer the questions which follow on the document set.


Teacher can share with students that NYC in May 2019 announced there will be a monument created to honor Marsha P. Johnson (




Assessment / Homework

Explain to students they will be reflecting writing on a news story about the film Stonewall. This film demonstrates many of the issues discussed in the lesson.

Questions for Student Response (Mandatory)

  1. How does this story about the film Stonewall showcase the challenges faced within the LGBTQ movement during and after Stonewall? Be sure to include connection to the life of Marsha P. Johnson, her impact on the movement, and the themes embedded within the documents. 

Additional Questions to Prompt Student Debate, Discussion and Writing

  1. Should this film be boycotted?   Why or why not?
  2. Based on what you have learned today, what are your major takeaways? What is the significance of this lesson?
  3. Why is intersectionality so important to understand the LGBTQ movement in America?

Standards- C3 and Common Core


Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.


Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

D2.His.8.9-12. Analyze how current interpretations of the past are limited by the extent to which available historical sources represent perspectives of people at the time

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task