Marsha P. Johnson: warrior and trans-activist
Marsha P. Johnson was a warrior, activist, and self-identified drag queen. She was a key role in the Stonewall riots of 1969. Marsha first went by the alias “BLACK Marsha” before deciding on Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha’s response to questioning regarding her gender was “Pay It No Mind,” therefore the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind.”
This was a phrase commonly used among her community when people commented or remarked negatively or inoffensive ways on their appearance or identity. She died many years ago in 1992 on this date, July 6th.
It is imperative that we take a moment to remember and pay homage to this wonderful fighter who paved the way for many future movements.
Some things to keep in mind
However, it is important to also keep in mind that so much of our awareness of Marsha was based on the experiences of people who did not resemble her or come from the same region.
Trans persons and people of colour have historically been excluded from both the gay rights and women’s rights movements, despite the fact that they are frequently the most adversely affected by gender and sexuality-based oppression.
It is also important to remember that the LGBT community did not have the same comprehensive vocabulary to explain sexuality as we do today at the time of the Stonewall riots. Marsha was a transgender woman who identified herself as a drag queen or transvestite, both of which have distinct implications today. The term “transvestite” is currently considered pejorative.
Two trans women of colour, on the other hand, refused to be left out of the struggle for equality from the start. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were activists on the front lines of the fight for trans rights since the 1960s, when the revolution was just getting started.
Some context on her background
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels, Jr. in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945. Johnson had a rough childhood as a result of her Christian upbringing. She experimented with cross-dressing at a young age but was soon chastised. After finishing school, Johnson relocated to New York City’s Greenwich Village. Marsha lived in poverty in New York.
She was destitute and had to rely on sex work to make ends meet. She did, however, find happiness as a drag queen in the heart of Christopher Street’s nightlife. Johnson created her own outfits (mostly from thrift shops). She swiftly rose to prominence within the LGBTQ community as a “drag mother,” assisting impoverished and suffering LGBTQ youngsters while also traveling the world as a popular drag queen with the Hot Peaches.
Stonewall riot and the sparking of a revolution
Marsha P. Johnson was enjoying her 25th birthday at Stonewall on June 28th, 1969, when the police raided the bar under the pretense of busting it for selling booze without a license. The LGBT community had had enough when the police began detaining and assaulting LGBTQ patrons at the club that night. Too many businesses in the city where queer patrons frequented had been seized, and gay patrons had been persecuted by the police.
At the time, it was routine protocol for police officers to escort women in the club to the restroom to confirm their sex, and to arrest any crossdressers in the audience. According to eyewitnesses, the cops also began sexually assaulting lesbian bar clients while frisking them that night.
A crowd of sympathisers had gathered outside the inn by this time, and they looked on in horror as workers and drag queens alike were hauled outside and violently mishandled by police before being forced into police cars.
Finally, a violent brawl erupted after a police officer whacked a butch lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie over the face for claiming that her restraints were too tight. Marsha was among the first to protest.
Following Stonewall, Marsha and Sylvia co-founded STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organisation focused on helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of colour. They devoted their lives to the cause of equality.
What happened to Marsha?
Marsha went missing in 1992, and her body was discovered six days later. They claimed that no one else was to blame for the death. However, many friends advocated against the verdict at the time, claiming that attacks on gay and trans persons were prevalent.
Others claimed to have witnessed Marsha being harassed by a bunch of “thugs” a few days before they died. In 2012, advocate Mariah Lopez was successful in convincing the New York Police Department to reexamine Marsha’s case as a suspected homicide.
Marsha P. Johnson has become one of the most revered symbols in LGBTQ+ history, and she has been honoured in a number of books, documentaries, and films. Her acts and words continue to inspire trans movement and resistance and will do so for a long time to come.