There are many powerful women who made history having fought for causes big and
small. You have women who are praised by mainstream media for their accomplishments, while
there are others who are overlooked, and aren’t shown as important or worthy of celebrating
their legacy. This goes for many activists, but in particular, Marsha P. Johnson, an
African American transgender activist and drag performer based in New York City. She is
known for being the mastermind behind the Stonewall Riots back in 1969. In the recent Netflix
documentary, The Death and the Life of Marsha P. Johnson, she was called by fellow
transgender activist, Victoria Cruz, as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBT community.”
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She grew up
in a strict Roman Catholic household and began engaging in cross dressing behavior at a
young age, but was forced to stop. After graduating high school, she moved to Greenwich Village in
New York City, where she struggled to make ends meet. She was forced to live a dangerous
lifestyle, resulting to prostitution to make reasonable income. Despite dealing with intense
situations in her personal life, Marsha took pride and joy in being a drag queen in the New York
City nightlife scene, where she designed all her outfits, mostly from thrift shops. When breaking
out in the New York LGBTQ scene, Johnson was respected and loved by the whole community and had a huge heart of helping others. She was called “drag mother” by helping out homeless
and struggling LGBTQ youth and also became successful touring the world as a drag queen.
Despite being successful and well respected in the gay community, anti-gay discrimination was still prevalent in the larger society. The LGBTQ community frequented gay bars and clubs as
“places of refuge where they can express themselves openly and socialize without worry”
(History.com). This is where the popular Stonewall Inn comes into the neighborhood, having formerly been a “straight” bar later turned to a gay bar. The Stonewall Inn became the ultimate
hub of queer culture in the Greenwich Village area, including as a nightly home for
homeless and runaway LGBTQ youth. However, since the club was secret run as a gay bar, not
having a proper liquor license, police raids were still a reality that could happen at anytime. With Mafia run bars, corrupt cops would tip off the bar owners, allowing
bars to stash alcohol and other contraband.
On the morning of June 28th the Stonewall Inn wasn’t tipped off in time, and the
NYPD raided the club. With racialized police brutality and clear social discrimination marking the harshly executed raid, Stonewall Inn patrons and neighborhood residents angrily poured outside the bar. This resulted into a full blown riot that lasted for 3 days. “Many eyewitnesses have identified Marsha as one of the main instigators of the uprising, and thus, some have recognized her as the vanguard of the gay liberation movement in the United States” (Biography). This proves how motivated and risk bearing that Marsha was, and how she would do everything it takes to liberate fellow queer individuals like her.
Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Marsha P. Johnson, along with another
transgender activist and dear friend, Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestite Action
Revolutionaries (STAR), a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth
in New York City. Johnson and Rivera saw the needs of street youth and transgender youth
who were not being taken in account by other gay groups. STAR wanted to fill this
gap to help people in the community who are in need. “Their first STAR House was opened in a
parked trailer truck in a Greenwich Village parking lot in 1970. It functioned as a shelter and
social space for trans sex workers and other LGBTQ street youth. However, the pair arrived one
day to find the trailer being towed with as many as 20 youth sleeping inside” (Global
Network of Sex Work Projects).
After this situation both Marsha and Sylvia came to the conclusion that
STAR needed a permanent home to better help youth. According to Sylvia Rivera in an
interview with Leslie Feinberg in 1998, “We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s
control at the bars. We got a building at 213 Second Avenue” (Global Network of Sex Work
Projects). Both Johnson and Rivera put their lives on the line in order to financially support the
space by doing street sex work at night. They also wanted to use the space to teach the youth
how to read and write during the day. STAR was significant in many ways. It became the first
LGBTQ youth organization in North America. It was also the first trans woman of color-led organization in the United States, as well as the first trans sex worker labor organization.
Marsha P. Johnson was known for being an eccentric woman with great taste in
fashion. She commonly sported outlandish hats and glamorous jewelry. She was down to earth but
still fearless and bold. “Despite her difficulties with mental illness and numerous police encounters, whenever she was asked what the ‘P’ in her name stood for and when people pried
about her gender or sexuality, she quipped back with ‘Pay it no mind.’ Her forthright nature and
enduring strength led her to speak out against injustices” (Biography). In 1992, Marsh P.
Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers.
The police initially declared her death as suicide, disregarding claims from her friends that she
was not suicidal. Recently depicted in the Netflix documentary about Marsha’s life and death,
trans activist Victoria Cruz of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) reopened the
case, but found no luck in confirming it a homicide.
Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson’s legacy still lives on today. It is important
to note that transgender leaders and LGBTQ movements are not celebrated or learned in
schools. I only found out about Marsha by being in social justice spaces I’m involved with.
Then I learned on my own about the Stonewall Riots, STAR and the
gay movement, past and present. It’s very valuable to myself as someone who identifies within
the LGBTQ community to learn this history. Transgender individuals, especially trans people of color, are constantly harassed, and even murdered for just being themselves. Women’s history should spotlight all women, not just cisgender, but trans women, and women of color. The need for representation in today’s society is important in order to continue the feminist movement of past, present and future.
-Dewayne, 19, Cambridge