By Anya Goulthorpe
“As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration”.
This quote was eloquently spoken by LGBTQ+ activist and social trailblazer, Marsha P. Johnson. She would later be attributed to propelling the gay liberation movement, something which many modern historians fail to recognise due to the whitewashing of today’s society. Here we appreciate and pay tribute to a black trans woman who history has seemingly erased.
Marsha was born on August 24th 1945 in New Jersey, and pursued a brief stint in the US Navy, before moving to Greenwich, New York. The dichotomy between communities in New Jersey and New York meant that Marsha quickly formed her own flamboyant identity amongst the Big Apple’s queer community. She found a like-minded community in the New York nightlife and began to find inner jubilation as a drag queen on Christopher Street (becoming known as the “mayor of Christopher Street”), infamous for her notorious costume creations. A defining moment of her self-discovery was procuring the drag name Marsha ‘Pay it no Mind’ Johnson, a reference to her carefree and openly queer attitudes in a society which shunned people of the sort.
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”
A key personality trait of Marsha was putting others before herself. She became a self-proclaimed ‘drag mother’ for queer youths in New York alongside her friend and fellow trans activist, Sylvia Rivera. This was a common practise amongst black and Hispanic queer communities who created a sense of ‘home’ for the disadvantaged queer children of America. Marsha still returned home to New Jersey frequently and was known to never return ‘empty handed’ due to her generous nature, and was always providing for others, possibly at the detriment of her own mental health. She engaged frequently in ‘survival sex’ and acknowledged her first mental breakdown in 1970, a reflection on how many LGBTQ+ people felt at this time. The term ‘transgender’ wasn’t a concept in the 1970s, but many people in hindsight would say that Marsha would have used this term to describe herself.
Nonetheless, Marsha rose to relative fame by becoming a founding member of the Gay Liberation Movement and co-founding the somewhat radical activist group ‘Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)’ in 1972. Her fame introduced new opportunities such as modelling for Andy Warhol and performing on stage with Hot Peaches. She committed to the gay rights movement in an absolutist way by getting arrested over 100 times, and even getting shot in order for their cause to gain more traction in the media.
It is a misconceived perception that Johnson was at the 1969 Stonewall Riots – which is incorrect – but she carried the whole New York gay movement into the 1970s, in the hope of achieving equality. The ACT UP movement of the 1980s was pioneered by Johnson, in the hope of getting attention from President Reagan to act against AIDs and its effects on her community.
Despite all of her triumphs for the community, it is unfortunate and unfair to say that Marsha only gained major media traction due to her mysterious death in 1992. Shortly after New York Pride, her body was found floating in the Hudson River. It was ruled a suicide but many believe this was a cover up from the police as not only was Johnson black, but queer as well. Witness reports state Marsha was harassed by a group of men before her death, but her deteriorating mental health overrode this. Attempts were made to reopen the case, but failed, as documented in the 2016 Netflix documentary ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’.
Black History Month is not just about the obvious. The Martin Luther Kings, the Malcolm Xs, the Rosa Parks. It is an appreciation of all black culture, including black culture that is intertwined with the queer community. Marsha should be alongside those who fought for equality, who fought for a community which nobody accepted at the time. Her life should be taught in curriculums, in more documentaries surrounding her death, young people should be educated on such a committed person to the Civil Rights Movement and on her struggles for the LGBTQ+ community. Marsha was and still is the embodiment of Black History Month.
As Sylvia Rivera said, “say her name, Marsha, Marsha, Marsha P. Johnson!”
A note on not including Marsha’s deadname in this article: A transgender person’s deadname is nobody’s business. Not even a reporter’s. (nbcnews.com)