Today, I remember Marsha P. Johnson – a black trans activist, a drag artist, a sex worker, and fearless.
She was one of the pioneers of the Stonewall resistance, along with Sylvia Rivera, and her life was dedicated to LGBTQ+ activism.
While she died in suspicious circumstances at the age of 46, her legacy continues, for her work and fight for social and economic justice, helping homeless gay street people who had been abandoned by their family, and her advocacy for people with AIDS.
The seeds of resistance in Marsha P. Johnson’s life
Johnson was born on 24th August, 1945 in New Jersey. At the age of five, she started wearing dresses but quit, due to harassment from neighbourhood boys. Later in her life she recounted being sexually assaulted by a teen boy.
After facing trouble at home with her family disapproving of her, and not having sex during her puberty stage, she arrived to New York at the age of 17 with $15 and one bag of clothes.
Working as a waitstaff in Greenwich village, she met many gay people and finally felt the confidence to come out.
Marsha coming to terms with her identity
Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson initially used the name “Black Marsha”, but went ahead with “Marsha P. Johnson”, P standing for “pay it no mind” with regard to her gender, and Johnson after the name of a restaurant!
Johnson was not a lavish drag queen, due to her poverty. She used to make her attire from left over flowers and shiny, plastic high heels. She referred to herself as gay, transvestite (cross dresser) and queen (the term transgender was not popularised by then).
Stonewall and activism
1950’s, while a time of some reform, was nevertheless a difficult time to be non-binary and non-hetero, with police crackdowns, harassment of cross dressers, and ban on serving alcohol to gay people.
This was also America, where racism is rampant. Marsha P. Johnson hence faced structural oppression both on the basis of her race and her sexual and gender identity.
Johnson used to frequent the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich village, which allowed drag queens and women, apart from gay men. Home to frequent raids, the bar had a system to indicate when the police was coming. Visibly drag people were arrested, so were women who did not wear ‘proper’ layers of clothing.
According to custom, the bar people were tipped off before the police used to come, but that did not happen on the night of June 28, 1969, when policemen in plain clothes barged in.
But this time, the people did not bulge. They resisted, and that started the Stonewall “riots” (which I call a rebellion). Nothing was pre-decided, it was all spontaneous.
On the second night of the riots, Johnson climbed up a lamp post and dropped a bag of bricks on a police vehicle, shattering the windshield.
The STAR house
Stonewall gave rise to a militant LGBTQ+ movement for rights and acceptance. Marsha P Johnson with Sylvia Rivera started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, an organisation to help young transgencer people, and to provide them with basic amenities of food, clothing and shelter. STAR was an outcome of the Gay Liberation Front, which was for freedom to sexuality and for establishing it along with other social justice movements.
The goal was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America”.
Death of Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson was soon living on the streets in 1966, and engaging in sex work for her survival. She was also facing debilitating mental health issues and fragile state overall, with rising temper, and also depression.
Her body was found floating in Hudson river in July, 1992. The death was ruled as a suicide by the police, however many of her friends claimed otherwise, pointing out the massive wound on her head that was found, and also that while her mental health was in shambles, she had sworn that she would never take such a step,
Several eyewitnesses reported having seen Johnson being confronted by a group of people who have a history of robbing. One of them had also supposedly bragged about killing her, as reported by Randy Wicker.
A film by David Frances, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” focuses on the case of the death of Marsha P. Johnson and it being challenged and subsequently reopened. Victoria Cruz, a transgender activist and a volunteer with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, contributed immensely in investigating the case.
Her persistence and nature of standing up for what is right has given strength to me as a gender non-conforming person.
As has she been quoted saying,
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”https://karasadvocacy.com/quote
(Picture: More Color More Pride – Netflix)