HERSTORY: Marsha P. Johnson

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CW: This article mentions acts of violence against transgender individuals.

Marsha P. Johnson was a black LGBTQIA+ activist in America in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, Marsha identified as a drag queen, but as this was before the birth of the term ‘transgender’, she is now widely accepted as having been a trans woman. She’s most famous for her integral role in the Stonewall riots in 1969.

Johnson was born in a small town in New Jersey in 1945, but moved to New York straight after graduating high school with $15 in her pocket and no prospects. Like many other trans figures at the time, she was forced to turn to sex work and was frequently homeless, but was always unashamed of her identity. Despite the lack of the transgender label, Marsha consistently referred to herself using female pronouns, consistently calling herself a ‘queen’. In fact, she admitted that ‘[she]was no one, nobody from Nowheresville, until [she]became a drag queen’.

Besides her vibrant appearance – often wearing costume jewellery, colourful wigs, and even plastic fruit in her hair – Marsha was a well-known figure in the community, with long-time friend Randy Wicker saying that ‘friends and many people who knew Marsha called her ‘Saint Marsha’, because she was so generous’. She was loved by many, but inevitably hated by even more, purely because of her then ‘unconventional’ identity.

In June 1969, when Marsha was just 23, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York. A famously gay bar, police proceeded to force 200 people out of the Stonewall Inn onto the streets before using excessive violence against them. Johnson was among the brave LGBTQIA+ people who resisted the police’s discrimination. In the days following the raid, which was lawful in New York at the time as homosexuality was not fully decriminalised there until 1980, Marsha, along with her friend and fellow drag queen Sylvia Rivera, led a series of protests demanding improved gay rights.

In the wake of the protests, Johnson and Rivera went on to found the activist group ‘Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)’ to support gender non-conforming people, and opened a shelter for homeless LGBTQIA+ youth. Marsha also actively advocated for the rights of AIDS patients, being diagnosed with HIV herself in 1990.

Throughout her life as an activist, Marsha maintained that her main ambition was ‘to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America’ – the basic right of liberation for her brothers and sisters was her goal.

She met some opposition from other activists who said her elaborate drag costumes would make it harder to gain support for the gay rights movement as it made LGBTQIA+ people appear ‘freakish’, but Johnson remained unashamed, saying at Pride in 1973 that,

‘if it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners’.

In 1992, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River aged 46, with her death being ruled a suicide despite her friends’ suspicions that this was not the case due to the prevalence of attacks on transgender individuals at the time. Her case was finally reopened to investigate the possibility of murder in 2012, and her cause-of-death was changed from ‘suicide’ to ‘unexplained drowning’.

In recent years, Marsha has begun to receive the recognition she deserves for her vital activism in the emergent years of gay rights protests, as a park in Brooklyn has been named in her honour. A statue of her and Rivera during the Stonewall riots is to be unveiled in the city in 2021, which will be the first monument depicting trans women in the world.

Johnson was the embodiment of living for yourself, rather than focusing on societal expectations or limitations. The ‘P’ in her name stood for ‘Pay-it-no-mind’, a message which is still very much relevant today – let others live however they want as long as they are causing no harm, and if you happen to disagree with their lifestyle, then just forget about it. Life’s too short to get heated up about other people’s.

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