“I’ve had so much trouble; it’s a miracle I’m still here!”
– Marsha P. Johnson
We move now from the first noted queer woman in ancient Greece to one of the most notable queer women in recent American history. Marsha P. Johnson was a person who- to discuss her - we must briefly address the history of queerness in the United States and how that history has been translated into the modern day. This translation continues our theme of the elimination of queerness over time, but in this case, it is not only erasure by outside sources, but erasure from the queer community itself.
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender black woman who worked as a sex worker and drag queen for most of her adult life, and these parts of her identities meant she was grouped with some of most vulnerable in our modern society. In addition to this, she was also an activist in numerous organizations including Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which worked to get homeless transgender people off the streets, helping other people even though she was often in that position herself. One of the accomplishments she was most proud of was the opening of the STAR home, a shelter she founded along with Sylvia Rivera (another transgender woman of color who will get her own article here at some point). She was known as the “mother” of the STAR home, and with not much to give she was still very generous. A friend recalled a time when they were walking, and Marsha stopped at a store buying a box of cookies with her last couple of dollars and gave them out to the other women who worked on the street.
Being a regular in Christopher Street in New York City, (a street known for having large queer population) she was well known for this generosity. Though generosity and helping homeless transgender people off of the streets were the things she was most proud of, Marsha P. Johnson was most well known for her part in the Stonewall Riots.
The Stonewall Riots are a complex historical moment which deserves its separate article, but for the sake of any readers who do not know what happened, we will do a quick rundown.
On June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn without warning. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar, and had regular raids; neither the patrons nor staff were unused to this. But that night, as the police attempted to arrest people from the bar, something shifted. The people in the bar fought back. Leading this fight- and reportedly throwing the first shot glass- was Marsha P. Johnson. It was one of the most publicized protests in American queer history, and it was a turning point in the fight for queer rights. It moved the fight from behind closed doors and in hushed voices, to out on the streets with megaphones.
So, when Rolland Emmerich put that historic night on the big screen, one would think he would have more than enough material in real life not to need to make things up. Evidently, he did not think so. Instead of delving into the rich histories of the people who existed, he took the path most traveled by Hollywood and whitewashed the story as thoroughly as possible. Emmerich created the cisgender, white, gay, male character named Danny Winters, and made the film deal with his struggles, and show him throwing the first brick. A monumental moment was stolen from the person who sparked a revolution. While it may have been acceptable to have fictionalized characters in place of the real people, what was not acceptable was the blatant whitewashing and the way the film made the queer movement seem like it was led by white cisgender gay men.
Despite all of her accomplishments, the Stonewall film was not the first time Marsha P. Johnson was pushed out of the way in favor of letting white, cisgender, men take the stage of the queer movement. When Marsha P. Johnson was alive, there were several gay men attempting to push drag queens and transgender people out of sight. They tried to keep them as far away from the camera as possible; for their ego, because of their prejudices, or to move easier for straight, cisgender people to digest, we don't know for certain what all of their motivations were but most likely a mix of all of these reasons. They believed people like Johnson would “give the movement a bad name,” attempting to ban “transvestites” from pride parades in 1978.
In response to this attempt, Marsha P. Johnson walked next to Sylvia Rivera, holding a banner and walking in front of the pride march, leading the whole parade. While it is easy to pretend that this attitude is in the past, it is made clear by the Rolland film that that is not the case. And this time, Marsha is not alive to defend herself.
Being out and public about your queer identity is revolutionary even now, but for Marsha P. Johnson, living in the time in which she did, being as out as she was, was an incredibly brave act. She walked down the street in full drag and was known for being open about her identity as a queer person, and this didn’t go without notice, though not all the attention she earned was negative. Andy Warhol, a famous photographer, put her in an art series called “ladies and gentlemen” about transgender people. However, she could not see the exhibit, as the place holding the show wouldn’t let someone who looked like her in. It was only made clearer then she was important to push the movement forward, but respectability politics still wanted her firmly away from the public sphere.
It couldn't be more obvious that there is no other reason for the queer communities attempt to erase her, except a mix of racism, classism, transphobia, and sexism. She would have been an incredible figurehead for the movement; she inspired the people around her. So much so, that a group of her friends made a documentary about her life called “Pay it No Mind.” It was named after her response when people asked about her gender and shows how quick she thought on her feet and how easily she could have given the press sound bites. She was clever, inspiring, vibrant, and could have easily been the perfect person to be the face of the queer movement in America. And yet, she is replaced by cisgender, white, gay men, who have no way of fully understanding the intersectionality of disadvantage that most queer people suffered.
Marsha P. Johnson understood disadvantage; she understood privilege and was rejected from the spotlight because she didn't possess it herself. The closest she got was the documentary mentioned earlier. Unfortunately in 1992, before the film was finished, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River.
The police ruled it a suicide as quickly as they could, though her friends said she wasn’t suicidal and reported she had been harassed earlier in the place where her body was found after a pride parade. After decades of lobbying by activists, the case was reopened as a homicide in 2012., It has not been solved, and it is unlikely it ever will be, because of the unwillingness by police to investigate when there was still evidence left to be discovered.
As a transgender woman of colour, who took part in and incited riots, who was also was a sex worker, Marsha P. Johnson is everything that the queer movement has tried to pretend doesn’t exist. She is everything we should be proud of.
She was vocal, talented, generous, and stood up for the queer community time and time again. The reason she has not been forgotten has not been because of the queer community, but because of the people, she knew. Because, though she was pushed aside by some, she was loved by so many others. Her friends have worked to make sure what she has done for the queer community will not be forgotten. Though parts of the community may try to brush her aside, we want to do our best and aid in pushing her into the place in the history books she deserved. She is our history, and she embodied the ideals of pride in its purest form.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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Kasino, Michael. (2012, October 15.) Pay It No Mind - The Life And Times Of Marsha P. Johnson.
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King, J. (2015, June 25.) Meet the Trans Women of Color Who Helped Put Stonewall on the Map.
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Reynolds, D. (2016, June 22.) Roland Emmerich: ‘Stonewall Was a White Event’.
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