Content warning for suicide and murder
“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 perhaps the most notable queer woman in modern United States history. To discuss her life, we must briefly address the history of queerness in the United States and how that history has translated into the modern day. Queer erasure continues to be an issue, but in this case, the erasure comes not from outside sources but from the queer community itself.
Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman, a sex worker, and a drag queen, and that means she and the circles she ran in were particularly vulnerable. Along with Sylvia Rivera, she founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which worked to provide housing and aid to gay, trans, and gender nonconforming people, particularly sex workers. One of the accomplishments she was most proud of was the opening of the STAR home, a shelter for homeless queer youth. She was known as the “mother” of the STAR home, and with not much to give she was still very generous. A friend recalled Johnson stopping at a store and, with her last couple of dollars, buying a box of cookies to give out to women who worked the same streets as her.
Being a regular in Christopher Street in New York City, known for its large queer population, she was well known for her generosity. Though her kindness and her work with STAR were some of the things she was most proud of, Marsha P. Johnson is best known for her part in the Stonewall Riots.
The Stonewall Riots were a series of complex historical moments deserving of an exclusive article, but for the sake of those unfamiliar, we've summarized the events here.
On June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn without warning. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar and thus faced 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. One of the patrons, and some believe the first to throw a 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; from closed doors and hushed voices to out on the streets with megaphones.
When producer Rolland Emmerich put that historic night on the big screen, one would think he’d have enough true to life material from which to work. Evidently he did not think so.
Instead of delving into the rich histories of the primarily black and latinx queer people who led the riots, he took the path most travelled by Hollywood and whitewashed the story as thoroughly as possible. Emmerich created a cisgender, white, gay, male character named Danny Winters, a man who did not exist but in this film led the riots. He even showed Danny throwing the first brick.
There is truth in that we may never know who exactly threw the first stone. Some believe it was Marsha P. Johnson with a shot glass; others say it was Stormé DeLarverie with a brick. Regardless, 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 is not acceptable is the blatant racism, transphobia, and classism exhibited in Emmerich’s Stonewall.
Despite all of her accomplishments, Stonewall was not the first time Marsha P. Johnson was pushed out of the way in favour of white, cisgender, men. When she was alive, many gay men attempted to push drag queens and trans people out of sight. They tried to keep them as far away from the camera as possible; for their ego, for respectability, for prejudice. Likely a combination of all three led to their actions. They believed people like Johnson would “give the movement a bad name,” attempting to ban transvestites and transsexuals from pride parades in 1978.
In response, 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’s easy for white queer people to pretend this attitude is a thing of the past, Emmerich’s film shows what BIPOC already know to be true: racism is still alive and well in the queer community. 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, being as open as she was during her lifetime, 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 though this didn’t go without notice, 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 gallery hosting the show wouldn’t admit someone who looked like her. Her work was necessary to push the movement forward, but respectability politics still wanted her firmly away from the public sphere.
The queer community continues to erase her for reasons that can only be anti-blackness, classism, whorephobia, transphobia, and sexism. She would have been an incredible figurehead for the movement; she inspired the people around her. A group of her friends made a documentary about her life called “Pay it No Mind,” her response when someone asked about her gender. 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 with little understanding of the experiences of most disadvantaged queer people.
Marsha P. Johnson understood privilege and was rejected from the spotlight because she didn't possess it herself. The documentary about her life was the closest she got, and she was never able to see the finished product. In 1992, before the film was completed, her body was found in the Hudson River.
Though the police lazily ruled it a suicide, her friends reported that she was not suicidal and had, in fact, been harassed earlier in the same place her body was found. After decades of lobbying by activists, the cold case was reopened as a homicide in 2012. It has not and likely will not be solved; police were unwilling to investigate while there was still evidence to be found.
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 as a whole, but because of the people who knew her. It is because of their work and the work of so many black trans activists that we know her name and her story. Though she was pushed aside by some, she was loved by so many others. Her friends have worked to make sure what she did for the queer community will not be forgotten. Though many have tried to brush her aside or erase her identity, 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.
As a transgender woman of colour who led riots and worked to care for people like her, Marsha P. Johnson is everything that the queer movement has tried to pretend doesn’t exist. She is everything we should be proud of.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Born, T. (2015). Marsha “Pay it no Mind” Johnson. Retrieved from http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/tgi-bios/marsha-p-johnson
Feinberg, L. (2006, September 24). Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Workers World. Retrieved from https://www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/
Kasino, M. [Michael Kasino]. (2012, October 15). Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjN9W2KstqE
King, J. (2015, June 25). Meet the Trans Women of Color Who Helped Put Stonewall on the Map. Mic. Retrieved from https://mic.com/articles/121256/meet-marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera-transgender-stonewall-veterans
Reynolds, D. (2016, Juen 22). Roland Emmerich: ‘Stonewall Was a White Event’. Advocate. Retrieved from http://www.advocate.com/film/2016/6/22/roland-emmerich-stonewall-was-white-event
Rivera, S. "Sylvia Rivera's Talk at LGMNY, June 2001 Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City." Centro Journal 19.1 (2007): 117-23