Comment Writer Rhea Phagura pays tribute to the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, arguing that it essential for us to pave the way for a brighter, safer future for LGBTQIA+ people, and to continue the fight she bravely started.
Content Warning: mentions of rape, violence, and death
“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
A pioneer of the Black and Latinx LGBTQIA+ movement in New York during the 1960s—70s, the African American activist and self-identified drag queen Marsha P. (for “pay it no mind”) Johnson has remained one of the most revolutionary and inspiring figures in queer history. Described as someone who may be perceived as the most marginalised of people – black, gender non-conforming, queer, and poor – Marsha had the rare ability to prompt real change and action, allowing her impact to be permanently ingrained within the LGBTQIA+ community and wider society. From advocating on the behalf of sex workers, transwomen, and gay youths, as well as co-founding the ground-breaking organisation of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) alongside her dear friend and political comrade, Sylvia Riviera, the trailblazing influence of Marsha should never be forgotten.
Born on the 24th of August 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, it was clear that Marsha had experienced a difficult upbringing. Despite being raised in a devoutly religious household, Marsha expressed an interest in exploring her femininity – but stopped temporarily due to the bullying from boys who lived nearby. It was later revealed in a 1992 interview that Marsha’s decision to revert back to a heteronormative way of life and “remain asexual for [the next] 17 years” was not only because of the torment faced by others but because she was raped by another boy at the time. With her identity and agency hindered, Marsha made the decision to leave New Jersey and arrive in New York, due to her yearning for an environment that would allow her to embrace her sexuality and live a gender non-conforming lifestyle. She described being gay as “some sort of dream, something people talked about but never did” – but here, Marsha had finally begun to flourish.
After arriving in New York, Marsha settled in the diverse Greenwich Village in 1966. She had initially alternated between going by her given name, Malcolm, and the persona of Black Marsha, before finally settling upon the name Marsha P. Johnson, taking her surname from the restaurant of Howard Johnson’s on 42nd Street. Though struggling financially – leading her to resort to prostitution and often getting in trouble with the law as a result – Marsha had soon established herself as the life and soul of Greenwich Village. Her flamboyant style and joyful spirit had caught the attention of many, including photographer Andy Warhol and later, her drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches. Nevertheless, though Marsha’s tenacity may have earned her the attention and title of ‘Mayor of Christopher Street’, she remained destitute, poverty-stricken, and homeless for most of her life.
It wasn’t until the age of 23, being one of the first drag queens to go to the infamous Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village — a gay bar that previously did not allow women nor drag queens inside — that Marsha became a central figure in the uprising that soon followed. She was described as one of the “three individuals known to have been in the vanguard” who fought against police brutality, according to David Carter, the author of “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution”. Marsha’s radical display of resistance against the police during the Stonewall Riots helped galvanise and secure the widespread recognition of the LGBTQIA+ movement. It led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969, the first Gay Pride rally in 1970, and the founding of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which helped to provide a safe space for young transgender people.
Tragically, by 1992, in a sudden and suspicious matter of circumstance, the body of Marsha was found floating in the Hudson River. Initially ruled a suicide, transgender activists Mariah Lopez and Victoria Cruz fought and succeeded in reopening Marsha’s case as a possible homicide. However, no one has been investigated for the alleged murder. Importantly, Marsha’s case is still relevant today – as the lack of justice or public outrage surrounding her death is reminiscent of the increasing acts of violence committed against transgender and gender non-conforming people around the globe. For example, in 2021, at least 35 trans people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means so far — the majority of which are Black and Latinx transwomen. Time and time again, these crimes are rarely prosecuted or even reported, as victims or their families face the fear of retaliation or discrimination. This is the harsh reality we must acknowledge – the dangers of being openly transgender and gender non-conforming.
It is also exactly why the legacy and impact of Marsha should never be forgotten. As declared in an interview, Marsha stated that her goal was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” believing in “picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary”. Though Marsha is not here with us – her impact helped pave the way for a better and safer future for the LGBTQIA+ community. If only we all followed the perseverance, courage, and passion of Marsha P. Johnson, we can finish the revolution that Marsha had bravely started.
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