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Women Worth Knowing: Marsha P. Johnson

image source: mic.com

Who?

Marsha P. Johnson, that’s who. To those who asked her what the P. stood for, she would reply; “Pay it no mind”.

Marsha P. Johnson was a black, queer, transgender, poor sex worker, drag queen and activist. She had so much going against her, so many people would have liked to have broken her spirit, but it seems that they never did, as Marsha was a prominent activist until the day she died. And she’s getting her own statue in New York, the first permanent, public artwork recognising a transgender woman in the world.

Activism, part one: stonewall

Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, New York was a haven for those of the LGBTQ+ community. It was all hush-hush as though it was finally no longer illegal to be homosexual, it was still considered to be ‘disorderly conduct’ if a person was to socialise publicly with other gay people, flirt with them, dance with them; the list goes on.

There were many bars like Stonewall Inn, all similarly harassed by police with regular raids. However, on June 28th 1969, the police bust into Stonewall and quickly began to line up customers against the wall asking for their identification. If the ID didn’t match the gender that said person was presenting through their appearance, that person would be arrested. If they had no ID, they were taken elsewhere to be ‘inspected’ by officers.

Marsha happened to be there that night, celebrating her birthday with friends, including her fellow activist and bestie Sylvia Rivera.

It’s said that Marsha through the first punch so-to-speak (well, she apparently threw a shot glass against a mirror), and that is how the uprising began. Sympathisers and those who had escaped the humiliation and grasp of the police brutality began to crowd outside the entrance of the inn, and by the end of the night, the police barricaded themselves inside Stonewall for their own safety.

The protests continued for five days after Stonewall was ambushed. This historical event was celebrated the next year with the first ever Gay Pride parade in 1970. This momentous event is very much part of Marsha’s legacy.

Activism, part two: “star” and other advocacy

Marsha and her bestie Sylvia then went on to found “STAR” (Street Transvestite* Action Revolutionaries). STAR was founded with the purpose of addressing the issue of homeless trans youth in New York City.

Marsha and Sylvia managed to put some money together in order to create a safe haven for young trans and queer homeless people (who were often sex workers).

STAR really was revolutionary. Sylvie and Marsha had created not only the first LGBT youth shelter in North America, but also; the first trans woman of colour led organisation in the USA and the first trans sex worker labour organisation ever recorded. And that was just their advocacy work through STAR.

Marsha was also an AIDS activist, living with the disease herself. She attended Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) meetings and protests.

*= the name was changed to Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries later on

I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.

Personal life

Marsha P. Johnson lived on the streets for the majority of her life, and has commonly been described as a person of warmth and charisma. Unfortunately she also battled with mental illness and anger issues, which often led to her being institutionalised in psychiatric wards during the 1970’s and throughout the rest of her life.

Marsha had begun dressing as a girl in early childhood, which was severely frowned upon by her parents – but when she moved to New York she could finally be the person that she really was. Her “look” was usually red heels, costume jewellery, eye-catching hats and brightly coloured wigs. Oh, and that huge, wonderful smile.

Heartbreakingly, Marsha’s life came to an end in questionable circumstances. After being missing for 6 days in 1992 (aged 46), her body was found in the Hudson River. Initially it was ruled as a suicide, however her friends were adamant that this was not the case. Her death was later ruled as a drowning by undetermined causes.

key iconic moments

  1. Modelled for Andy Warhol.
  2. Quoted to have said; “I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”
  3. Invited to ride in the lead car of New York’s annual Gay Pride Parade in 1980.
  4. Toured America and Europe as a member of a drag group, ‘Hot Peaches’.
  5. Also co-founded the Gay Liberation Front.

Why she is worth knowing

Despite having so much stacked against her, Marsha was a leader and pioneer, constantly carving out space for the LGBT+ community. It is practically inconceivable to imagine the hardships that she went through during her life (as a privileged white woman in 2019), and yet, there she was, doing so much to help others.

Marsha lived her life the best she could, whilst wearing a hat adorned with plastic fruit and flowers. She was unapologetically herself, and though she battled many internal demons, she still managed to create safe spaces for members of her community.


References
Pratt Institute Libraries
Global Network of Sex Work Projects
New York Times
New York Times – Obituaries
Biography
Femme Fatales

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