Black History Spotlight #4: Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson, trans activist and all-around personality, was vibrant, generous, kind-hearted, hilarious and a wholly singular person. She was also a gay and trans advocate from the 1960s until her death in 1992. With some of the news that has come down this week, today we thought it was appropriate to shine our Black History Spotlight on Marsha P. Johnson, a person who greeted inequity with resilience, resistance, generosity and humor.

A Boy With Dancing Feet

Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels and began wearing dresses at age 5; young Malcolm stopped because of the neighbors’ reactions. Malcolm’s senior yearbook entry read “Willing to help others — a boy with dancing feet.” During the early 1960s, the teen began making the short trip into New York City to see other drag queens. “Malcolm” moved to Greenwich Village, living on the street when necessary, at age 18. By age 22 she had legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha used to say that the “P” stood for “pay it no mind,” her response to people who would ask whether she was male or female (at times, Marsha would choose to identify as Malcolm, and as male and would describe herself both as a “drag queen,” a “transvestite” and as gay; Marsha also frequently used female pronouns and those seem to be the ones that her friends and contemporaries use for her, so that is what we will use here).

Serious Drag

Before long, Marsha became a sensation.  Marsha was frequently given leftover flowers by florists at the end of the day, wearing them in elaborate crowns on her head. Asked if she ever “did drag seriously,” Marsha laughed that she didn’t have money to be serious about it. She used trash and thrift items to create fantastic ensembles. Friends agreed: “she wasn’t a well-dressed, coordinated kind of a drag queen.” By all accounts, Marsha was beloved by most. However, she faced some discrimination within the gay for community for her gender presentation. For instance, there was an attempt to exclude trans women and drag queens from the Gay Liberation Parade. Marsha just marched in front of the parade so that it appeared she was leading the whole thing.

Stonewalled

The Stonewall Riots were an uprising against a discriminatory police raid that took place at the Greenwich Village bar The Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. The event served as the catalyst for the Gay Liberation movement that continued throughout the 20th century and into the present day. It is imperative to note that Marsha P. Johnson, a Black, trans person was a hero of the movement. Marsha announced “I got my civil rights” and thew a shotglass – “the shotglass heard ’round the world.” A rebellion began and a movement was born.

In the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Marsha’s contemporaries emphasized just how important the Stonewall Riots were. “It was a horrible world before that,” and the changes that we have seen “didn’t just happen this way.” The world as we know it might look very different without that act of resistance at the Stonewall Inn.

 

Saint Marsha

One story involves Marsha sleeping in the flower district under the lilies during her early days in New York. An employee explained why they let her: “she’s holy.”

Numerous stories involve Marsha panhandling on the street, then giving the change she received to somebody who needed it more. Within the community, Marsha’s generosity and warmth led to the moniker Saint Marsha.

Marsha’s message of love wasn’t an act of respectability politics. Rather, she reached out and connected to other people’s humanity so that they could no longer deny hers. She was known for “converting people into fans and friends” simply by being friendly and polite.

Marsha  frequented all kind of churches and noted that “we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Rising STAR

Together with Slyvia Rey Rivera, Marsha founded STAR: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. The group reached out to homeless trans youth, the first group to specifically serve the vulnerable homeless trans community, particularly young people who were no longer welcome in their homes. Eventually STAR was able to establish a shelter, and the group also provided food to people living on the streets.

During this time, Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol. This photograph didn’t make Marsha notable; instead, she was already a popular figure in her community. Still, the photo had the effect of making Marsha, in the words of Michael Musto, ” the transgender version of a Campbell’s soup can.”

 

The End

In 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. The death was ruled a suicide and wasn’t investigated. However, Marsha’s friends reported that she had been harassed by a group of people on the day of her death, and they did not believe that she was suicidal. In 2012, Marsha’s case was reopened. Although there are no leads, this is at least an acknowledgement that we cannot be sure what happened to her.