Updated: Jun 29, 2020
“We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning…”- Billy Joel
Marsha P. Johnson
“Pay It No Mind!”
We have been shut inside our homes, our own worlds for the better part of the last three months as COVID-19 raced and ravaged the world. We are finally starting to emerge from that delirious and stressful slumber to find the world has been set ablaze. We watched from the safety of our homes or from the insanity of our jobs as the self-empowered privileged protested at state capitals across the country. We watched as these irate people screamed in the face of law enforcement, as they brandished weapons, hailed our president and called our elected officials Nazis or Hitler (all while some were waving Nazi flags and wearing swastikas, so clearly these are not the most educated people). These people were demanding their constitutional rights be upheld, these people demanded they be allowed to put other people in danger for their shitty haircuts. There was nothing done to stop these people. The police did not police them, they did not pepper spray them, they did not even ask them to put a mask on (my body, my choice – right?).
We watched all of this happen and we wondered, how could this get any worse? How could 2020 become even crazier, we were already living through history, what else could happen? We then watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery being chased down and murdered, and this video was not released until two months had passed, arrests were only made after public outcry! How could this still be happening?! We were then made witness to the murder of George Floyd, we watched as he pleaded with officers, we watched – oh so helplessly – as the officer kneeled on his neck, ever so nonchalantly, for 9 minutes. I can’t breathe. The world is angry and in shock, we’re all suffering in this pandemic together and yet we are so divided. Voices need to be heard, and the must be heard. The nation and world have erupted in its anger, the people have been quietly protesting, they have been blatantly ignored. As peaceful protests happen, riots happen. People will point the finger at the riots to pretend they can’t see the protest. Burn your football jerseys and Nikes when it suites you but lords forbid anyone else try to do the same. Voices must be heard, and they will be heard. In nature forests have to be burned to make room for new vegetation, the same can be said for culture. Perhaps we need to burn our system to the ground in order to build a new, to let new ideals grow.
We are at a crossroads within our cultural Mobius loop. We have been here before; several times and I fear we will be here again. June is pride month. It is a time to celebrate people who have lived in fear, it is a time to celebrate how far we have come in accepting human beings for who they are. It has been a long and dangerous road and unfortunately that road still is not smoothly paved but we have gotten this for because of the existence of others and their fight to exist.
As we celebrate Pride and fight for the injustices that are inherent to the system in place we need to remember Marsha P. Johnson.
A lot of our existence is owed to this woman and the people she supported and those who supported her. We would not have what we have today if it were not for the riots, the rage and the voices that were unafraid to speak out against oppression.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She knew from a young age she was different, being born in a male body but feeling comfortable in female clothing. She began wearing dresses around the age of 5 but quit doing so due to harassment from neighborhood boys. She suffered through sexual assault at a young age and from that moment hid her sexuality from the world. She described being gay as “some sort of dream” rather than a reality. She had no support from her parents. She left for NYC 1963 and after meeting gay people in the city she realized she could finally be who she really was. Johnson started performing as a drag queen using the name Marsha P (pay it no mind) Johnson. She identified herself as gay, transvestite and a queen, and a Queen she was.
Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn (a gay bar that typically only allowed gay men) once they opened their doors to women and drag queens. The Stonewall Uprising occurred on June 28, 1969 and Johnson was named as one of three individuals who were leading the pushback against the police. There is contention around if she was directly involved with the riots, but the momentum was there. The Gay Rights Movement had begun. Following the Stonewall uprising Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970. In August Johnson made her most notable action when she organized a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall (NOT that Weinstein) at New York University along with other GLF members after the administrators of the building canceled a dance when they learned it was sponsored by gay organizations. Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded the
Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) shortly after the NYU protest. This is when Johnson became visible on the forefront of gay liberation marches and radical political rallies. In the face of adversity, one would assume a common ground for common rights would be utilized but Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the 1973 pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee that were hosting the event, they stated “they weren’t gonna allow drag queens” under the pretense that they were giving them a bad name.
Marsha P. Johnson could not be silenced or shamed. Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the parade in defiance.
“Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Johnson and Rivera established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans street kids in 1972 and payed the rent on the building with money they made as sex-workers. Johnson provided food, clothing, emotional support, as a sense of family for children who had been dismissed by their parents for being something outside of their “normal.”
"How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we're all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we're all in this rat race together."
Johnson suffered through mental illness while also trying to survive being a black, gender non-conforming person in a world that refused to recognize her. She suffered through violent bouts of depression and a personality disorder. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River after the 1992 Pride parade. Her death was initially ruled a suicide by the police, but her friends and family would not accept this. They insisted that she was not suicidal, and the massive head wound on her body indicated foul play. Several people came forward with testimony that disputed the suicide, either death by accident due to hallucination, avoiding harassment or otherwise. One witness claims to have witnessed a fight between Johnson and someone in the neighborhood who would later brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. Nothing ever came of these witness accounts, it is likely the police wanted nothing to do with the death of a gay black man.
Johnsons case was reopened in 2012 and her cause of death was changed from suicide to undetermined.
Now, more than ever we need to remember those who fought tooth and nail for what we have today. We need to keep their spirits alive and refuse to back down. This is about basic human civility. Change will not happen if we sit idly by. Remember Marsha.
Written by: Alicia Whitcome