Society is in a perpetual struggle when it comes to equal rights. Recently, the LGBTQIA+ community has been successful in gaining the respect and recognition needed to grant people in the community legal protection of their rights. Even still, an even further marginalized group is BIPOC within the LGBTQIA+ community. The recent influx of activism for racial equality has also inspired a reignition of activism for LGBTQIA+ rights. An important figure who has been brought into the spotlight again as a symbol for these groups is Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in Elizabeth, New Jersey (UCNJ). After serving in the United States Navy for a short period after high school, she moved to New York on a journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, Marsha P. Johnson came to identify as a drag queen. However, during the 1960s, transgender did not exist as we know it today, so retrospectively, Marsha was transgender before it officially had a label. Nonetheless, she travelled around the world and performed drag with the Hot Peaches, a drag theatre company.
The Stonewall Riots
As an outspoken and powerful woman, Marsha played a pivotal role in the monumental Stonewall riots. As cops were routinely harassing members of the LGBTQIA+ community at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, Marsha was one of the primary people to resist arrest and start the uprising against the cops after a cop clubbed a lesbian for saying that her handcuffs were too tight. During this time, it was against the law to be gay, so the Stonewall uprising was an extremely important moment for the gay community to be acknowledged by society. A year after the Stonewall riots, the United States experienced the first pride parades and also the formation of gay rights groups. While the events at Stonewall were undoubtedly a catalyst for the community to speak up for equal rights, they also led to further activism from Marsha.
The Beginnings of Gay Rights
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, another famous gay rights activist, would go on to form the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) (Schlaffer). This group focused on providing basic services and shelter to homeless trans women of color. The inspiration to form this group came after a school dance was canceled due to it being sponsored by a gay organization. Eventually, finding a permanent location to host STAR, Marsha and Sylvia wanted to enrich the lives of the unfortunate youth who were cast out for being transgender or gay. The STAR House would be the first LGBTQIA+ youth shelter in North America and the first organization in the United States to be founded and led by trans women of color.
The STAR organization grew so large that there were locations throughout the United States and even England. While Marsha and Sylvia simply wanted to help youth that were experiencing the same struggles they had in society, they made history. Although STAR disbanded in the 1970s, Rivera revived it in 2001 with the new name of Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (NSWP). Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were able to create something amazing for gay rights. The most shocking part about it is how recently the push for gay rights started as there are still instances of inequality and discrimination due to gender identity sexual orientation.
Spread Her Story
Unfortunately, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River in 1992, and the police ruled it a suicide. As there was and still is a lot of suspicion regarding this case, it was reopened in 2017. Her death doesn’t mean her influence has to die too, and if anything, she is a martyr because of her bravery to resist the cops and protest against society. I think that we would not have progressed so far in the field of LGBTQIA+ equality if not for Marsha P. Johnson and the other courageous members of the community. They decided to stand up against oppression that night at the Stonewall Inn.
“About Marsha P. Johnson.” Marsha P Johnson Memorial Elizabeth Native and Transgender Activist for LGBTQ+ Rights, ucnj.org/mpj/about-marsha-p-johnson/.
Schlaffer, Natasha. Femmes Fatales, 23 Oct. 2016, sites.psu.edu/womeninhistory/2016/10/23/the-unsung-heroines-of-stonewall-marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera/.
“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries Found STAR House.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, July 12, 2017, www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house.