MAR­SHA P. JOHN­SON.

With 24 Au­gust mark­ing her 73rd birth­day, we look back on the ev­er­last­ing legacy of the queer rights trail­blazer.

Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS: - Im­age Net­flix, The Death and Life of Mar­sha P. John­son Words Se­bas­tian Buckle

We look back at the life and legacy of the mother of LGBTQ lib­er­a­tion, and delve fur­ther into her life be­yond the Stonewall Ri­ots to dis­cover what made her the face of the move­ment.

Mar­sha P. John­son was an Amer­i­can ac­tivist, drag queen, and sex worker. A key fig­ure in the post-Stonewall gay lib­er­a­tion move­ment, she was a rad­i­cal and ever-present fix­ture on the streets of Green­wich Vil­lage, New York un­til her death in 1992 which the po­lice ruled as sui­cide – but her friends and com­mu­nity still in­sist it was mur­der. Mar­sha’s life and death tell the story of the con­tin­u­ing vi­o­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by the trans com­mu­nity in the US and UK to­day – per­pe­trated by gay and straight alike – but also of the in­te­gral role gen­der non-con­form­ing peo­ple have played in the stru‡le for LGBTQ rights. Her name has be­come syn­ony­mous with the Stonewall Ri­ots in 1969 and the mythol­ogy that evolved around those events, in­clud­ing that she re­sisted ar­rest and threw a shot glass at a mir­ror in the Stonewall Inn while scream­ing “I got my civil rights”, and thus started the ri­ots. Mar­sha her­self later said that she ar­rived after the build­ing was al­ready on fire, but in the six days that fol­lowed be­came a key part of the stru‡le, and later joined the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front which emerged from those events.

While the Stonewall Ri­ots were part of a longer his­tory of the gay rights stru‡le in Amer­ica, that mo­ment rep­re­sented a turn­ing point in the will­ing­ness of LGBTQ peo­ple to stand up and fight for their rights, start­ing a move­ment which spread across the world. Trans ac­tivists (es­pe­cially those of colour) were at the cen­tre of that stru‡le and fought for ev­ery­one un­der the LGBTQ um­brella. Wear­ing their dif­fer­ence so vis­i­bly, they were of­ten the most per­se­cuted, and had for a time even been ex­cluded from the Stonewall Inn, but still fought to­gether as al­lies against po­lice per­se­cu­tion.

Born the fifth of seven chil­dren in a work­ing class fam­ily in New Jersey, Mar­sha first started wear­ing dresses at five, but said she stopped be­cause of the pres­sure and a‡res­sion of other chil­dren, later re­veal­ing that she had been sex­u­ally as­saulted by an­other boy while grow­ing up. After grad­u­at­ing high school in 1963, she moved to New York with just $15 and a bag of clothes to her name.

Black, queer, poor, gen­der non-con­form­ing, and an out­sider to many com­mu­ni­ties, she grad­u­ally evolved the per­sona of Mar­sha P. John­son dur­ing her time liv­ing in Green­wich as an of­ten home­less, but op­ti­mistic, sex worker. Be­gin­ning ini­tially as Black Mar­sha, she added the John­son from the Howard John­son restau­rant where she fre­quented, while the mid­dle P she said, stood for “pay it no mind”, in ref­er­ence to the fre­quent ques­tions about her gen­der.

De­spite the chal­lenges she faced, she be­came known as an in­cred­i­bly friendly and gen­er­ous mem­ber of the com­mu­nity, of­ten will­ing to hand over her last dol­lar to those she thought were in more need than her­self.

Of­ten seen with trade­mark flow­ers in her hair, which she found un­der­neath the ta­bles of the flower mar­ket where she some­times slept, Mar­sha was an iconic and well-loved fix­ture of the fash­ion­able and avant­garde Green­wich scene. Her drag aes­thetic was born of ne­ces­sity –

she couldn’t af­ford ex­pen­sive clothes or makeup and in­stead cre­ated her looks from dis­carded and found ob­jects in­clud­ing red plas­tic high heels, cos­tume jew­ellery, bright wigs, thrift store dresses, and plas­tic flow­ers. Some con­sid­ered this an art form in its own right, which played into her style of per­for­mance on stage with the drag troupe Hot Peaches, and was given the nod of ap­proval from artist Andy Warhol – a Green­wich Vil­lage res­i­dent – when he be­gan tak­ing por­traits of her be­cause she was a per­son worth look­ing at.

She was some­one who, in be­ing true to her­self, had no choice but to

live and dress al­most per­ma­nently as Mar­sha. But this wasn’t easy. The of­ten tran­sient com­mu­nity in Green­wich was a col­lec­tion of throw­aways and run­aways – young, vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple who of­ten found them­selves the vic­tims of sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse and po­lice bru­tal­ity. This was es­pe­cially the case for what we would now call gen­der non-con­form­ing in­di­vid­u­als, but Mar­sha termed trans­ves­tites. She was at the very cen­tre of the in­ter­sec­tion of class, race, gen­der, and sex­u­al­ity, and thus un­der­stood the stru‡les faced by peo­ple like her. She suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant men­tal health prob­lems through­out her life – some­times ap­pear­ing as her male per­sona Mal­colm, be­com­ing vi­o­lent and get­ting into fights. She spent pe­ri­ods of time in­sti­tu­tion­alised, but still con­tin­ued to fight for the trans com­mu­nity.

After Stonewall, she set up STAR – Street Transvestite Ac­tion Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies – with her close friend and fel­low drag queen Sylvia Rivera. Ini­tially op­er­at­ing out of a trailer in a car park, the or­gan­i­sa­tion sought to pro­tect young trans peo­ple who found them­selves in Green­wich after be­ing thrown out by their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Many in­evitably ended up in­volved in drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion, and of­ten died vi­o­lent deaths. Recog­nis­ing that lit­tle was be­ing done for these peo­ple by the wider les­bian and gay com­mu­nity, Sylvia and Mar­sha worked to give them a home and pro­tect them from that same path. Walk­ing the streets as sex work­ers to pay for STAR, they briefly man­aged to op­er­ate an apart­ment for vul­ner­a­ble trans peo­ple be­fore it was ac­quired by the city and later de­mol­ished.

Mar­sha and Sylvia con­tin­ued to fight for trans rights. At times, this was in op­po­si­tion to the wider gay com­mu­nity who in be­com­ing in­creas­ingly main­stream, wanted to avoid as­so­ci­a­tions with drag queens and trans in­di­vid­u­als. Mar­sha nev­er­the­less kept fight­ing, and was even­tu­ally in­vited to ride in the lead car of New York’s an­nual Gay Pride Pa­rade in 1980, as the com­mu­nity came to re­alise the piv­otal role she had played and con­tin­ued to play in the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. She was later in­volved in AIDS ac­tivism, work­ing with ACT UP and nurs­ing friends with the disease. In an in­ter­view in 1992, just weeks be­fore her death, she re­vealed she had been HIV pos­i­tive for two years, com­ment­ing: “They call me a leg­end in my own time, be­cause there were so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens still left from the ’70s and the ’80s, but I’m not the only one”.

In 1992, soon after the Pride pa­rade, Mar­sha’s body was found in the Hud­son River. Po­lice ruled her death as sui­cide, but based on her ex­pe­ri­ences of ha­rass­ment and in­tim­i­da­tion by groups of men while she was street walk­ing, many be­lieved that she may have been a vic­tim of a hate crime. Protests took place, but it wasn’t un­til after Novem­ber 2012, fol­low­ing a cam­paign by ac­tivist Mariah Lopez, that the po­lice re­opened the case, although there have been no sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ments. Mar­sha’s funeral was at­tended by hun­dreds of peo­ple from the com­mu­nity, who marched down the street to the Hud­son River where her ashes were thrown into the wa­ter. Over two decades later, trans peo­ple are still vic­tims of hor­rific hate crimes, with new gen­er­a­tions of big­ots still try­ing to deny them their rights.

Mar­sha is a re­minder that there is noth­ing in­evitable about change – his­tory hap­pens be­cause peo­ple step up. She was a lead­ing light of the gay rights move­ment fight­ing for marginalised gay, gen­derqueer, black, and femme in­di­vid­u­als in an em­bod­i­ment of the phrase “no one is free un­til we are all free.”

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