Marsha P. Johnson never knew privilege.
She was destitute for much of her life, beaten up as a child, humiliated for — what? — just being herself, and marginalized at society’s every corner. But because of her, a black and transgender woman, the LGBTQ community feels freer.
“As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America,” she’s been quoted saying. “There’s no reason for celebration.”
It was June 28, 1969, when, as historical evidence suggests, she started an uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village that the police raided.
Same-sex, bisexual, transgender, or other gender-nonconforming solicitations, back then, were illegal and considered sodomy across the country in the 60s, except in Illinois (which eliminated its sodomy law code in 1962).
Seeing gays dancing with or kissing one another in bars and transgender people wearing “gender-inappropriate” clothing was enough to warrant an arrest.
Some bars, however, were safe-havens — well, not really, to a small degree. Just like in many other cases, a Mafia family, for instance, owned Stonewall and took advantage of its patrons who longed for an escape from discrimination.
Because the place was founded as a “private” bar, it didn’t require workers to have liquor licenses and even if it did, the Sixth Police Precinct nearby turned their eyes away in exchange for money.
On the one hand, Stonewall was the better of the bars; it allowed dancing and drag queens and welcomed all kinds of homeless and ostracized youth.
On the other hand, it was untidy and ill-equipped for any kind of emergency. Some wealthier patrons were often extorted. Others were blackmailed. And bribery did not stop the police from raiding it that morning in late June.
Whether or not Marsha threw the first brick or shot glass, back then, is irrelevant to the bigger picture because she kept on proving, not just in the heat of the moment, her devotion to LGBTQ liberation at every turn. Her activism spoke volumes for those whose voices needed amplification.
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable,” she once explained. “It happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
And yet, the media didn’t give Marsha P. Johnson the attention she so deserved.
Only now, posthumously, numerous books have been written about her, like “Stonewall” by LQBT historian David Carter, and documentaries, like David France’s “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”
All of these works try to bridge pieces of her life together about which information remains incomplete; when that task gets too tedious to tackle, the works feel just wholly celebratory of her. As they should be.
Their main objective perhaps is not to pretend to know too much about her story’s beginning, middle, and end, but to point to the fact — yes, the
Being black and transgender, she understood that at an instant whilst fighting on the frontlines, any breath could have been her last. And any step forward, a risk.
Though, having been as adamant about social and economic justice as she was, she had — according to many of her friends’ recountings — a charismatic aura to her, a “joie de vivre,” as Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, once described to the New York Times.
The “joie de vivre” was most visibly reflected through her ornate, decorous style — her bold walks through the streets of New York City in red garments, floral headdresses and at times, plastic high heels, stockings, slippers, and big, dazzling wigs.
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Andy Warhol himself recognized Marsha for her outstanding fashion. In his 1975 screen-print project, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he took polaroids of her, amongst other drag queens, at the Gilded Grape nightclub.
She used to say: “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen.”
A year after Stonewall, Marsha, and her friend Sylvia Rivera, who was an activist and also transgender, founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) program to protect and house homeless youth in a tenement in the Village.
Both of them soon joined the Gay Liberation Front. In 1970, too, the first pride parade promised to commemorate, and to continue to do so, a time when those at the bar, their friends, and even passersby who had grown rightly aggravated by constant police scrutiny and violence, rose up to the occasion and protested thereafter for about five consecutive days.
When the AIDS epidemic struck in the ‘80s, Marsha persisted and stood on the frontlines again. She cared for her ill friends and attended AIDS Advocacy organizations’, namely ACT UP’s, charity meetings, all while fighting her own battles with mental health and an apparent two-year positive HIV diagnosis.
She, however, didn’t relinquish. Even if in her own community, she felt like an outcast, too.
When the pride parades gained traction in the early ’70s, some white, gay men and women, as well as cisgender people, often blocked Marsha and Sylvia from participating.
An archival footage on a site as accessible as YouTube shows how Sylvia is booed off the stage as she tries to tell the jeering crowd:
“If it wasn’t for drag queens, there wouldn’t be the gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”
And they were the front-liners, and they still are. But violence and discrimination against transgenders are prevalent to this day.
Take, for instance, the recent victims of murder: Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Layla Peláez, Serena Angelique Velázquez, and countless others. They also deserve justice; if Marsha were here, she would fight for them without end.
And perchance here, now, we should reflect.
How do we draw an analogy between Marsha and ourselves as we reckon with today’s world?
Close your eyes, if you may, fix your posture, sit upright in, say, a lotus position, and release the tension, inhale, exhale, and — go on — breathe. Yes, even if your breath can’t be caught.
Does your mind wander? Refocus it. Do your thoughts pressure your muscles to twitch? Stretch a bit. Body aches? Then, rest. A power nap can work miracles. Low spirits? Well, please talk to someone.
That’s what we’re told to do. Easier said than done, right?
We’re in a time when it has become difficult to disconnect from our screens, newsfeeds, Zoom meetings, financial, and physical and mental instabilities.
When hope and distress have at once converged somewhat blearily on the horizon only to drive us into bigger confusion regarding what kind of change will heal the wounds wrought from COVID-19 and systemic racial injustices, it is hard to take deep breaths without breaking down.
It is so hard. And that’s all right to acknowledge.
But amid that overwhelm, it’s easy to forget that none of this pain, especially to those who’ve experienced it first-hand, is new. While we all need to take breathers at times, we strive to do better when we know better, as Toni Morrison put it, should not take a breather.
No matter who we are — students, teachers, artists, doctors, lawmakers — progress depends on all of our willingness to effect it.
There shouldn’t even be a notion of a mere “every-day” person, for it suggests a sense of passivity, naïveté, and ordinariness, which is all outrightly misleading.
Rather, let’s elevate that term to a higher order and dare to consider this: so-called “every-day” people make more of a difference in the name of change than “officials,” “celebrities,” and “elites” do.
Because those “every-day” people cannot afford to stay still.
Their lives depend on movements. Their objective isn’t to be performative or to garner superficial attention for the remarkable work they are doing; they are not listening to the fervor of applause that might mean nothing in the long-term.
They are not promoting themselves for the sake of “fitting-in” to a “hashtag.” Their lives aren’t “trends” on social media platforms. Theirs are lived lives that beckon for something more than merely surviving. They want to thrive as freely, fairly, and fearlessly as everyone else. Those are “every-day” people.
Marsha was one of them.
An “every-day” person who took on extraordinary feats. Moving away from her working-class family in New Jersey to New York City at the age of 18, she had nothing but fifteen dollars, a bag of clothes, and memories of childhood and adolescence that didn’t give her the adequate space to simply be.
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If she were to have chosen silence, it might have, maybe, shielded her and, maybe, prevented her murky death, but silence wouldn’t have let her truly live in the way she wanted.
And she wanted more of what she deserved so much, even if that meant confronting head-on the direst of circumstances.
In honor of her legacy and of pride month, here’s something on which to ruminate, and it’s conveyed through Marsha’s own words:
“How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?”