Thelma and Louise. Lucy and Ethl. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The only thing more badass and powerful than one woman, is the power of lady-friends. Despite the frequent portrayal of women as ‘frenemies’ engaged in some kind of bizarro competition for MENZ, friendships between women have a long history of not only existing, but of changing the world. This was true especially for Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. As pioneers in the LGBT rights movement, Sylvia and Marsha risked their lives to be themselves and fought (sometimes literally) for basic human rights for the rest of their community. Because Sylvia seems to be the more well known (If you want to know Sylvia, a bit more, I highly suggest you check out ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’s episode about her.), today I want to tell you a bit more about Marsha.
Before we get to know Marsha P. Johnson (or ‘MPJ’ as I say in my notes) a bit more, I want to offer this brief caveat about language: I always try my hardest to be sensitive and correct in the language I use, especially to describe a person and especially especially to describe a person who has already been marginalized. Looking back on Marsha’s life, many today would (and do!) use the word ‘transgender.’ That said, in the 60’s, where much of our story takes place, these terms had not been agreed upon and words like ‘drag,’ ‘queen’ and ‘transvestite’ were widely used and accepted by transwomen themselves. While I will default to what I know to be the preferred terms*, whenever quoting Marsha or other women from the past, I always try to use their exact words. Ultimately, my aim with H&H is to be true to each woman’s voice and words, not to offend you. /<caveat>
Marsha was born in Elizabeth New Jersey, in 1945, assigned male at birth. At the age of 21, she moved to Greenwich Village, NYC and legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. When asked what the P stood for, Marsha would say ‘Pay it No Mind!’. In addition to being completely awesome, this seems also to be her life’s philosophy and response to nosy, none-of-your-business questions in general. She responded in kind to a judge when asked to give her name in court. The judge was so charmed and disarmed by this response, he laughed and let her go. I love this story for two reasons: 1) the chutzpah required to answer this way in the midst of what we’ll soon talk about to be the generally crummy legal status of transgender individuals in the 1960’s, and 2) That it worked! Here is a woman saving herself through her own bravery and witticism. Words are powerful.
By all accounts, Marsha was a force to be reckoned with. She became known for her elaborate hats and bright makeup. While I always feel that fierce accessories deserve their own ticker-tape parade in any decade, this is doubly true when one is an African-American transwoman living through the den of institutional racism and misogyny that is mid-century America. Even in Greenwich Village- arguably one of the most liberal places in one of the most liberal cities in the United States at the time- gay and transgender men and women often found themselves discriminated against, prevented from finding legal employ or homes. Because of this many, especially trans individuals had to seek illegal means of supporting themselves including buying/selling drugs and prostitution. This compounded the danger for these individuals, both from the Johns they served and the police themselves, who frequently committed acts of violence, especially against transwomen and lesbians. Marsha told one interviewer that she carried a can of mace with her wherever she went. When asked if she’d had the chance to use it, she replied “Not yet. But I’m patient.”
On June 28, 1969, Marsha’s 25th birthday, the police raided a known gay bar, the Stonewall Inn (Heart-breakingly, one source I read mentioned that “known gay bar” meant that same-sex couples could dance without police harassment. WTF America?!). Raids like this, unfortunately, were not unusua. Normally, a raid meant arrests, harassment, patrons fleeing and a general pooping on the party, but not this night. The patrons rebelled and a violent riot started. Marsha P., there to to celebrate her birthday, was, according to one friend “in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something.” Many people say that it was either Marsha or Sylvia who threw the first bottle at the police. (Historically accurate or not, I like to imagine them exchanging knowing ‘give-em-hell’ smiles and throwing the first bottles together)
Stonewall wasn’t just a case of persecuted people standing up for themselves, it’s also often seen as “the spark that ignited the LGBT right movement.” But here’s the really lovely thing about Marsha (and Sylvia): it wasn’t enough for them to be themselves (in a world that wished otherwise), and it wasn’t enough for them to fight for their own individual lives. After striking the match and starting a movement, both spent the rest of their short lives working for other people who, at the time, felt like they were being pushed out of the movement they helped to start. In 1970, the two founded STAR (which stood for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). STAR was “for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anyone that needed help” and focused especially on homeless LGBT kids. Both Marsha and Sylvia would work the streets, so the “children” as Marsha P. called anyone who came to STAR, would be safe and fed without having to do so themselves. Marsha was often called “Queen Mother,” a title in which she seemed to revel. The 70’s also saw Marsha pursuing her interest in art. Friends (of course) with Andy Warhol, she joined his ‘drag performance troupe,’ Hot Peaches. She also posed for his series Ladies and Gentlemen. Though the series has come under mixed criticism (Namely, that the models are nameless and the screen printing seen by some as grotesque), I have a hard time seeing it as an attack on the individuals portrayed for three reasons: 1) it seems way too easy of a read, given Warhol’s love of complicated things done simply, 2) Knowing what I do about Warhol, it’s hard to imagine him being that big of a turd and most importantly, 3) Even harder to imagine MPJ putting up with that kind of tomfoolery.
In the 80s, Marsha joined AIDS activists, ACT UP. She and others marched on Wall Street to protest the incredibly expensive AIDS medication available at the time. Unfortunately for all of us, Marsha didn’t get to see much of the 90’s. In 1992, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. For many years, law enforcement ruled her (suspicious for many reasons) death a suicide and refused to look into it further. In 2012, however, after much lobbying, the case was reopened. Who was it who successfully lobbied for justice? American activist, Mariah Lopez– another lady so badass that were she no longer alive, I’d have to write a H&H about her too.
“But Cat- Marsha Pay-It-No-Mind Johnson is the bomb! What can I possibly ‘how-to’ to be just as cool?
Well, I’ve already done a headdress tutorial, last month, but one thing you can do, which would not only be in the spirit of MPJ, but would help spread her too-often unknown legacy, is to help throw her a birthday party!
How to Help Throw a Birthday Party for Marsha P Johnson:
And, because, again, what I really believe in is voice, and the power of voice, her’s MPJ herself with the last word:
*And heavens, if these are not the preferred terms, please let me know? Help me not to be an asshole?