In honor of Pride Month, let’s shine a spotlight on one of the most celebrated gay rights activists. Marsha P. Johnson was a driving force behind the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which sparked a new wave of LGBTQ activism. She also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a homeless shelter for gay, trans and gender-nonconforming youth, along with friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera. Even with her tireless activism, Johnson did not receive the attention she so deserved when she was alive. Now is the time to increase awareness of the revolutionary work she did in the fight for equality.
The P. in Marsha P. Johnson stood for, as she said, “Pay it no mind,” when people asked invasive questions about her sexuality (she used she/her pronouns). A drag queen with a brilliant smile and a love of elaborate looks complete with flower crowns, Johnson faced homelessness for much of her life and suffered from mental illness. She worked as an activist for transgender and gay rights and championed people with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, and prisoners. Many of these causes were personal as she was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and turned to sex work when it was difficult for transgender people to maintain a job without suppressing their identity. Above all, Johnson brought a voice to the intersectionality of the movement (being both transgender and Black) marginalized by the broader LGBTQ rights efforts.
The Stonewall Riots
Johnson is perhaps most well-known for the vital role she played in the Stonewall Riots. Police harassment and social discrimination against the LGBTQ community were regular occurrences in New York at the time. They were brought to a head after a clash between police, patrons, and employees at the Stonewall Inn gay bar. In the wake of this raid, which resulted in the arrests of 13 people, Johnson led a series of demonstrations in protest, leading to the first gay pride parade in 1970.
A year after the demonstrations, Johnson and Rivera founded STAR. It was a pioneering organization because it specifically supported some of the most at-risk members of the community. STAR was meant to be a safe space for trans urban youth who might have turned to prostitution to survive. According to Sylvia Rivera in the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, “STAR was part of the people’s revolution, and it was time for us to show the world that we are human beings.”
In 1992, Johnson was tragically found dead under mysterious circumstances at age 46. The death was ruled a suicide, but those close to her believe it might have been murder as she was the frequent victim of violent attacks. Her death and the deaths of so many others (15 documented violent deaths of trans and gender-nonconforming people this year alone according to the Human Rights Campaign’s latest report) indicate the greater issue of violence against Black trans people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, fatal violence, and unemployment disproportionately affect transgender women of color. Due to the compounding of racism and transphobia, they also suffer from police brutality and healthcare disparities at awfully high rates. These statistics are why it is important to keep stories like Johnson’s alive, raise awareness about violence against transgender people, and join in the fight against these injustices.
Finally, Johnson is receiving the attention and accolades she deserved when she was alive. In 2019, New York City announced plans to build statues honoring Johnson and Rivera—the first permanent, public monuments dedicated to transgender people in the world. A fitting memorial for an instrumental figure in the LGBTQ rights movement and one who’s story is so essential to American history. A life devoted to bringing a voice to the marginalized, and fighting for social justice is to be celebrated.
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