If you want to pin their life down into one word, it would be: courage. Being who you are needs courage, especially if that means you face discrimination and even violence. The world needs courageous people like Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Now before I get into this I have to mention that there are different sources on whether Marsha was a transgender woman or a gay man and a drag queen. When asked about gender, they never gave a solid answer, so I am going to use they/them pronouns to refer to Marsha.
Marsha started being interested in women’s clothes pretty young, but because we are in the early 50’s, they got bullied for it a lot. It came from classmates, parents, and just generally, from society. So for a period of time, they had to stop, because it became too much. At this point, they have been through a lot, because in 1957 (at a 12-year-old), Marsha was sexually assaulted by one of their neighbours, who was surprisingly, around their age.
Being a homeless Teenager in New York
They successfully finished high school, but they had to put themselves in a box, they had to wear men’s clothes, and do what was considered “manly” around that time (for example: dresses, skirts, flowers). However, when they finished high school, they immediately moved from New Jersey to New York with 15 dollars and a bag of clothes. This, of course, meant that they were homeless for quite a long time. Luckily, this was the same time when they formed their family, when they really found when they belonged. They spent a lot of time on Christopher Street, which was a big melting pot of queer people at the time. They started performing here, and were known for always wearing a beautiful, fresh flower crown they made. were described as a kind, talented person, who was liked by everyone, and everyone wanted to be around them. However, what they are most known for is their role at Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, in 1969. At the time, in the 1960’s, being gay or not wearing clothes that match your biological sex was illegal. People were charged for it, and they called it “sexual deviancy charges”. There were constant raids in bars to see if gay people were there. People couldn’t even dance with a member of the same in public. It was totally normal for a bar to be fined or shut down because a bartender served a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Stonewall Inn gets famous – and Marsha is in there from the beginning
Stonewall Inn at the time was known for being owned by the mafia, specifically the Genovese crime family. They made money out of gay bars, so it was beneficial for them. This bar was hidden, a secret one, you could only enter with money. It grew huge; it was very famous within the gay community. It was very diverse, and the only club that welcomed Trans people and drag queens.
The fact that it was mafia-owned is important, because police usually told them when these raids were coming, so that they could close down the bar for a night, or an hour. On June 28, 1969, police officers showed up at Stonewall unannounced. They arrested around 13 people, physically assaulted a lot more, and violated a lot of basic human rights. The community at Stonewall Inn fought back. Some people say it started, when a female officer took femme presenting people to the bathroom, for a so called “sex verification”, and some people say it started, when a lesbian was arrested and hit in the head, before shouting “Why won’t you do something?!”. NYPD – ironically - took cover inside the bar, because they were outnumbered. Someone even tried to set the building on fire, while everyone from outside was throwing everything they could at the police officers. Marsha was believed to be one of the first people to start it all. They either threw a shot glass at a mirror or a cop, and said “I’ve got my civil rights”. The fight did not end that night, they only had started. Five days after Stonewall happened, there were protests and marches all around, and this is considered to be the first ever Pride Parade.
Marsha had a friend called Silvia Rivera, who was a transgender woman. They started Starhouse, where they housed transgender youths. They got the house by making a deal with a member of the mob, and renovated it. Marsha referred to the people living there as their children, and the kids called them “The Queen Mother”. They have saved lots of lives of Trans kids in that era by giving them housing, food, and even clothes. Unfortunately, the house didn’t exist for long, because the two founders couldn’t find a job, and therefore, they couldn’t pay rent. They tried to rebuild the idea later, but it didn’t work out for the same exact reason.
Weirdly, even if Marstha posed for Andy Warhol in 1975, and did acting, they were not famous by any means at all. And since the LGB community didn’t want to have anything to do with Trans people or Drag Queens, they couldn’t even attend Prides. Emilia Roig explained in their keynote that one aspect of intersectionality is looking at inequalities within inequalities, minorities between minorities. Not being able to really be a part of the LGBTQ+ community could be an example of that.
There is not much info on what Marsha did between 1975 and 1992. However, what we know is that they and their best friend (Silvia Rivera) were arrested more than a hundred times, but they continued their drag career and didn’t give up fighting for human rights. Even if in 1992, they confirmed that they were suffering from AIDS, that is not what they died from. On July 6 1994, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River, What happened before is still unclear.
Marsha’s roommate had ties to the mafia. He and the mob had conflicts before and during Marsha’s death, and when one of Marsha’s friends ran an investigation on what happened, they found a note. That note said “Tell Randy what happened to Marsha will happen to him if he doesn’t stop.”
Still unsolved: How did Marsha die?
So what do we know about Marshas last days? Randy said the last time he saw them was on July 2, but there are people who reported seeing Marsha on July 4. However, there is evidence of them being seen very late at night on July 5, and that they were followed by two men. A witness said Marsha seemed scared and was heading towards where their body was found.
Police immediately said they committed suicide, but anyone who knew them said it wasn’t likely. NYPD said they were giving their clothes away lately, and that can be a sign of suicidal plans/thoughts. Their friends said they have been giving away clothes because if people complimented something on them, they gave it to them, and they have been doing this ever since they knew Marsha.
The cause of death was changed from drowning to undetermined causes later on, after the investigation was closed. Police said Marsha was alive when they entered the water, but that is all the information we got. They always said that the autopsy report was “lost”.
In 2012, the case was reopened and is open now. They discovered that Marsha’s body had no signs of assault, but they had brain damage.
Things might have been different if Marsha was a cisgender, heterosexual, white person. But as it was, the police did not spend too much time investigating the case.
Whatever happened, their memory continues to lives strongly everywhere. There are signs of them on Pride marches, organizations, and all around Stonewall Inn.
Written by: Csernyi Hanna (Jo)
CC BY-SA 4.0 licencse: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en