Skin Deep

Meet The Black Transgender Activist Behind The Stonewall Uprising

by Julia Gibson

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Skin Deep

Meet The Black Transgender Activist Behind The Stonewall Uprising

“You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.” – Marsha P. Johnson

In 1999, June was officially declared Pride Month, a time for members of the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their sexualities and identities, promote visibility, and most importantly, rally for equality. But what many people don’t know is that Pride started decades before — and the first one was much more than a parade. This year, more than ever before, it is imperative that we acknowledge and remember who were at the forefront of the movement: Black queer activists like Marsha P. Johnson. Read on to learn more about this unsung heroine of the gay rights movement, and how her actions may have sparked the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Who She Was:

While she usually referred to herself as “nobody, from Nowheresville,” Marsha P. Johnson was far from that. Her story starts in Elizabeth New Jersey, where she was born on August 24th, 1945. The child of a General Motors assembly line worker and a housekeeper, Marsha grew up in a devoutly Catholic environment with 6 siblings. She began expressing herself by wearing dresses at a young age but faced pushback from both her family and her peers. 

Marsha moved from New Jersey to New York in 1963. There, she found a community of gay and transgender peers, and soon she was able to come out herself. “It was that year — 1969 — when I finally went out in the street in drag full-time,” Marsha told the Village Voice in a 1979 interview, “I just said, ‘I don’t give a shit,’ and I’ve been in drag most of the time since.” That year was also when she adopted the moniker of Marsha P. Johnson: the P, she said, stood for “pay it no mind,” her usual response when asked about her gender identity. According to her peers, Johnson identified as a “transvestite,” gay, and a drag queen, and used she/her pronouns.  Marsha soon became a prominent figure in the New York gay community and a well-known drag performer as a member of the drag troupe Hot Peaches. To get by, she bussed tables and performed sex work.

What She Did:

In the early morning hours of June 28th 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. This was a common practice at the time, as laws in New York criminalized not only sexual acts between people of the same sex, but also same-sex dancing and “masquerading” as another sex, all of which led to the arrest and persecution of drag queens, transgender men and women, gay men, and lesbian women alike. At the time, homosexuality was classified by psychologists as a mental disorder.

While accounts differ, many say that during the raid on Stonewall, Marsha, who was fed up with the police’s treatment of her community, threw a drinking glass into a mirror that hung on the wall of the bar. Fellow patrons followed suit, resisting arrest and fighting back against police. This radical act of resistance became known as the Stonewall Uprising, which is now considered to be the catalyst of the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. As journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote in 1979, “There were millions of homosexuals before Stonewall, of course, but there was no coherent, self-aware gay community.” In fact, the very first Gay Pride Parade kicked off in front of the Stonewall Inn on the first anniversary of the riots, with Marsha marching alongside her community. 

In addition to her participation in the Stonewall Uprising, Marsha continued her activism work by joining the Gay Liberation Front. She co-founded the advocacy group S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with close friend and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, which fought for the rights of LGBTQ+ youth, particularly homeless transgender youth. Later they opened the S.T.A.R. House, a shelter for gay and transgender street kids. Marsha also organized for ACT UP, a grassroots organization that fought the AIDS Pandemic. She continued to be a visible figure at Pride marches and rallies for the rest of her life, and ultimately became a voice of the movement, with eponymous quotes of hers like “Darling, I want my gay rights now!” becoming catchphrases at demonstrations.

Despite her fame and reverence in the gay community, Marsha struggled with poverty for most of her life and often lived on the streets. As Steve Watson wrote for the Village Voice in 1979, “Andy Warhol silkscreens of Marsha sell for $1400 while Marsha walks the sidewalk outside, broke.” In 1992, shortly after a Pride parade, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Though police ruled her death a suicide, her close friends and community insisted that was not the case. Activists in recent years have fought to have the case of her death reopened by police. 

“Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

Why She Matters:

It’s hard to overstate Marsha P. Johnson’s impact on gay rights and gay liberation. Not only was she an integral part of the Stonewall Uprising, but her subsequent activism impacted the lives of countless vulnerable gay and transgender youth in New York City. Even after her life tragically ended, her legacy has been that of someone who made a difference despite the hurdles society placed in her way: a poor, black, transgender woman who changed history. 

Her story is important to remember because it’s not that far from today’s reality. Though homosexuality is no longer criminalized or considered to be a mental illness, black queer and transgender women face disparate rates of victimization in the United States. Nearly 3 out of 4 of lethal anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in the United States are committed against transgender women and girls. Of the 26+ transgender and gender non-conforming people murdered in 2019 and recorded by the Human Rights Campaign, 91% were Black. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47 percent of transgender people have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, and rates of sexual assault were higher for transgender people of color. And transgender people who have done sex work report elevated levels of police violence—this includes 16% of all transgender people and 53% of Black transgender people.

So this Pride month, remember Marsha P. Johnson and continue to honor her legacy by uplifting the most vulnerable members of the LBGTQ+ community. Read more about the Stonewall Uprising, learn about the impact that the most marginalized people have had on the gay rights movement, and show your appreciation for black transgender women by donating to an organization that supports and uplifts them. After all, we have them to thank for Pride today.

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