In anticipation of Gay Pride Month in April, I will discuss the beginning of the LGBTQ movement and the woman who started it all. This is a tribute to an admirable transwoman named Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson.
Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) was a trans activist who served as an instrumental cog in the movements of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities in New York City. Throughout her whole life, she had to deal with ridicule. Strangers thought her to be a mere man who chose to dress as a woman. Even now, popular websites refer to her as a “drag queen”—a term that is both an inaccurate and offensive descriptor.
Not only was she brave enough to commit to her own happiness when it was difficult, but she also made vast efforts to support others who chose to follow in the same path. Though she lived in what was arguably the most liberal city in the country, she and other members of the LGBT community still faced extensive discrimination, demonstrated clearly by the Stonewall Riots.
In 1969, riots took place in Greenwich Village, an area known for its LGBT subculture. Stonewall Inn was a gay club often the target of police harassment. On a particularly brutal night when officers raided the establishment and arrested some LGBT clubbers, violence erupted and stones were thrown. Marsha, being the fireball she was, is most often cited as the one who “started it all”—the first to throw a stone. Even after the deployment of NYC’s riot police, protests and demonstrations against discrimination followed in the coming days. This riot was the first domino in the city’s gay rights movement. The riot was a catalyst, as was she.
Stonewall led to the formation of many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organizations. One particularly notable organization is Johnson’s Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which was designed to help others like Johnson thrive in a discriminatory society.
Sometimes I reflect on how fortunate I am to have been served privileges on a silver platter. I can go to a gay bar if I so please, I can marry my partner, I can adopt children, and people like us are visible. My distance from the actual physical struggle has shrouded my ability to properly cherish the comfortable life I lead. I could claim it as a birthright, as many people do, but that doesn’t feel appropriate. The fact of the matter is that I got lucky. I lucked into being born in 1998; I lucked into having people like Marsha P. Johnson fight for me before I had to. She was a stepping stone, a building block, and a first victory in a centuries-long battle for equality that is still being fought. Her strength, bravery, vivacity, and honesty should be commemorated and emulated not only this pride month, but all the months following.
*Picture drawn by Michele Rosenthal