Against Co-Optation: The Life of Marsha P. Johnson

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Photo: Box art

Today on August 24th we honor the life and death of Marsha P. Johnson and the legacy she left behind. She was a black trans drag-queen, sex-worker, and HIV/AIDS activist with a revolutionary spirit. Marsha was a mother and friend to many, a talented performer, an advocate for homeless trans youth, and a radical black organizer. With a working class perspective and a criminalized identity, she was at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ visibility and rights in New York.  Black, trans, gay, poor, and often houseless, she existed at the crossroads of multiple oppressions. Though her life and political action were cut short, her legacy and fight live on. At fifty years since the Stonewall uprisings, of which Marsha was one of the igniting forces, we reclaim the demand for the liberation of all queer identities alongside the liberation of the working class. 

Marsha was born on August 24th, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was the fifth child in a Christian family of nine. Her father, Malcolm Michaels Sr., was an assembly line worker at the General Motors factory and her mother, Alberta Claiborne, worked as a housekeeper. She attended Thomas A. Edison High School, graduated in 1963, and left New Jersey in 1966 to head to New York, where her identity bloomed. She entered into the drag scene as a queen and decided on the name Marsha P. Johnson: P as in “pay it no mind,” and Johnson from the Howard Johnson Restaurant on 42nd street. She became one of the biggest names in the New York drag scene, well-known for her lively performances and incredible generosity. She was sometimes called “Saint Marsha” by her friends and acquaintances, known for giving away her last dollars to brighten someone else’s day. Marsha was the queen of Christopher Street—she strode down the pavement with flowers in her hair, proud of who she was, making her presence known in Greenwich Village and beyond. 

The Stonewall Uprising, a three day riot against police brutality in 1969, was a turning point for the gay liberation movement and for Marsha. She is credited with inciting the uprising and throwing the “shot glass heard around the world.” Though reports have contested if she really was the one to start the riots, the central role she played in the riots is undeniable. Other historical reports have tried to whitewash the riots, attributing the resistance solely to the white cis gay men who frequented the bar. It is important to resist this whitewashing of history: on the front lines of the Stonewall riots were the transgender drag queens and lesbians of color who put their lives on the line to stand up against the oppressive state institutions. Marsha was one of the first people to enter the Stonewall Inn in drag; as a well-known figure, she rallied others in the bar to fight back against the homophobic and racist police raid. Though these police raids were a common occurrence at the Stonewall Inn, the raids that night in 1969 were met with powerful resistance from the LGBTQ+ community who had had enough of police brutality and discrimination. 

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Following the Stonewall Uprisings, Marsha became an important member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). In contrast to the Mattachine Action Committee, a group concerned only with the rights of gay men, the GLF was an anti-capitalist group that welcomed trans and dissident identities and demanded international liberation for the LGBTQ+ community. In the publication of their manifesto in 1971 they stated:

 “Gay shows the way […] In a society dominated by the sexist culture it is very difficult, if not impossible, for heterosexual men and women to escape their rigid gender-role structuring and the roles of oppressor and oppressed. But gay men don’t need to oppress women in order to fulfill their own psycho-sexual needs, and gay women don’t have to relate sexually to the male oppressor”. 

In addition, the GLF also fought against racism and sexism, joining forces with other movements. The group named themselves after the National Liberation Front which fought against U.S. imperialist forces during the Vietnam War. The GLF held its first marches in June 1970these same marches eventually became the World Pride March that now features cops and corporations marching every year. 

Later that year, Marsha, along with her longtime friend and fellow drag queen, Sylvia Rivera, founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha and Sylvia saw that the needs of trans youth were not being addressed by the broader movement and that some were deliberately trying to push out the trans community from groups like the GLF. The GLF was prioritizing the needs of their cis gay and lesbian members and blocking trans members like Marsha and Sylvia from having any platform. During the Pride March in 1973, Rivera was repeatedly blocked from speaking. When she finally got a hold of the microphone she yelled:, “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”

STAR was created as a housing program, resource center, and advocacy group for homeless transgender youth. It started out in a parked trailer, opening their doors to trans youth as a safe alternative to living on the street. Marsha and Sylvia eventually moved their trans and gender nonconforming children into an apartment and sponsored the group through sex work. STAR was the first organization of its type. It was the first group that served transgender youth and was run by transgender individuals of color. In her 1973 interview, “Rapping with a street transvestite revolutionary”, Marsha explained: 

“STAR is a very revolutionary group. We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary. Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and free…. We’d like to see our gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again. There are a lot of gay transvestites who have been in jail for no reason at all, and the reason why they don’t get out is they can’t get a lawyer or bail.”  

Marsha was no stranger to prison herself, having reportedly been arrested over 100 times and regularly being on the receiving end of police violence. She coordinated and mobilized incarcerated individuals, providing them housing as soon as they were out. She fought for the full liberation of LGBTQ+ folks from an oppressive capitalist society, stating that “As long as people with AIDS and as long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason to celebrate.” For Marsha there was no individual fight for human rights but only a collective one, prioritizing the needs of society’s most precarious members. 

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The revolutionary potential STAR may have had came, not through the immediate services it provided, but rather through alliances and networks of solidarity built with other movements. Marsha and Sylvia joined forces with the anti-imperialist and anti-racist groups, meeting with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers in an effort to unite the most oppressed sectors of society. Huey Newton stated that a homosexual “might be the most oppressed people in the society” and maybe “the most revolutionary.” Marsha also worked with the organization ACT UP, an organization founded in the 1980s to combat the AIDS epidemic. Marsha did all this work while also navigating mental illness, an HIV positive diagnosis, and a society that criminalized her entire identity. 

Marsha’s activism stretched out across many sectors and movements; had the fight of STAR been linked with the broader class struggle led by the labor movements, it could have been a truly anti-capitalist, revolutionary force capable of taking hold of the means of production and breaking down the oppressive structures of society. 

Marsha’s activism was cut short in 1992 when her body was found in the Hudson River. She disappeared the evening after the New York Gay Parade. The police quickly ruled her death a suicide, ignoring reports from her friends that Marsha was last seen being harassed by a group of men. One witness claimed they overheard a man bragging about “murdering a drag-queen named Marsha.” The New York police covered up her death and refused to look into the case as a homicide. This comes as no surprise, given that a majority of the violence against black and trans communities starts with the police. Only after years of advocating for justice for Marsha by those closest to her,  did the NYPD eventually reopen the case in 2012; the case remains unsolved to this day. The news of Marsha’s death spread like wildfire and shook the New York LGBTQ+ community. Hundreds showed up to her funeral, closing down 7th ave in a colorful procession that carried Marsha’s ashes down to the river, paying testament to her life and demanding justice. 

Marsha would be 74 years old today. Her absence reminds us that the life expectancy for trans women of color is only 35 and that the trans experience is still marked by extreme violence. Denali Berries Stuckey, a 29 year old black trans woman who was murdered last month, was the twelfth black trans women to be killed this year alone. There is no reason to celebrate at Pride while trans women of color continue to be murdered on the street. In Marsha’s words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

The gay liberation movement has militant, anti-capitalist roots and was headed by trans women of color. The solidarity created between the gay rights movement, the anti-racist movement, the labor rights groups, and the women’s movement was what gave the 1970s so much revolutionary potential. Marsha’s contribution to the LGBTQ+  rights movement is monumental. Anyone identifying as queer, trans, gay, lesbian, non-binary, a drag queen, and/or a cross-dresser owes an incredible amount to Marsha P. Johnson and the other revolutionary pion(q)eers who came before us and ignited the movement for queer liberation. 

How do we honor such an important figure and how do we demand justice for her death and the deaths of the other trans women of color who have been victims of anti-blackness and homophobia? We must take Marsha’s words to heart: there is no celebration until trans women of color no longer run the risk of being murdered or incarcerated, until immigrants can cross the border freely without fear, until workers are treated fairly and until state-sponsored terrorism and oppression ends. The struggle for queer liberation is a class issue. Allowing the LGBTQ+  rights movement to be co-opted by corporations and the ruling class will only provide liberties and luxuries to some while prolonging and exacerbating the suffering of others. Our work to honor Marsha is not finished by commemorating her with a monument down the street from the Stonewall Inn, but rather continues as we reclaim her revolutionary spirit and struggle for queer liberation. 

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