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Celebrating Black History Month: Marsha P. Johnson

Apicha Community Health Center Feb 06, 2020  

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In recognizing Black History Month, Apicha CHC will be spotlighting Black LGBTQ+ pioneers in their own right and their contribution to bettering our society. These people are fundamental to our histories, relentless in their efforts to open doors that were firmly closed. We will not let these people be erased from history.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender activist who was a leader in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in the late 1960s and in the following decades. She is most commonly known for her role during the Stonewall Riots, which marked a turning point in the gay rights movement in New York City. Without her tireless commitment to creating visibility and bettering the lives of all LGBTQ+ folks, we would not be where we are today.

“As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America there’s no reason for celebration.” - Marsha P. Johnson

Early life & living in NYC

Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a working class family. She was the fifth out of seven children. At a very young age Johnson began to wear dresses, but was often ostracized by other children. She attended church as a child and later became drawn to Catholicism and other forms of faith. After she graduated from high school in 1963, she moved to New York City with a bag of clothes and less than twenty dollars. 

Johnson moved to NYC at a time when queer folks were frequently persecuted. Sodomy was still considered a crime, same-sex dancing was forbidden in public, and people could be charged for cross dressing. It was not an easy time. To make ends meet, Johnson was a sex worker and often arrested. She struggled to get by, and was often homeless.

A vanguard of Stonewall & gay liberation

In 1969, the Stonewall Riots marked the first protest against police brutality toward LGBTQ+ folks. Johnson was there, and although there are differing versions of what took place it nearly all of them say Johnson was a critical force during the uprising. Johnson was only twenty-three at the time. 

Following Stonewall, Johnson went on to found to lead gay rights parades and founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera in 1970. STAR worked to help homeless transgender youth. The organization was mainly for homeless LGBTQ+ folks around NYC, and was entirely about going into the the streets to do outreach, find people places to stay and get their needs met.

STAR was also largely personal to Johnson and Rivera. They had both experienced homelessness and felt like much of the activism largely ignored transgender people and people of color that were living on the streets who experienced the intersectional realities of homelessness, queerness and race. 

Much of her work was dedicated to gay liberation and visibility. Johnson was a founder of the Gay Liberation Front and was involved in AIDS activism and attended ACT UP meetings. In a 1972 interview, Johnson said her goal was "to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America."

Drag, Andy Warhol, & Gay Pride

Johnson became a well-known activist in the 1970s, and performing drag contributed to her popularity. "I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That's what made me in New York, that's what made me in New Jersey, that's what made me in the world," Johnson once said in regards to drag. 

In addition, she was the featured in artist Andy Warhol's "Ladies and Gentleman" series, which highlighted drag queens and transgender individuals in 1975. In 1980, Johnson was asked to sit in the lead car of the Gay Pride Parade in New York City

Johnson's struggles & impact

Johnson by no means had an easy life. She was black, transgender, and homeless for a majority of her adult life. She also suffered from mental health issues and was reported to be in and out of mental institutions for care. Still, she was dedicated to gay liberation and rights.

On June 26, 1992, Johnson revealed in an interview that she had been HIV-positive for two years. A week later, Johnson's body was pulled from the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. She was only forty-six years old. Although the police ruled her death a suicide, friends and supporters believe otherwise. In 2012, police reopened her case, and is still open today.

In recent years, several documentaries about Johnson have remembered and given her recognition for her work. And in February 2020, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a state park in Brooklyn will be named after Johnson -- the first state park to be named in honor of an LGBTQ+ individual.

Although often uncredited, Johnson's activism and advocacy was fundamental in the gay rights movement. Despite her own circumstances, she remained resolute in bettering the lives of other gay and transgender individuals -- and left behind a legacy that has continued to this day.

Photo Sources: New York Public Library; Netflix: The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson

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