As Pride month ends, we look at the life of one of the most important figures in the push towards gay rights.
Content warning: This article contains a brief mention of sexual assault.
As Pride Month comes to a close, we remember Marsha P. Johnson, one of the principal figures in the gay liberation movement.
A Black transgender woman, Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1945. Her parents were blue collar workers who raised Johnson with her six siblings. At age five, she began wearing dresses, but stopped after boys in her neighborhood began bullying and harassing her over her outfits. She later recalled being violently raped by one of these boys, who she remembered being around 13 at the time.
She had a religious upbringing and remained a devout Christian through her later life. In her adolescence, Johnson "always thought gayness was some sort of dream." She abstained from sexual activity until she moved to New York City at age 17 with only $15 and a bag of clothes. She began waiting tables in Greenwich Village; for the first time in her life, she met other queer people, and the "dream" of being gay was slowly becoming her reality.
With a newfound confidence to explore her gender identity, she ditched her birth name, put on a blond wig, and adopted the name Marsha P. Johnson. The letter "P" stood for "pay it no mind," a phrase Johnson would use to sarcastically dismiss people who inquired about her gender.
After arriving in New York, Johnson began performing in drag; she became known for her slender silhouette and her crowns of fresh flowers. She usually couldn't afford the ultra-glamorous ensembles worn by more extravagant "high drag" queens. Nonetheless, Johnson became one of the first drag queens to go to the notorious Stonewall Inn, a bar that had previously only been open for cisgender gay men.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred in the form of violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT+ community in response to a police raid. Along with fellow drag queen Zazu Nova and sex worker Jackie Hormona, Johnson is often cited as one of the leaders of the pushback against police during the Stonewall uprising.
However, Johnson later denied these claims, stating the riots had already begun when she arrived at the Stonewall that night. Witnesses have recalled her throwing a shot class at a mirror, shouting, "I got my civil rights," as well as throwing a brick at a police officer and shattering a police car windshield.
One year later, the first Pride parade occurred on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Then called the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front—a group of LGBT+ activists—and participated in the march. The following August, she helped stage a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University, after the university's administration canceled a dance event upon realizing it was sponsored by LGBT+ organizations.
Along with her close friend and drag queen Sylvia Rivera, Johnson went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR helped push intersectional politics and provided housing in Lower Manhattan for homeless queer youth and sex workers. The first STAR House was a parked trailer that served as both a shelter and communal space; but after finding the trailer had been towed one morning, Johnson and Rivera found a more permanent location for a STAR House on Second Avenue.
Johnson and Rivera paid rent for the unit with income they earned from doing sex work. STAR was the first LGBT+ youth shelter in North America and the first organization in the United States to be founded by non-white transgender women.
Despite making innumerable strides in gay liberation and maintaining a mostly lighthearted, positive, and generous persona, Johnson endured a great deal of pain throughout her life; she relied on sex work to survive while living on the streets in the '60s, her husband was shot by police, and she claimed to have been arrested over 100 times.
Her behavior was dangerously erratic at times, leading people to suspect she might have had schizophrenia; she could quickly take on a violent demeanor. For this reason, people long hesitated to acknowledge her impact spearheading the gay rights movement.
Finally, in summer of 1992, Johnson's body was found dead in the Hudson River. Her death was quickly ruled a suicide, although close friends of Johnson's maintained she was never suicidal in spite of her struggles with mental health. She was 46.
Despite not gaining much attention in mainstream press (the New York Times published a very belated obituary in 2018), Johnson was beloved by her community, and she continues to be remembered as one of the most crucial figures in gay liberation. She's been cited as a major influence by RuPaul, the drag queen known for hosting the competition reality show RuPaul's Drag Race.
Though there are still actions that need to be taken in order to achieve full equality for the LGBT+ community, it's irrefutable that Marsha P. Johnson is responsible for much of the progress towards true liberation. Johnson may or may not have thrown the first brick at Stonewall; but either way, she fought like hell for all queer people. Though she didn't know them each personally, they would all come to recognize her as a hero.
In a country where everyone has freedom of speech, where do we draw the line?
The structures of heteronormativity, patriarchy, and white supremacy are now made fun of, overshadowed, and cast aside by many.
Consequently, some straight, white, and/or male people, used to a society built for their needs, feel irrelevant and unheard. Anytime a minority or oppressed group is celebrated, privileged people try and insert themselves in the conversation. There's a reason why every year people ask, "Why isn't there a White History Month?" during Black History Month. When white men start getting passed up for promotions in favor of more diverse hires, it causes them to feel a fraction of what POC and women have experienced for decades. They view these setbacks as oppression and their erasure from representation as an attack. In turn, they acknowledge they're beginning to lack dominant authority. Groups like Meninists and All Lives Matter exist to belittle the root causes of systemic issues in our country. The relationship between the main systemic sources of violence in America resonate beyond Straight Pride: They remind us how those power dynamics are at play even within marginalized communities.
John Hugo, the President of Super Happy Fun America and head organizer of Boston's controversial Straight Pride Parade, describes himself "living openly as a straight man." Hugo is one of three white men advocating for heterosexual representation within the LBGTQ+ community. Super Happy Fun America is a perfect example of the phenomenon in which the privileged see equality as oppression. SHFA even has their own gay ambassador, Chris Bartely. His tokenism and bio illuminates that although he is a gay man, that does not mean he has the right to speak for the entire LGBTQ+ community:
As gay ambassador, Chris uses his status in the LGBTQ community to challenge heterophobia wherever it exists. He became involved in the straight pride movement after being ostracized from established advocacy groups for merely suggesting that straight people be afforded equal rights.
What Bartley gets wrong is that straight people are discriminated against. Although, not all people within straight relationships are afforded rights like maternity and paternity leave or an abortion, but that's due to issues unrelated to sexual orientation. SHFA utilizes right-wing Trumpism to prick at the current frustration white, straight men entertain. Meanwhile, the definition of "great" is up for debate across the nation. In retaliation, liberals are readdressing America's history and the narratives ignored in textbooks, thus increasing the discourse of who truly makes America great.
The SHFA convinced themselves they have good intentions, but in reality they're misinterpreting the purpose of the LGBTQ+ community. The organizers fail to understand that the community is more than an umbrella term for sexual orientation: It's comprised of identities that could endanger lives and livelihoods because of outside discrimination. Those identities go beyond sexual orientation. They include a spectrum of gender identities which already foster inner conflict within the community due to transphobia and misogyny. By viewing LGBTQ+ solely as a flag of sexual identities is to entirely miss the point of why the community itself exists.
However, pride is a touchy subject when it comes to who is welcome at the celebrations and who it's about. Specifically, it spawns conflict within the community from gay men who exhibit misogynistic rhetoric about female allies and bisexuals. Some within the community push binaries of homosexual relationships (gay men and lesbian women) as the standard. In such instances, systems of patriarchy and white supremacy affect transgender people and queer POC at an alarming rate compared to other peers. Straight pride is a reminder that pride incites complicated matters of identity politics and how the community can be exclusionary by gate-keeping.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Super Happy Fun America are challenging said gate-keeping by arguing in favor of an S in LGBTQIA. Their Vice President, Mark Sahady, has come forward to announce the event is moving forward since they have a permit from the city. If Boston were to take that permit away, Sahady would sue on grounds of discrimination. Their argument is a slap in the face to Pride's history.
With the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, members of the community are reflecting on the horrors of their history, specifically police brutality. Today, police presence stirs debate about how parades can exist within governmental bounds. After all, every parade needs a permit, and the police are brought to enforce the safety of its participants. But when there's a history of police brutality with an oppressed community, it's difficult to trust their intentions. Yet, the men of Super Happy Fun America use their permit from Boston to their benefit (and yet, also as a legal threat). Due to their privilege, they don't see police presence as an issue, because the enforcers have never endangered them: Police protect white men.
The LGBTQ+ community and their allies are rightfully disappointed that anyone would want a straight pride parade, since they know what it truly stands for: These heterosexuals want to overshadow a marginalized community that is beginning to thrive. American society is not at a point yet where we can see or accept each other for who we are and our diverse perspectives. By breaking down other viewpoints' origins, we can get to the root of such ignorance. Straight Pride is a reminder that prejudice is often wielded in reaction to "others" and increases our divisions. To reflect on the roles of sexism, racism, and homophobia is to better ourselves and our communities, dismantling systems of oppression that keep us at odds and with each other as Americans.