Marsha P Johnson and the Birth of the LBGTQIA+ Movement
“How many years does it take to see we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?” -Marsha P Johnson
An influential person at the center of the iconic Stonewall Riots and early LGBTQIA+ activism Marsha self identified as a drag queen, transvestite, and gay. Today she would likely be described as nonbinary, genderfluid, or gender non conforming (GNC). The P in her name stood for “Pay it no mind” and was a reference to her gender.
1960s LGBT Culture in NYC
In 1969 homosexuality and “gay behavior” (holding hands, kissing, dancing together etc.) was still illegal in every state in the US with the exception of Illinois. It was also illegal to wear “non gender appropriate” clothing and police would “inspect” anyone they suspected might be (terminology they used back then) a transvestite. Now, those same people would likely be regarded as transgender women or in some cases drag queens. The mafia saw potential profit in catering to the vulnerable LGBT community and the Genovese crime family owned many of the gay bars in Greenwich Village in New York City including the Stonewall Inn which they purchased in 1966. The mafia knew the community could be easily exploited and overcharged for watered down drinks and extorted money from wealthier clientele by threatening to out them to their employers and families. These bars were also regularly raided by police but bribes were often taken to prevent or at least warn them of the raids before they happened.
Stonewall Riots-June 28th-July 1st, 1969
Around one in the morning on June 28th without warning police raided the Stonewall Inn and began arresting workers and patrons. The patrons mostly consisted of drag queens, gay men, trans women, and gender non conforming (GNC) youth and many were people of color (POC). As the police began making arrests the crowd responded by throwing coins mocking the police for taking bribes. It is reported that the riot started when Storme’ DeLarverie, a biracial butch lesbian, fought back while being arrested. For this she is often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of the gay community.” This incited the crowd and they began hurling rocks and bottles at the police who responded by beating people with their batons. This quickly drew attention in the gay friendly neighborhood and soon the crowd increased in size to over two thousand people. Being overwhelmed the police barricaded themselves inside the inn and called for backup. The NYC Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) arrived and fought with the crowd but the rioters refused to back down and the riot went on until close to dawn. That night thousands of protestors returned and more violence between the police and community ensued. The riots would continue for several days. There are many different accounts of exactly what happened but Marsha is widely credited as being one of the key figures at the center of the uprising.
Early LGBT Organizations
While the Stonewall Riots were not the first militant protest by the LGBT community it was likely the most influential. These riots incited action in cities across the country and spawned the formation of groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The GLF modeled itself after more radical third world liberation and anti-imperialist movements. The group became popular in the student networks of the anti-war movements and soon had many members that were young white people of middle class origin. Divisions soon appeared with the organization due to its perceived marginalization of women, people of color, the working class, and transgender people. Many lesbians became involved in radical feminism and joined the women’s movement. The GAA formed in response to the focus of the GLF and had a more liberal and less radical agenda. The GAA sought to remain politically neutral and focused on working within the system to change laws regarding gay and lesbian rights.
Trans people after feeling ostracized by the GLF and excluded by the goals of the GAA soon saw themselves removed from the very movement they had played a large role in inspiring. In response, they started their own organizations. Marsha P Johnson and her close friend Slyvia Rivera, a Latina of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, established Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The primary goal of STAR was to help young homeless members of the LGBT community. Johnson and Rivera provided free housing and acted as “house mothers” to the youth, many of which were runaways or had been kicked out of the families homes.
The First Pride Parades
On the weekend of June 28th, 1970 the first gay pride parades were held. In New York City it was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March to commemorate the Stonewall Riots from the year before. Marches in Los Angeles and Chicago were also held the same weekend. The following year parades were held in more major cities; Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, Paris, London, West Berlin, and Stockholm. By 1972 Atlanta, Detroit, Buffalo, Washington D.C., Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and San Francisco were also holding parades. Initially the parades were referred to as Gay Liberation or Gay Freedom Marches but in the 1980s these titles were replaced with the Gay Pride moniker that we know today.
The Death of Marsha P Johnson
On July 6th, 1992 a little more than a week after the New York City Pride Parade Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Police classified it as a suicide and closed the case but it was not without controversy. When her body was pulled from the river onlookers saw a large head wound. There were reports that people had witnessed Marsha being chased by at least two men the night she disappeared. Another person stated that Marsha had gotten into an argument with a local resident and that he later bragged about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The witness attempted to relay this information to the police but they were uninterested. In 2002 the case was reopened and the official cause of death was changed from suicide to undetermined citing insufficient information to rule it a homicide. As seen in the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson when Victoria Cruz of the Anti Violence Project (AVP) attempted to find answers to Marsha’s death she was told by the police to leave the investigation to the experts and after going to through much difficulty to obtain the official police report was told that it had disappeared. Unfortunately, we will probably never know the true circumstances surrounding Marsha’s death and the tragic loss of a key figure in the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement.