By Martha Muir
Marsha P. Johnson, who would drape herself in flowing dresses, fruit and Christmas lights was a striking presence in Greenwich Village. She was known as the mayor of Christopher Street, and was a drag mother and source of support to her chosen family of outcasts. Born to a mother who believed that being gay was like being “lower than a dog”, she left home at the age of eighteen with $15 and a bag of clothes. Like many other LGBT residents of the city Marsha lived in poverty and on the outskirts, but she helped build a vibrant community, and gained some, but never total, freedom to do and dress as she pleased.
The P in her name stood for “pay it no mind”, her choice riposte when questioned about her identity
And what was that exactly? The answer changed several times. She described herself on different occasions as gay, a transvestite and a queen. Perhaps if she was alive today she would have preferred transgender. No matter, the P in her name stood for “pay it no mind”, her choice riposte when questioned about her identity. According to Edmund White, she presented herself as if she were “both masculine and feminine at once,” a positioning so radical that even the gay and lesbian organisers of the 1973 pride parade banned her from marching with them. Undeterred, she marched in front of them. Even in minority communities, there are majorities, and as a black, gender non-conforming person she played havoc with the veneer of respectability guarded by the often whiter, richer, cis-presenting sections of the community.
Almost by way of atonement, history has retrospectively inserted Marsha and the mythos surrounding her back into the narrative. You will find her, in contemporary retellings of the Stonewall uprising, throwing the first brick and throwing a shot glass against a mirror in the midst of the burning bar. Both these incidents are disputed, but we do know that Marsha rioted at Stonewall, sat-in at New York University, and marched with ACT UP.
There was no space for her in politics, so she brought politics out into the street to reckon with her
This week, direct action by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement led to the indictment of four police officers involved in the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the Minnesota City Council announced its intention to dismantle the city’s police department. In democratic countries, voting is useful but not a panacea. If an idea exists outside the Overton window of acceptable political discourse, it must make its presence known and drag itself within range. Had many of the major cities of the world not exploded with activists, it is doubtful that mainstream politics would have been roused, let alone heeded their demands. Marsha’s life and activism existed outside the Overton window. There was no space for her in politics, so she brought politics out into the street to reckon with her.
We still don’t know who killed Marsha P. Johnson. Her body was found dumped in the Hudson River, and the cause of death was ruled as suicide. Yet the blunt force wound on the back of her head, and the boasts of a local man that he’d killed a drag queen called Marsha, told her friends and supporters otherwise. Law enforcement made it clear that her death did not take precedence. The mistreatment of black and LGBT+ people by the police is not limited to brutality. It also manifests itself in apathy.
In 2019 politics caught up with Marsha, and her name was placed on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor. She no longer holds court on Christopher Street. But as in her life, in death, and in memory, she remains proudly and fabulously visible.
Image: Andres Musta via Creative Commons