As part of our Black History Month celebrations, Patrick Worthington, Head of Marketing and Communications, salutes Marsha P. Johnson, transgender activist, and advocate of LGBTQ+ rights.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Marsha was part of a growing community of LGBTQ+ youth in New York City who sought acceptance, when LGBTQ+ rights were strictly limited. She was one of the most prominent figures of the gay rights movement at that time, as well as an advocate for homeless trans and LGBTQ+ youth, and those effected by the HIV and AID crisis. During Marsha’s lifetime, the term transgender was not commonly used, therefore she often described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen, using the pronouns she/her.
Patrick Worthington, Head of Marketing and Communications:
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels into a Christian family in New Jersey, and due to this experienced a difficult childhood. She like to wear women’s clothes from an early age, which growing up in a Black household with a strong connection to the church was very much frowned upon. As a result of her family disapproval, Marsha moved left home after graduating high school to take refuge in Greenwich Village, New York City.
In New York, she struggled to make ends meet, predominantly homeless or sleeping in friends sofas, and became a prostitute to ensure she had enough money to live. Despite her set backs, she quickly became a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ community, serving as a “drag mother” and supporting those she could in whatever way she could.
Marsha is mostly commonly known for her involvement in the Stonewall Riots; the Stonewall Riots that took place in the early hours of 28 June 1969 in New York, due to a police raid at an LGBTIQA+ club called “the Stonewall Inn”. Armed with a warrant, police officers forcefully entered the club; this wasn’t the first raid of an establishment in the community, violent police raids happened frequently in the LGBTIQA+ community, however on this night people reacted differently.
On the one-year anniversary of the riots, thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park, now seen as the first recorded gay pride parade in America, and indeed the world, and the start of the global gay rights movement – Marsha took centre stage at the front of the parade.
What I find most interesting about the Stonewall riots is the intersectionality of those involved. Most of those that took to the streets were, like Marsha, Black and transgender members of the LGBTQ+ community. To me, Marsha is a modern-day heroine, and whenever I’m at a Pride celebration, I will also take time to pause and reflect, to thank those that were involved in the Stonewall riots, and for giving me the rights, and day-to -day freedoms, I enjoy in today’s society. It is Marsha’s face, and beaming smile, that’s always in the forefront of my mind at these moments, and in fact, every day, as she looks over me from my living room wall, thanks to this fantastic artwork from Nashid Chroma.
Behind her infectiously joyous personality and smile, she experienced much hardship, suffering both financially and with her mental health. However, she never let this stop her advocating for the trans and wider LGBTQ+ community, despite her growing frustrations of the exclusion of transgender, and people of colour, from the movement. She actively called out transphobia and racism in the early gay rights movement, and as a Black trans woman was often swept to the outskirts of the movement by white cisgender men and women.
I would love to say that times have changed, but the increasingly political attitudes creating a toxic environment towards the trans community over the past year, and reading headlines and misinformation in the mass media, infuriates me. Trans people have always, and will always, exist, and have a place in our society. How a trans person lives their life should not be something anybody has the power to decide. It is shameful that certain people choose to attack the trans and intersex community in such an inhumane and degrading way; a community that makes up 0.3% of our population, should not be the target for political campaigns - government priorities should be on the cost of living crisis, climate control and delivering timely healthcare.
Now, more than ever, it is important, even as someone in the LGBTQ+ community, to reflect on the intersectionality of those that earned the rights we have today, and to stand together, to fight for those rights to remain for all of the community. Whether that be supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, or standing firm and support the trans community. We must educate ourselves and each other, and stop the spread of hurtful misinformation, particularly in recent months with the increase in transphobic hate crime.