Happy Birthday Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson!

Guest Post by Reina Gossett

A picture of a smiling, decadently beautiful flower arrangement hat wearing Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson

A few months ago I took the PATH train to Hoboken with my artistic collaborator Sasha Wortzel to interview Randy Wicker for a film we are making about Sylvia Rivera.  Randy is one of the few surviving members of Mattachine Society, an early queer radical organizing group in the US. Randy’s apartment is an archival space containing vital history, some shared visually through the photographs on Randy’s refrigerator door, other pieces held in the clothes adorning the wall, but most of it Randy passes to you through stories.  Randy befriended both Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and having lived with both them for a total of 14 years Randy has a wealth of stories to share.

 When I think about how Randy shares history through storytelling, I am reminded of the many trans people who would be have been elders not alive today.  I think about the stories they might be telling today and in particular,  I wish to hear stories directly from people like Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a revolutionary who was amongst the first to fight back against the racist & homophobic police at Stonewall.

 After occupying Weinstein Hall at New York University for nearly a week in response to their homophobic policies, Marsha helped form STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha also traded sex for money and organized with other people in the sex trade in New York City’s Times Square &  West Village. She galvanized people from inside jails and prisons, as well as created home for them in the form of STAR House in Manhattan’s Lower East Side even after her husband was murdered by an off duty NYPD officer.  She was an incredible performer, touring with the performance group Hot Peaches. She saved Sylvia Rivera’s life numerous times. As an HIV positive person, she organized AIDS vigils, navigated mental illness, and was a mother to a generation of trans and gender nonconforming people in New York City.  She was also one the many Black trans people to be found dead, in her case, in the Hudson River after Gay Pride in 1992.

Marsha P Johnson holds part of a banner in a street action.
Marsha on the Move

 Marsha’s story forces me to confront the physical violence that stops some trans women from ever becoming elders. This historical violence elevates some lives, names them as important to know through their tragic deaths while erasing the lives & legacies of others.

 Whether it knows it or not, the current LGBT movement owes a huge debt to this hirstory created by a long legacy of people who identified as drag queens, drag kings, transvestites, cross dressers, genderqueer and those who move between and evolve their language for their gender identity and gender expression in ways that are confrontational, provocative and humor filled.

 Since the early days following Stonewall LGBT organizations like the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and Lesbian Feminist Liberation began championing the assimilation imperative, believing that if the law -in their case the anti-discrimination bill Intro 475- said good things about gays and lesbians then they would be free.  The effects of this strategy were felt most violently by the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t assimilate into the white professional gay image of  these organizations.  In an interview with Bob Kohler, Marsha described her experience going to one of GAA’s meetings:

   I went to GAA one time and everybody turned around and looked…they weren’t friendly at all.  It’s just typical.  They’re not used to seeing transvestites in female attire…When they see me or Sylvia come in, they just turn around and they look hard.

The assimilation imperative became so overwhelming that trans people were kicked off the protected identities list in the anti-discrimination bill in hopes that it would pass New York City Council more quickly.  As Sylvia put it in an 1992 interview with Randy Wicker on the Christopher Street Pier, Marsha P Johnson, Bubbles Rose Marie, and other street queens catalyzed the movement for gay liberation only to be violently kicked out & exiled “when drag queens were no longer needed in the movement!” This violence continues today through the historical erasure of the  many contributions of Sylvia & Marsha, sex workers, homeless people, people of color and poor trans people from the riots at Stonewall.

 Today the LGBT equality movement functions as the primary vehicle for assimilation, the container into which we are supposed to pour all of our energy & resources.  And to what end? Narrow demands such as entry into a military that generate profits through waging war and killing people via the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the fortifying of prison systems through the Matthew Shepard & James Bryd Jr. Acts   do not mean that the police, courts, and prisons will never protect us.  Until recently these groups were widely understood to be our most significant predators, designed to control our lives and deliver our deaths.

 As many of us have pointed out, equality demands that we don’t intervene on neo-liberal economic policies like gentrification of people of color neighborhoods. These policies haven’t stopped racism, ableism, or sexism in the workforce nor have they prevented the targeting of black trans women for extinction.  They don’t stop the immigration system from making some lives nearly impossible nor do they end the ongoing occupation of indigenous land in the US.  These are not systems we should be demanding to be allowed to join.

One of the most insidious aspects of the assimilation imperative is its ability to shut down alternate visions of how communities can support themselves and work towards liberation, whether through abolishing the prison industrial complex or starting a recreation center, these strategies have been eclipsed by the resources and scope of the LGBT equality movement.

 In contrast to the equality movement assimilation strategies, Marsha P Johnson laid out a clear freedom dream during her interview “RAPPING WITH A STREET TRANSVESTITE REVOLUTIONARY” with Bob Kohler.  She told Bob:

   STAR is a very revolutionary group.  We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.  Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and free…We’d like to see our gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.  There are a lot of gay transvestites who have been in jail for no reason at all, and the reason why they don’t get out is they can’t get a lawyer or bail.

 Marsha also had concrete strategies to achieve those goals:

  I would like to see STAR with a big bank account like we had before, and I’d like to see that STAR home again…We’re going to be doing STAR dances, open a new STAR home, a STAR telephone, 24 hours a day, a STAR recreation center.  But this is after our bank account is pretty well together.  And plus we’re going to have a bail fun for every transvestite that’s arrested, to see they get out on bail, and see if we can get a STAR lawyer to help transvestites in court.

 The GOOD NEWS is the freedom dream STAR, Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Bubbles Rose Marie, Andorra and Bambi laid out is alive and well, especially around ending the criminalization of trans and gender non conforming people of color.

Yesterday while many were celebrating the Supreme Courts decision on DOMA, Queerocracy gathered where Marsha P Johnson helped kick off to the Stonewall Rebellion to speak out against HIV Criminalization, an issue that affects many communities left behind by the mainstream equality movement.

Marsha P Johnson holding a sign that reads "STAR PEOPLE ARE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE"

 Today in the shadow of the equality movement many of us strive to hold Marsha’s bold desire to end isolation of incarcerated trans and gender non conforming people.  Miss Major, a trans elder who took part in the Stonewall rebellion who continues Marsha’s legacy through her work with the Transgender Intersex Justice Project.  The Lorena Borjas Fund, founded by Lorena Borjas works to address the problem Marsha P Johnson named of not being able to get out of jail because you can’t afford bail or a lawyer.  FIERCE, Streetwise and Safe as well as Queers for Economic Justice organize with low income LGBTQ people who are navigating poverty, homelessness and policing to fight back and build strong communities.  The Sylvia Rivera Law Project provides free legal services, a prison pen pal postcard project, the In Solidarity newsletter in an attempt to meet Marsha P Johnson’s vision.

 Tomorrow Trans Justice of the Audre Lorde Project will host the annual 9th Trans Day of Action, where TGNC People of Color and allies will take on the streets of New York City once again and demand justice and to let the world know that the Stonewall rebellion is not over and we will continue fighting for justice and raising our voices until we are heard.

 We do this work in order to fight back against transphobia, colonization racism, ableism, xenophobia and homophobia.  We do this work to build strong communities and support each other.  We do this work with Marsha’s spirit to build an even strong self determination movement that we can all make home.

 Reina Gossett joined the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in July of 2010 as the membership coordinator.  Along with Gabriel Foster she will staff the newly created Movement Building Team, working to develop SRLP’s membership and community organizing work.  She believes creativity & imagination are crucial for growing strong communities and practicing self determination.  She also loves making collages, watching re-runs of Battlestar Galatactica and reading anything illustrated by Diane & Leo Dillon.

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