The life of Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson, a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement
Marsha P. Johnson was an American activist, a self-identified drag queen, a performer, and a survivor. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. However, for much of her life, Marsha was ostracized from society. Almost thirty years after her death, she is finally getting the much-deserved attention that she was denied when she was alive. The tales of her activism are circulating on social media like never before, bringing attention to her legacy during this Pride month.
“a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint”
In the feature-length documentary ‘Pay it No Mind,’ director Michael Kasino (2012) attempts to showcase the life of Marsha, a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint. When she died at age forty-six, in the summer of 1992, Marsha was mourned by her friends. However, her death did not attract much attention in the mainstream press. Using her final interview from 1992, Kasino highlights the fading story of Marsha – the legendary gay and trans rights activist. She recounts her life at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the creation of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera in the 1970s, and a New York City activist through the 1980s and the early 1990s.
While now being a highly celebrated revolutionary and activist, Marsha’s childhood was shadowed by plight and suffering. At the age of five, Marsha stopped wearing dresses because the boys next door, as she put it: “tried to have sex with me”. She was raped by a thirteen-year-old when she was twelve. This was just the beginning of the challenges that Marsha would face in the future. She was known for being herself and unafraid of the judgement, harassment, and ridicule she would face when dressing up as a woman. The hardships of a transgender individual were not new to Marsha.
“Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors which deteriorated her mental well-being”
For much of her life, Marsha was homeless, living on the streets of New York without any financial or living arrangements. She battled severe mental illness, was in and out of psychiatric institutions, and suffered from HIV towards the end of her life. She was also arrested frequently for long periods, which she termed as “a normal process”. Research shows how expecting rejection is not only a common and salient stressor faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, but it can also compound the negative impact on their mental health. Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and having had the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors caused her mental well-being to deteriorate.
Despite the hard circumstances, Marsha was known for her open and optimistic personality. She could find joy in suffering and channeled it into political action with fierceness and grace. She dressed in flashy, homemade outfits, and decorated her hair with flowers, fruits, and even Christmas lights. In her words: “I may be crazy but that don’t make me wrong”. Her longtime friend Randy Wicker explained: “Friends and many people who knew Marsha called her ‘Saint Marsha’ because she was so generous.” Even after her death, the idealization of Marsha as a ‘good queen’ allowed the police to give trans people the street to mourn Marsha by blocking 7th Avenue.
“During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement”
As soon as she graduated from high school, Marsha came to New York with just a bag of clothes and $15. Moving to New York and being a drag queen is what saved Marsha. Even though Greenwich Village was known to be one of the most tolerant places for the LGBTQ community, police frequently harassed those who didn’t adhere to societal gender norms. According to Tomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a human rights activist: “gay people were scheduled for non-existence, in other words, we were supposed to have no reality called gay, homosexual, except to be in a mental health institution getting shock treatments or getting fired from a job.” This was also a time when gay pride parades excluded transgender people as they feared damaging their reputation because of their presence. During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement.
“Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within”
In Queer Necropolitics, the authors highlight the discourse between whiteness and blackness in the context of LGBTQ identity and rights. They explain Saidiya Hartman’s argument on how the transatlantic slave trade created a notion for blackness and made black people permanently available for the “enjoyment” of white people. This narrative of black people guilty in the eyes of the law and incapable of being violated has taken many forms and persists, even today, as seen in the murder of George Floyd. In the context of LGBTQ rights, projects like ‘It Gets Better’ by Dan Savage and Terry Miller illustrate how gayness was linked with whiteness, as the campaign aimed to make white sufferings legible and worthy of protection. This essentially created a generalised narrative of escaping homophobia that was out of reach for LGBTQ people of colour. There are several ways in which anti-blackness operates in this discourse. Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within. Thus, vocal, persistent, and domineering, Marsha P. Johnson can be attributed to not only as the face of trans rights but also that of black trans rights.
Previously thought to be one of the first people to resist the police during the Stonewall riots, Marsha told historian Eric Marcus that she only got to Stonewall after the riots had already started. The colour of her skin, her gender, or her identity as an activist and a leader could have led people to attribute her to be the pioneer of the riots – the first one to throw a shot glass heard around the world or the one to throw the first brick. Regardless, the riots of the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street were the turning point in queer activism. It led to the creation of many anti-racist and queer of colour organizations that brought attention to the heightened police brutality against LGBT people within and beyond the gay community. That same year, Marsha and Rivera founded S.T.AR., which advocated for sexual liberation and pushed to align gay rights with other social movements.
While primarily documenting the life and challenges of Marsha P. Johnson, ‘Pay it No Mind’ also does a good job of articulating and highlighting the systemic oppression faced by individuals at the intersectionality of the black and the trans communities. In today’s global and political context, through the documentary, members of the trans community can hear the story of Marsha P. Johnson, a revolutionary figure. The documentary acts as a source of inspiration and empowerment for the trans community. A way to connect with their history with pride, fight fearlessly for their rights, and carry on the legacy of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
“It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today”
For everyone else, the documentary is an eye-opener to visualize and empathize with the sufferings of the LGBTQ community. It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today. It creates a sense of urgency and teaches compassion towards the cause of trans rights inspiring viewers to take action and march collectively with trans activists. The message is clear – trans rights are human rights.
Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson was a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement. Marsha did not succumb to societal prejudice and political victimization and always fought for what she believed. She symbolizes trans resilience and sends out the message to trans communities to continue fighting till they have their rights not just in America, but across the world. In her words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us”. Marsha P. Johnson was truly a hero and today her legacy lives on in the fight for trans rights.
Watch the 2012 documentary here
Marsha P. Johnson Institute – https://marshap.org/
Vidhi obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology and International Studies from Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her MA in Mental Health Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.
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