This piece was written and published in June to best mark Pride Month.
Marsha ‘Pay it no mind’ Johnson was born on the year that WWII ended, 1945, in New Jersey. She was a Black revolutionary and drag artist who moved to Greenwich Village during early adulthood (where Audre Lorde and Sylvia Rivera also lived), in the city that enabled her to become involved with LGBTQ+ activism at a time when homosexuality was criminalised. This was reflected in her name choice; a direct response to mainstream hatred by fellow New Yorkers.
As Marsha turned 23, the New York Police Department (NYPD) raided the Stonewall Inn (a popular gay bar), forcing hundreds of innocent people onto the streets where they were subject to unprovoked police brutality. This event served as a major catalyst for protests orchestrated by trans people of colour to take place in defiance of systemic hatred, whereby, improved rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and minority ethnic groups were demanded. Moreover, organisations such as the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) were formed to protect the wellbeing of those marginalised, this one by Marsha and Sylvia, signalling a cultural change in New York.
It is evident that Marsha spent her life dedicated to supporting others alongside fellow activists of colour, ensuring that generations born after the American boomers could live their lives relatively free from oppression. Alongside her focus on homeless minorities (STAR), Marsha also advocated for those living with HIV and AIDS in opposition to media backlash and societal moral panics. This led to her gaining the nickname of the Saint of Christopher Street (the address of the Stonewall Inn) as a well-known and loved pioneer of social change.
However, at the age of 46, Marsha went missing for six days and was found dead by police. Though they ruled out murder, Marsha’s loved ones heavily disagreed with the verdict, arguing that she was likely attacked in the street as an LGBTQ+ person of colour, an event common at the time. Moreover, the failings of the NYPD were compounded by their reluctance to admit fault. In fact, it was not until 2019 that the NYPD head issued a public apology for their actions, something spearheaded by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the modern world.
Hence, the lives of Marsha P Johnson (and fellow LGBTQ+ activists of colour) illustrate how, though rainbow capitalism prevents a sunny picture today, institutional racism and homophobia persist and continue to be reproduced. Elements of which are highlighted by protesters but unacknowledged by wider society.