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Marsha “Pay it no Mind” Johnson

By Tyler Born

Marsha P. Johnson was a transwoman who became an important face to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in New York City. She was recognized by being herself and fearing no judgment of the harassment and ridicule of dressing and living as a woman, while having the masculine features of a man. The hardships of a transgender individual were nothing new to Marsha who herself was living on the streets of New York without a permanent home or financial and living arrangements. This tended to be a normal struggle of transgender individuals. Marsha P. Johnson felt these people who wanted nothing more than to be their selves deserved support from the growing LGBT community in New York. Along with fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera she founded the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to help others out there facing the struggles of an unaccepting society.

Born a male and named Malcolm Michaels, Marsha legally changed her name after 1966, when she moved from New Jersey to Greenwich Village permanently, to Marsha P. Johnson. When people would ask her what her middle name was, she replied, “Pay it no mind.” This response was intended to be a rhetorical answer to the question many had on their minds as to whether she was male or female. By putting “pay it no mind” in her name it deterred the public from asking the question she hated to receive.

Marsha was an eccentric woman who was known for her exotic hats and jewelry which stood out to the public and attracted attention to her. When she was wearing these items or any female clothing she was Marsha P. Johnson. But there were times when she went back to her male persona of Malcolm. As Robert Heide, an acquaintance of Marsha, explains, “He sometimes saw a demon emerge especially when she was in her male persona of Malcolm. I think we all have that to some degree, but apparently in Malcolm/Marsha’s case there was this real duality and it would take hold. There was a schizophrenic personality at work, for Malcolm Michaels could become a very nasty, vicious man, looking for fights"[1].

She was more comfortable and happy in her female persona as Marsha, and among others who also felt more comfortable in a persona that is different than the one they were born into she felt she could help. She lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village from 1966 until her death in 1992. Marsha was devoted to the alternative lifestyle she lived and the support of others who wanted to live their lives that way. Acceptance was not always easy to come by even living in the socially liberal part of the largest city in the United States. The rejection of this culture turned violent in 1969 during the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village of New York City which was known for the LGBT subculture.

Throughout Greenwich Village there were establishments such as bars and nightclubs that were controlled by the mafia and where people could buy drugs and have a place to do them. Gay bars and clubs had their place in Greenwich Village and to the growing number of LGBT individuals it meant acceptance and salvation. There were now places to meet others who were experiencing the same bigotry and become friends with more people rather than foes. On the night/morning for June 28, 1969 police in Greenwich Village raided a known gay bar The Stonewall Inn, which Marsha P. Johnson had been at, and a violent riot followed. Robert Heide remembers the role Marsha played the night of the riots, “just saw her in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something"[2]. Heide and several others interviewed for David Carter’s book, Stonewall, claim that Marsha was the person who “really started it” on the first night of the riots[3]. Sylvia Rivera recalls about the night of the Stonewall riots, “This was started by the street queens of that era, which I was part of, Marsha P. Johnson, and many others that are not here"[4]. The Stonewall Riots had become the spark that ignited transgender rights and activism through the efforts of Marsha P. Johnson and other fellow activists and supporters.

Along with fellow transgender activist and friend, Sylvia Rivera, they founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). They were able to organize with homeless and or runaway transgender individuals to build a community and live together. According to Rivera, “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time"[5]. Keeping other transgenders off the streets was the primary goal of STAR. Many transgenders face violence on the streets from intolerant people. The responsibilities of the “children” or “youth” of the house were to find food for the house, a relatively safe responsibility compared to prostitution that Marsha had experienced in her youth to pay rent where violence occurred regularly and lives were always at risk. Marsha referred to anyone brought off the streets into the STAR homes as “children.” She was referred to as the Queen Mother. The Queen aspect came from her love of dressing in drag and performing at drag balls. The Mother aspect came from the matriarchal structure of the STAR house as a way to not live under patriarchal structure where the man is the head of the household.

Another activist group Marsha became a part of after the Stonewall Riots was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The GLF sought political action and protection for citizens based on their sexual orientation or behavior against oppressive laws and unequal ethics. A 1970s newspaper titled Come Out stated, “Gay Liberation Front welcomes any gay person, regardless of sex, race, age or social behavior. Though some other gay organizations may be embarrassed by drags or transvestites, GLF believes that we should accept all of our brothers and sisters unconditionally[6]. GLF gave acceptance to individuals like Marsha and Sylvia, who did not identify as gay, but rather transgender.

Along with STAR and GLF activism, Marsha posed for a collection of artist Andy Warhol’s paintings and photographs. “Ladies and gentleman” was the title of one of Warhol’s works that Marsha posed for in 1975. In the painting Marsha is not mentioned by name, or any of the male to female transgenders. Taro Nettleton explains why, “If ‘giving face’ through portraiture implies the recognizability of an individual, then this portfolio was doomed from the start, for the ladies and gentlemen pictured here have no proper names. Insofar as attaining face and face necessarily involved getting, having, or making a name for oneself, these sitters will never be stars. Hence their anonymity is of an entirely different order than ‘the anonymous identity of the stars.’[7]” Andy Warhol was a pop artist who lived in Greenwich Village and was popular among a variety of people but influential to the LGBTQ community. Warhol was gay and successful which inspired many throughout the community. Posing for Warhol meant Marsha would be seen by millions who view Warhol’s work who displayed the beauty and femininity of Marsha.

Marsha passed away on July 6, 1992. Her body was found in the Hudson River in New York. Police and investigators ruled her death as a suicide, but people who knew her and were close to her insisted she was not suicidal. Witnesses saw Marsha being harassed earlier in the day and wanted a full investigation of her death as a murder. There has been no criminal investigation to the death of Marsha P. Johnson.

Today Marsha’s legacy lives on within the LGBTQ community and beyond. On May 10, 2012 the second annual Chloe Awards were held in New York City. The Chloe Awards remember and honor ancestors of activism and activists that work today. At the event there are performances, a ceremony, and a dance party to celebrate those who paved the way for transgender activism. The awards were named after Chloe Dzubilo who was an HIV positive male to female transgender activist and artist who lived in the same neighborhood or New York as Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and was the cultural and activist successor of Marsha and Sylvia. In 2011 Chloe passed away and as a tribute to her life and activism there began a public remembrance and celebration of the lives of others within the transgender community. 

References

  1. Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin's, 2004.
  2. Ibid., 298
  3. Ibid., 298
  4. Rivera, Sylvia. "Sylvia Rivera's Talk at LGMNY, June 2001 Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, New York City." Centro Journal 19.1 (2007): 117-23
  5. Feinberg, Leslie. "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries." Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/>.
  6. Ibid.,
  7. Nettleton, Taro. "White-on-White: The Overbearing Whitness of Warhol Being." Art Journal 62.1 (2003): 14-23.

Links

Kasino, Michael, director/producer. "Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson." Video accessed June 1, 2015 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjN9W2KstqE