‘I Got My Civil Rights!’ – Why the LGBT Movement Owes Everything to Marsha P. Johnson

By Ryan Hugh McWilliams

Recognized around the world as LGBT pride month, June is always my favorite time of year.  The weather finally reaches its summer status, everyone relaxes a bit, sartorial choices get a little more interesting, rainbow flags are everywhere, and I, for one, feel a little bit more freedom to be myself. I will say it was odd at first to begin to see every bank and chain store displaying Gilbert Baker’s prismatic creation from their shop windows a dozen or so years ago. What seemed like a basic commodification of gay culture now feels like a beautiful reminder of just exactly who is on our side in these troubling times.

As a fey gay growing up in Virginia, I learned quickly not to fan my flame and extinguish any outward signs of my queerness to protect myself from both verbal and physical harassment. I did my best to find safe spaces in the sea of hate that I inhabited. I became interested in literature and performance and befriended the people who held court in those arenas, creating a new family where I felt secure. I moved to New York City as soon as I possibly could to be surrounded by more like-minded people and folks who wouldn’t blink twice if I came off as femme. It may sound simplistic, but the ability to be yourself and to not have to question who you are or how you present yourself should not be a luxury. It has only been since I moved to this great city that I’ve been able to shed the shame and guilt thrust upon me by small minded people. Slowly but surely the voice in my head telling me to tone it down has died, something I celebrate every year when I see the massive parade of LGBT people simply being themselves.

This weekend marks the NYC Heritage of Pride March, celebrated on the last Sunday in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which launched the Gay Rights Movement as we know it. It is a beautiful day where we queer people can be surrounded by our brothers and sisters, take over the streets, and celebrate our differences. It is the one day where we can be completely free and feel like we are the majority. The story of the exact events surrounding that infamous night at The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street vary from person to person, but what most everyone agrees upon is that Marsha P. Johnson threw the first punch, or in this case the first shot glass. A homeless, transgender, African-American performer and activist with an unforgettable voice, and a quirky and crafty sense of style, Marsha P. Johnson should be a household name credited for standing up and fighting back for our civil rights.

The Stonewall Inn at the time was run by the Mafia and served the most vulnerable members of the gay community such as drag queens, trans people, femme boys, butch girls, and prostitutes. Police raids on gay bars were common at the time and undercover officers would go inside and hang out to get visual evidence to later use against the clients after the raid. Once the raid occurred, they would line the patrons up, check IDs, and arrest any men dressed as women after bringing them into the bathroom to check their sex if they couldn’t obviously tell. (Sounds eerily familiar to the gendered bathroom laws that are popping up everywhere these days.) Women who were not wearing three pieces of feminine clothing were also arrested. On June 28, 1969, the riot however did not proceed as intended. Maybe the patrons had enough of the raids or got angry when the police sexually assaulted some of the lesbians while frisking them, but this time they fought back.

Marsha P. Johnson photographed by Andy Warhol

As the story goes, Marsh P. Johnson was the first to resist arrest, shouting, “I got my civil rights!” while throwing a shot glass into a mirror. This encouraged the rest of the patrons to resist and a huge crowd gathered outside Stonewall to protest what was happening inside. Led by the homeless kids who slept in Christopher Park, the crowd began to throw garbage cans, rocks, and bottles at the police while shouting, “Faggot cops!” The confrontation went on well into the morning and another night of rioting continued the following evening. The community organizing continued and soon activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front, the Lavender Menace, and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) were formed to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people. The annual Pride March was founded shortly after and held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

A kind and generous queen, Marsha would give away her last dollar to someone who needed it more than she did. She left her hometown of Elizabeth, NJ to escape the harassment she encountered there, finding a new more welcoming home in New York City. She slept on the streets and in movie theaters, rummaging through thrift stores and taking donations from friends for her unique drag. Marsha was unusually kind to everyone and was called Saint Marsha by her friends. She befriended a young male prostitute and was offered a place to stay in his John’s home, where she lived for the next 12 years. After the Stonewall Riots she became heavily involved in activism, founding STAR with Sylvia Rivera which was the first organization that ran a homeless shelter for trans youth and drag queens. Later in her life she contracted HIV and began advocating with ACT UP to fight the AIDS epidemic.

It is imperative that we remember the work that Marsha P. Johnson did to secure our LGBT rights, especially at a time where trans people and people of color are being left behind. This weekend, when drinking cocktails with your crew and ogling all the pretty people on floats, let’s remember just exactly how we got here and how much farther we have to go. 13 transgender people have been murdered this year so far, that we know of. Our “President” is actively trying to dismantle our rights, locking us out of the census to deny our numbers, and is actively ignoring calls for gun regulation after 49 members of our community were murdered in the largest mass shooting in this country to date at the Pulse nightclub. Now is not the time to be complacent. Find an LGBTQ organization to get involved with such as The Trevor Project, Gays Against Guns, or the LGBT Center here in Manhattan. Keep writing your legislators and if there is a march or protest, show up.

In case you were wondering, the “P” in Marsha P. Johnson stands for “Pay It No Mind.” Words of wisdom from a truly amazing and original queen. Thank you Marsha.

For more information on Marsha P. Johnson watch the documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson embedded above.

About Ryan Hugh McWilliams 7 Articles
Ryan Hugh McWilliams is a writer, director, actor, and lifelong arts lover. With the belief that the arts facilitate communication and create social change, he has been covering performance and visual art in New York City for over a decade.

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