Today, on Trans Visibility Day here in the states, I would lobby hard for the church to remember the stalwart of Stonewall, St. Marsha P. Johnson, Activist and Trailblazer.
Born with the name Malcolm Michaels Jr in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha lived her early years in a town with little acceptance for those who identified as LGBTQ. She remained closeted, was the victim of bullying and sexual harassment through school, and mercifully graduated and headed for New York City to live and work at the age of 17.
In her early days in New York she came out of the closet, and took on the persona Black Marsha, which eventually morphed into Marsha P. Johnson (the “Johnson” taken from Howard Johnson Motels and the “P” standing for “pay it no mind” in reference to questions about her gender). In the 60’s and 70’s Marsha used many labels to identify herself, often utilizing the term “transvestite,” an attempt to reclaim the moniker from contemptuous slurring. But many queer studies experts agree that, had the term been accepted and more widely used, Marsha would have identified herself as transsexual (mostly indicated by her preferred pronouns she/her…this is why pronouns matter).
Though St. Johnson was often portrayed as a drag queen, she described herself as “low drag” because she couldn’t afford the fancy clothes and makeup that professional queens utilized. She was just being herself…it was not an act or a performance. In her dress and personality she embodied the intersection of the masculine and feminine, inviting an analysis of assumptions and stereotypes.
Johnson was one of the first drag queens to cross the Stonewall threshold when they first began to allow drag queens to enter without interruption (it had primarily been a gay men’s bar). We often forget (and may our children always ask “why?!” when this bit of history is unveiled), but homosexual activity, cross-dressing, and same-sex pda was illegal in many states in the USA, even in 1969.
Right. We forget that. And in the age of “Don’t Say Gay” bills in Florida, it appears we’re trying to actively move back that way…
On June 28th, 1969 Stonewall Inn was raided by New York City police, and many were arrested sparking an uprising that lasted for days. The gay rights movement surged in the days following, with Marsha P Johnson on the front lines, pushing back against police brutality, claiming, “I got my civil rights!”
Marsha joined the Gay Liberation front, and in coordination with other movements across the United States, helped to push both public opinion and political legislation to include protections of sexual minority rights in courtrooms and classrooms.
Toward the end of her life St. Marsha, living with HIV herself, took care of her good friend dying of AIDS during the AIDS pandemic. She became a vocal advocate for better care and conversation of AIDS victims, and sat at the bedside of many who were dying of the disease as a comforter.
Despite not being accepted in many religious circles, Saint Marsha was a practicing Catholic, often praying and lighting candles for those she loved. She felt that Christ unified all living people, across the spectrums and diverse personhoods in which we live.
Tragically, directly following a Pride Parade in 1992, Saint Marsha P Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River under mysterious circumstances. Her legacy of love and activism and self-acceptance lives on in a movement that will not be stopped.
Saint Marsha P Johnson is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that loving yourself is holy, by God.
-historical bits from publicly available sources
-icon written by Kelly Latimore