Cops Don’t Belong at Pride, “Unseemly” Queer People Do
Marsha P. Johnson and the failures of queer respectability
There has been a huge amount of discourse recently around respectability within the queer community, and the presence of police officers there. Many people, especially young queer people, do not know our history around this issue. I hope this will help to educate some of us as to how long and brutal this fight has been.
Police brutality has always been, and continues to be, a queer issue. Prison abolition has always been, and continues to be, a queer issue. #NoCopsAtPride
Warning: this article contains references to riots, assault, bigotry, hate crimes, slurs, and sexual assault that may traumatize some readers.
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was an incredible activist, sex worker, drag queen, and black trans woman who every queer person in the US today owes an immense debt of gratitude, whether they are aware of it or not.
Hers is a name you’ve almost definitely heard before… she has been honored in books, documentaries, a google icon tribute, and much more since her death in 1992. However, many accounts of her life are sanitized, more palatable versions of the truth. This article will not be that.
Many articles on Johnson’s early life deadname and misgender her, which you will also not find here.
She arrived in New York City from her hometown in New Jersey at only age 17 and quickly established herself in Greenwich Village. This was not the Village as it’s known today.
The Village had long been a hotbed for artists, from the beat poets of the 50s onwards. The neighborhood was known for its avant-garde stylings, revolutionary culture, and frequent police brutality.
Both sex work and same-sex relations were illegal in New York City at the time, and The Village had both in spades. Gay bars, at this time, were the main cultural center for queer people, and in response, the NY State Liquor Authority, as well as the New York Police Department, targeted gay bars in particular. Queer people could be arrested and charged with a huge variety of crimes. Even a gathering of “homosexuals” alone could be punishable by law as “disorderly behavior”.
Activists pushed and won huge success when, in 1966, it became legal to serve homosexuals alcohol. You read that right. Beforehand, it had been illegal to serve homosexuals alcohol in the United States on the basis that it may “encourage their vices”.
This action functionally legalized gay bars' existence but did not stop the near-constant harassment of these institutions by police.
Public same-sex PDA was still illegal.
How was that defined? It was up to the officer’s discretion. This meant that any queer person could be arrested (with violence) at any time, and jailed, based fully on the whims of police officers.
Additionally, many gay bars did not have legal liquor licenses, as many were owned by organized crime groups. The mafia saw an opportunity — that queer people would pay to have a safe space to simply exist — and took it.
However, being catered to by the mob had consequences. The now-famous Stonewall Inn, for example, lacked running water to wash dishes or have sanitary bathrooms, and often served drinks that were unsanitary at best and dangerous at worst. Mob members routinely blackmailed patrons, threatening to out them if they did not perform favors or pay mob bosses.
The Stonewall Inn was one of the cheaper gay bars in the Village, and one of the few that allowed drag queens. It also allowed dancing, which was explicitly forbidden at most gay bars (due to dancing often attracting police attention). Although raids were common under the mafia’s protection, the Inn’s patrons were usually pre-warned.
The Stonewall became a nightly shelter for many queer youths who had nowhere else to turn, as the entry fees were much cheaper than many other locations.
This was where Marsha, 17, broke, and homeless, found herself.
She, like many others in the area, turned to sex work to support herself. It was here that Marsha began doing drag, originally referring to herself as “Black Marsha”. As time went on, she began using “drag” full-time. When questioned about this, she would reply “pay it no mind”, and was asked it so often that she coyly took that as her middle initial.
On June 28th, 1969, NYPD officers raided the Stonewall Inn. The mob hadn’t been warned about this raid. No one knew it was coming. The tippers of the NYPD that the Genovese family had hired failed them. The police found plenty of criminal activity, including bootleg alcohol and cross-dressers.
Cross-dressing was illegal at the time and it was police policy to have female officers take suspected cross-dressers to a bathroom, strip them, and forcibly investigate their genitals to determine if they were committing a crime. If that sounds familiar to current legislation around sports for children emerging in the United States, it should.
These forced genital exams not only included drag queens, but butch lesbians, trans people and anyone else who was in suspicion of cross dressing.
The exact details of June 28th, 1969, have been endlessly debated, however, the general consensus is that the neighborhood, agitated at the lack of warning, hung around outside the bar as 13 arrests were conducted. The arrests were rough, and officers were flagrantly violent towards their captives. Most accounts agree that one officer hit a butch lesbian over the head as he forced her into a police car. She shouted to the crowd to do something, and all hell broke loose.
The crowd had no weapons. Against fully armed police officers, the queer destitute and outcast began to throw objects at the officers. The courage involved in that action alone should stun you.
There are a lot of discussions in the modern day about who, exactly, threw the first brick.
The truth is that whoever threw the “first” brick matters far less than how many people were throwing bricks. The riot at the Stonewall Inn — and the beginning of the queer rights movement as we know it — was a movement of solidarity, not individualism.
One person throwing a brick leads to an arrest. Hundreds lead to a riot. Thousands lead to a movement for a better world.
The mob at the Stonewall Inn breached multiple police barricades before setting fire to the Inn itself. The fire department was called, but the metaphorical fire that started that night was much more difficult to put out.
The protests lasted 5 days, garnering media attention and sparking increased awareness and activism for queer rights across the nation and the world.
The next year, in 1970, NYC’s first Pride Parade began at the doors of the Stonewall Inn. June is Pride Month because of Stonewall, and because of a riot against police brutality.
Newspapers at the time tried to downplay the riots, and celebrated the “successes” of the police at containing them, to the point of obscuring the truth. Any mentions of violence committed by police are omitted, replaced by counts of officers injured and villainization of protestors. (Familiar?)
But for all the impact it had, Stonewall’s Legacy remains taboo, and as such is sanitized to the point of falsehood in many retellings. It was a riot, outright, with arson and violence against the police by a group of criminal sex workers, drag queens, queers, and mobsters. Even at the time, many queer organizations such as The Mattachine Society disapproved and publicly tried to distance themselves from the rioters.
The queer community is not a monolith and never will be.
Many organizations “celebrating” Stonewall’s legacy today sanitize its roots and obscure their own complicity in the conditions that led to an open riot. The Marsha P. Johnson google doodle is an excellent example of that. In it, Marsha’s likeness has been presented as peacefully leading a street parade, with banners of pride flags held by marchers.
The queer community was marginalized and forced into destitution, violence, and abuse by organizations, politicians, and bystanders alike. Riots happen when desperate, hurting people have nothing left to lose.
The NYPD did not admit any wrongdoing or formally apologize for the violence and discrimination that led to and precipitated the Stonewall Riots until 2019. This is after years of advocacy to beg for even that crumb of closure. Nothing is over. None of these wounds are healed. The wounds haven’t even been allowed to close, as police brutality and over-policing still plagues the queer community today, most prominently affecting trans women of color.
But let’s get back to Marsha.
She is often cited as if the Stonewall Riots were her single great contribution to queer rights. This is a discredit to her. Her activism extended both earlier than and long after the riots. The Stonewall Riots became her origin story.
Imagine this. Imagine being a young black homeless trans woman drag queen sex worker in 1969. Whatever level of horror you’re imagining isn’t enough. You’ve been beaten, assaulted, harassed, arrested, abused, and more. And at only 23 years old, you see your community rise up. This is in the midst of protests and national movements against war and sexism and racism and violence and bigotry of all kinds.
In all of this, you and your allies, young and vulnerable though you are, with protection from neither the mob nor the police, homeless and destitute and barely allowed to so much as exist… someone throws a brick.
And it matters.
The photo below was taken in Times Square a few days after the initial riot, when protests were widespread across New York City. These are some of the original members of the group that would become the Gay Liberation Front.
These were protests that the New York City Riot Squad was attempting to shut down, in the 60s, with 60s police tactics. The people in this photo are so young. The three people in front can’t be older than 20. They are kids, marching in the street, risking their lives, to prove they exist and demand that they be allowed to. (Does this also sound familiar?)
Marsha, as well as a close friend of hers, a Latina trans woman named Sylvia Rivera, went on from Stonewall to become some of the most significant queer rights activists in history. These two founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970.
The primary goal of STAR was to serve as a mutual aid and support network for homeless transgender youth in NYC. STAR owned a building on the lower East side, and from there, sheltered, fed, organized, and advocated for trans youth.
This year also saw the first Pride Parade, which was a celebration and vigil to commemorate the anniversary of the riot.
Marsha’s unique style of drag (mostly foraged from the dumpsters of NYC) and tenacity led her to become the most famous drag queen of her era, even touring the world with the drag theatre company, Hot Peaches, in 1972. She also performed with the Angels of Light in 1973.
This was probably the high point of Marsha P Johnson’s life.
Because fundamentally, the story of Marsha P Johnson is a story of failure. Not of her failure, but of the failure of her institutions, her peers, and her movement to prioritize their most vulnerable.
STAR was forced to close in 1973 but is still remembered as it was the first queer youth shelter in the United States as well as the first organization founded and run exclusively by trans women of color (that we know of).
The organizers of the 1973 Pride Parade banned both Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, claiming that drag queens and “transvestites” would give the cause of gay liberation “a bad name”. If this sounds familiar to the rhetoric currently circulating about whether kink and other “unseemly” queer presentations should be allowed at Pride, that’s because it’s the same recycled argument.
In protest, Johnson and Rivera then marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.
Throughout the 1970s, her drag performances heavily influenced the art form, and her protests heavily influenced the progression of queer rights.
She became so well known that in 1975 she was captured by Andy Warhol for his “ladies and gentlemen” series.
She became a marshal with ACT UP throughout the 1980s. She collaborated with and earned the respect of other activists, even the opposing force of hers in the queer rights movement, Randy Wicker.
Wicker had been one of the Mattachines, and one of the greatest proponents of the strategy that queer liberation could only come by convincing straight people that gay people were “just like them”. He was college-educated, wore a suit, and answered questions on television. This strategy was extremely popular at the time, especially by white gays and lesbians. This strategy also had no room for “distasteful” people.
Here is a video of organizers at the 1973 Pride Rally asking the crowd if they want to hear Sylvia Rivera speak. Watching her speak on the queer community at large ignoring the most vulnerable among them (trans people, people of color, incarcerated people, and especially people in more than one of those categories) is still chillingly compelling to watch fifty years later, and horrifying to recognize the same fights still being fought within our community.
L020A Sylvia Rivera, "Y'all Better Quiet Down" Original Authorized Video by LoveTapesCollective…
You can, quite loudly, hear the crowd booing her before she speaks, giving a speech about the rights of queer prisoners, and calling out the crowd for ignoring them. She also speaks about STAR and calls the crowd out for ignoring its vulnerable transgender members.
STAR is trying to do something for all of us, not just white middle-class men and women in their white club. — Sylvia Rivera, 1973
Marsha P Johnson was not part of the white club.
She was about as far from the acceptable class of queer as one could be. She was a loud, black, mentally ill, homeless drag queen who refused to stay silent or to smother herself into “respectability”. Although she struggled with mental health issues, homelessness, and poverty throughout her life, she became known as “Saint Martha,” the patron saint of young homeless queer people. Reportedly she would give up anything and everything to help anyone who needed it.
She did not receive the same kindness; she remained destitute even as she was world-renowned. In 1992, Marsha told the world that she had been HIV+ since 1990.
On July 6th, 1992, at 46 years old, Marsha P Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River in New York City. Without an investigation, police ruled her death a suicide.
Those who knew her, especially Sylvia Rivera, adamantly contested this, urging an investigation, especially after news surfaced that Marsha had been seen being harassed on the pier where her body was later found and that there was a massive wound to the back of her head.
An investigation was not conducted until activist Mariah Lopez succeeded in mounting enough pressure for the NYPD to reopen the case in 2012. So far there have been no new leads and no convictions.
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson struggled for most of her life with mental illness; being hospitalized multiple times. She struggled with violent outbursts, despite her overall personality being incredibly kind, generous and patient.
Her activism was vilified, often from within the queer community itself, for its revolutionary inclusion. She advocated for sex workers, prisoners, drug users, the homeless, the mentally ill, transgender people, and those living with HIV and AIDS.
She was vocally in favor of mutual aid, vocally anti-police, and revolutionarily honest about her chronic mental illness, homelessness, drug use, and sex work.
She, both in being and in speaking, utterly rejected the idea that the queer community ought to become more palatable, and that individuals seek to make themselves more digestible to society at large in order to deserve respect.
So now we sit, in 2021, and attempt to weigh the life and legacy of a beautiful, vulnerable, complex and flawed person. When seeing all the tributes, all the murals, the statues planned in NYC and Marsha’s hometown, I am so struck with one overwhelming thought.
Where was all this money, this love, when she was here? The answer is devastating in its simplicity; it’s not.
The love and the money go towards a caricature of the person Marsha P. Johnson was. We made her digestible. We made her simple. We, as a community, let her wallow in poverty, let her be murdered, and now let her memory be sanitized and scrubbed clean of its significance or authenticity.
We have failed her, and we continue to fail her.
She may be gone, but so many others are here. Do you look away when you see them? Are you too afraid to include them in your activism for fear that they will make your cause harder to swallow? Do you turn them away because they aren’t “respectable enough” for your movement?
This article features almost as many photos of her as I could find. That’s for good reason. I want people to look her in the eyes, and recognize her whole humanity, and grapple with what we’ve done to her, collectively, through our negligence.
The part that absolutely breaks me, every single time, is that in almost every picture taken of her, Marsha P. Johnson is smiling.
Before anyone dares say it; she was not martyred. She was murdered. She didn’t want to die. She had a full life that she was living, and it was ripped away. There’s no justice, no glory, and no goodness to come of that.
The current discourse about cops wanting to feel “included” in Pride is so beyond disrespectful to her and uncounted others who were literally abused, murdered and their legacies systematically destroyed by these same officers. Pride, as an event, only exists because of their resistance and struggle. Blood was shed. Lives were lost.
And those whose systemic abuses led to this event, this celebration of resistance and solidarity and vigil for the unknown masses of our ancestors whose stories we may never know, now dare to complain that they are not invited?
If we are to honor Marsha P Johnson and her legacy, in any way that matters, we will do it through radical honesty and revolutionary kindness. We will do it by protecting the most vulnerable of our community, and rejecting the myths of respectability politics. We will do it by being radically authentic and kind to the abused, not their abusers.
If you found this article helpful or informative, please consider donating to the Marsha P Johnson Institute, a charity that promotes the safety and wellbeing of black transgender people, especially those facing homelessness. https://marshap.org/donate/
As Elle Hearns, the founder of the Marsha P Johnson Institute has said, “I don’t think Marsha has left anything behind besides the permission of us all to be free.”
Link to original thread (edited for Medium):