Marsha P Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels (1945-1992) was a transgender woman who was involved in the Stonewall riots of 1969 which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement in the USA.
The riot began outside the Stonewall Inn, a hub for the gay community at this time. They were often bothered by the police; deliberately targeted for their lifestyle and arrested on questionable charges. But this finally came to a boiling point, and this is when Stonewall began. The riot spread to neighbouring streets and lasted several days; some eyewitnesses credit Marsha with throwing the first object at the police.
Marsha’s activism spread way beyond Stonewall and lasted her entire life. Despite struggling with mental health issues, drug problems and spending most of her life effectively homeless, in addition to being an openly transgender woman of colour, she fought hard for her community. She co-founded GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera. She aimed to challenge societies ideas about LGBT people, and organised rallies and meetings across America. She even had to fight against discrimination within her own community, and spoke out against the prioritisation of white cis gay issues.
Drag performance was a central aspect of Marsha’s life, and she even toured the world performing with the drag troupe ‘Hot Peaches.’ Drag is still an important and vibrant part of LGBT culture, as shows such as Ru Paul’s drag race help to normalise gay issues – although recent evidence proves that there are still transphobic attitudes within this community.
In parts of America, sleeping with a member of the same sex was still illegal in many states until 2003. Homophobia and especially transphobia are still rife across the USA (not to mention the rest of the world). For many women, including Marsha, transphobia combined with barbaric racism is a deadly combination, and Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson river of her beloved New York in 1992. The police brushed it off as suicide, despite the protests of those who knew her and knew that she was not suicidal. She was only 46.
Today, trans women of colour are still at serious threat of discrimination, violence and murder, and the numbers are not declining;
“Among the 53 known transgender victims from 2013-2015, at least 46, or 87%, were transgender people of color.*”
Almost all were under the age of 39. According to the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), the average life expectancy of a trans woman in the Americas is thirty five years old. That makes Marsha’s life appear long and healthy.
I hope that the focus on Marsha P Johnson can serve to illuminate the appalling treatment of contemporary trans women; it is vital for us to know that this issue is still here, it’s still horrifying and at the moment it’s not going away. Protect trans people, question patriarchal notions of masculinity that feed the idea that being trans is just a man pretending to be a woman (and therefore a lesser creature). Let your boys wear what they want and access their emotions, and perhaps someday we will have a generation of men who do not see trans people as an insult to their own self esteem.