Pay It No Mind: The Uprising of Marsha P. Johnson
It is hard to believe there was a time when drag queens were not mainstream, or LGBTQ people were not appearing as the center pieces of pop star’s music videos, or a time when the aforementioned queens were not welcomed in the gay bars where we so often now see them entertaining us night after night. Marsha P. Johnson, along with so many others helped change all of this by being both a revolutionary and simply herself.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was born into a big religious family who didn’t necessarily oppose her unique spirit but definitely didn’t agree with homosexuality. Marsha would remain religious her whole life, leaning on Jesus through many of the hardships that would outline her life. After graduating from high school in 1963, she left for New York City and began waiting tables in the quintessential gayborhood, Greenwich Village. It was there, after meeting more and more gays, that Marsha began to feel the possibility of being gay in a world where she didn’t quite understand what being gay looked like yet. Marsha referred to herself as gay, a drag queen and a “transvestite”, a word that has long gone out of use. When people began to ask too many questions about her identity, Marsha began to answer, “Pay it no mind”; and according to her that is what the “P” in her name stood for.
The Stonewall riots have become the genesis of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States and depending on what you have read, there are a few different accounts of who got things started. Marsha P. Johnson however, has always been the name that true historians remember when they discuss those first nights that started the riots. Some have been quoted as saying Marsha threw the first “shot glass heard around the world” and others say it was a brick. Even Marsha herself minimized her role by saying that she didn’t arrive until after the riots started. Marsha may or may not have initiated the riots, but she did create a lifelong crusade to advance LGBTQ civil rights. Along with another prominent Stonewall figure, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, and opened a house to shelter homeless LGBT youth. Although Marsha was pushing LGBTQ rights forward with her incredible activism and unearthly ability to mobilize people, some more affluent gays thought her iconic look would turn off their straight counterparts. Marsha would be seen with flowers and fruit in her hair, and she even said her drag was not elevated enough. Her look may not have been palatable enough to some or deemed elevated by others, but it was authentic, which is why the iconic Andy Warhol made her the subject of one of his famous silk screen portraits.
Marsha was found floating dead in the Hudson River in 1992, and the people closest to her believed she was murdered. As we look at the recent murders of Black Trans Women today one can only assume what happened to Marsha. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and the legacy of those who came before us during the San Diego Pride Parade, let us pause and remember a Queen who launched a movement that we will be forever grateful for. And remember, if people are asking too many questions about you and yours, take a page from Marsha and tell them to “pay it no mind”.