Marsha 'Pay It No Mind' Johnson: The Significance of Suppressed Context
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
Marsha P. Johnson
There is a great deal of self-awareness one must apply in considering the history of the Black LGBTQ+ in this country; it is in fact the greatest challenge I face while doing such because there is--nor will there ever be-- an eloquence equal to the discussion at hand. For starters, LGBTQ+ history--in its entirety--spans all the way back to the very first recorded instances of same-sex love in ancient civilizations from across the globe. Even from this broad standpoint, considering only what has been shared and interwoven into the mainstream, historical narrative would be quite careless on my end, especially when its rhetoric has perpetually been designed by the persecutors in charge.
It is important for me to remember that how I perceive the subject matter has been shaped and imposed upon me from an extremely limited perspective, one that might have left out significant detail, to say the least. But since when has inadequacy, in any context, ever been evidence of the truth? In regards to my country’s handling of this history, those disregarded details are the experiences of those names--forgotten, shamed, and suppressed-- whose entire livelihoods were so hidden in secrecy under the threat of death (or worse), that the sheer, general notion of an entire community did not come into existence until the 19th century, about one hundred centuries late of their recorded arrival in Mesolithic times.
Black LGBTQ+ history in the US: a chronicle of an entire community, shrouded by ignorance and immaculate dates of progression. Now, attempting to convey the idea of a peaceful revolution to someone beyond the age of adolescence would be an insult on their level of basic comprehension and yet it is exactly how we treat the times of change in our country. The danger with this approach in my opinion is that future generations--all of us--completely underestimate the price that was paid for positive change to occur. We shoot ourselves in the foot before we’ve even reached the starting line, and my apprehension stems from being a member of the flock.
And so it is here where the challenge of comprehension lies for me, as I am certain it does for those who are even more detached from the topic than a Black, cisgender male. Names and dates affiliated with the progress this country has made with the rights and social wellness of the LGBTQ+ should always be acknowledged and receive praise. Particulars should be shared and forced upon the common, preoccupied individual in the hope that they might see or learn about something that would not regularly appear in their established, social bubble. And to a certain extent, I do agree that this is being done. But that is just the first step; how can you fully understand and appreciate something if you know nothing about it? If you never knew how much was sacrificed? For many, the fight simply involved being yourself, and the price that was paid was blood.
It was June of this year when I had found out who Marsha P. Johnson was. At first I was embarrassed it had taken me so long to discover that a Black woman was credited as one of the key leaders to arguably the most important event leading up to the gay liberation movement. I still am, however at the same time it seems that since her death in 1992 and my subsequent arrival the following year, Marsha P. Johnson’s name has shown up quite possibly maybe only a dozen times from then until now, and what is in fact actually there to discover does not paint even a dull picture of who she was, what she went through, and what she managed to accomplish despite.
That being said, what first introduced me to Marsha was the ‘Google Doodle’ that featured her on the search engine page, and I remember immediately thinking how familiar she looked with her gleaming, wide grin and sported flower crown. I felt proud that a Black woman’s life was being honored for her work and activism; not enough people understand how unfortunately rare that is, and it is exactly that reason why I felt shameful for not knowing more about her. At that moment, the intention of the work itself--set up by Google and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute together--was fulfilled. Remnants of an omitted history continued to emerge and caught the attention of many to an elaborate puzzle without all of its pieces.
For someone as important as Marsha P. Johnson truly is and--in more recent years-- displayed for positive awareness, there is very little written about her life from an academic citation standpoint. Back then and today, scholars would have you believe that Marsha P. Johnson and the LGBTQ+ community did not exist prior to June 28th, 1969. The common, detached individual can now say that they are informed; that because there are now present signs of embrace in this country towards LGBTQ+’s own self-pride, that there is no need to study its precursor. The content I found to be there and how it has been treated since has been of no surprise to someone whose history has been handled similarly, that is to be overlooked and hoped to be lost. But even the slightest fragment of context would reveal why the demand for someone like Marsha P. Johnson was essential to the lives of an entire community; it would paint The Stonewall Riots as a revolution.
From any point in time of human history--recorded or not--the perspective to resist the perpetual, inevitable notion of change has always been present. Entire livelihoods were contingent on the ebb and flow of this county’s social acceptance towards an individual’s own personal, sexual identity. What was openly publicized and referenced to since the 1800s was abruptly discernible as a psychiatric disorder, indictable to castration, nerve surgeries and lobotomies in the 1930s.
With the invasive attack of paranoia and privacy brought on from McCarthyism occurring shortly after, the likelihood of any Black LGBTQ+member having the slightest physical, mental, spiritual, or financial means to simply stay afloat would be impossible. In one of two likely scenarios, one would find themselves under the constant stress of subduing their own identity, sought out by the federal government as a threat to state security. The second involves the circumstances an openly liberated person would be subjected to within the setting of the time: a life of poverty, loneliness and mental decline. This reality went undocumented, and thousands of lives--of all ages-- were left to fend for themselves. The heroes of a suppressed society would have to come from within; from someone who was in the trenches themselves, if only, to survive another day.
Perhaps we are not so far detached that I can refer back to the incidental riots that occurred from the peak, nation-wide protests this past summer. In situations like this, the uninformed--or those who simply haven’t been paying attention-- want an immediate answer as to what the cause was, as if there was one tangible event you could refer back to show the cause and effect. But the patience of those forced under societal resignation do not call for notice of departure, and this was felt from across the lines of class, race, sexuality, and gender expression during The Stonewall rebellion. With thousands of people arriving and participating on the second day of protesting, Marsha appears to be one of the few definitive faces in appearance, and this is typically where her legacy begins. So why, then, were the accounts of her presence there so discernible from the rest?
Earlier I mentioned the arduous task of finding any academic source that mentioned the activism Marsha P. must have been involved in before Stonewall. What she selflessly did for all members of the LGBTQ+ community would be left entirely to word of mouth, and it is there where I was able to learn the vivid significance of someone like Marsha P. Johnson in the 1960s. Relationships were made and nurtured from the solidarity of an omitted society. To many she supplied a foreign comfort within their lives, providing food, shelter, clothing, emotional support and a sense of family fortification, the strength of which being on full display during Stonewall.
I suppose after spending so little amount of time imparting Marsha’s undocumented significance towards intersectionality and LGBTQ+ rights that I have consequently done the same as those who refuse to acknowledge it at all. The fact of the matter is that all of us have a lot of catching up to do. To publish what is already known of a person whose public reverence is already slighted would be counterproductive on my end. Her true legacy lies in the context of what it meant to be anything other than cisgender during this time in our country; if now someone were able to perceive the horrifying reality of an entire community, Marsha P. Johnson and individuals like her would receive the rightful praise that they deserve. Until history is properly revised, however, I implore us all to follow in Marsha’s empathetic footsteps, thank her for her sacrifices, and to never forget what we barely know now.
If you'd like to learn more about Marsha P. Johnson or how you can help defend and protect Black Trans lives across the country, visit The Marsha P. Johnson Institute for more information.