Marsha P. Johnson Unisex T-Shirt
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Frameline Voices – Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992), born and also known as Malcolm Michaels Jr., was an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Though some have mistakenly credited Johnson for starting the riots, Johnson was always forthcoming about having not been present when the riots began.
Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. Johnson was also a popular figure in New York City‘s gay and art scene, modeling for Andy Warhol, and performing onstage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches. Johnson was known as the “mayor of Christopher Street“ due to being a welcoming presence in the streets of Greenwich Village. From 1987 through 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP.
Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Johnson had six siblings and a father, Malcolm Michaels Sr., who was an assembly line worker at General Motors. Michaels’ mother, Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. Johnson was raised in the Mount Teman African Methodist Episcopal Church. Commenting on this upbringing, Johnson said, “I got married to Jesus Christ when I was sixteen years old, still in high school.”
Johnson first began wearing dresses at the age of five but stopped temporarily due to harassment by boys who lived nearby. In a 1992 interview, Johnson described being the young victim of rape by a thirteen year old boy. After this, Johnson described the idea of being gay as “some sort of dream”, rather than something that seemed possible, and so chose to remain sexually inactive until leaving for New York City at 17. Johnson’s mother reportedly said that being homosexual is like being “lower than a dog”, but Johnson said that Alberta was unaware of the LGBT community. Johnson’s mother also encouraged her child to find a “billionaire” boyfriend or husband to take care of (Johnson) for life, a goal Johnson often talked about.
After graduating from Edison High School (now the Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Academy) in Elizabeth in 1963, Johnson left home for New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes. Johnson waited on tables after moving to Greenwich Village in 1966. After Johnson began hanging out with the street hustlers near the Howard Johnson’s at 6th Avenue and 8th Street, Johnson’s life changed. Johnson came out and said “my life has been built around sex and gay liberation, being a drag queen” and sex work.
Did Marsha P. Johnson Start the 1969 Stonewall Riots?
Performance work and identity
Johnson initially used the moniker “Black Marsha” but later decided on the drag queen name “Marsha P. Johnson”, getting Johnson from the restaurant Howard Johnson’s on 42nd Street, stating that the P stood for “pay it no mind” and used the phrase sarcastically when questioned about gender, saying “it stands for ‘pay it no mind'”. Johnson said the phrase once to a judge, who was amused by it, leading to Johnson’s release. Johnson variably identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen or “street queen”). According to Susan Stryker, a professor of human gender and sexuality studies at the University of Arizona, Johnson’s gender expression could perhaps most accurately be called gender non-conforming; Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, but the term was also not in broad use while Johnson was alive.
The definitions used by Rivera and Johnson were not always the same as those documented in the more mainstream literature of the era. For instance, Rivera insisted on claiming transvestite solely for use by gay people, writing in the essay “Transvestites: Your Half Sisters and Half Brothers of the Revolution”, “Transvestites are homosexual men and women who dress in clothes of the opposite sex.” In an interview with Allen Young, in 1972’s, Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, Johnson discussed being a “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionary“, saying, “A transvestite is still like a boy, very manly looking, a feminine boy.” Johnson distinguishes this from transsexual, defining transsexuals as those who are on hormones and getting surgery. Also discussed are Johnson’s experiences of the dangers of working as a street prostitute in drag, and Johnson’s husband who was murdered. Johnson and Rivera’s interviews and writings in this era also at times used terminology in ways that were sarcastic and camp, other times serious, or all of the above at once.
Johnson’s style of drag was not serious (“high drag” or “show drag”) due to being unable to afford to purchase clothing from expensive stores. Johnson received leftover flowers after sleeping under tables used for sorting flowers in the Flower District of Manhattan, and was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers. Johnson was tall, slender and often dressed in flowing robes and shiny dresses, red plastic high heels and bright wigs, which tended to draw attention. As Edmund White writes in his 1979 Village Voice article, “The Politics of Drag”, Johnson also liked dressing in ways that would display “the interstice between masculine and feminine”. A feature photo of Johnson in this article shows Johnson in a flowing wig and makeup, and a translucent shirt, pants and parka – highlighting the ways that, quoting Kate Millett‘s Sexual Politics, White says, “she is both masculine and feminine at once.”
There is some existing footage of Johnson doing full, glamorous, “high drag” on stage, but most of Johnson’s performance work was with groups that were more grassroots, comedic, and political. Johnson sang and performed as a member of J. Camicias’ international, NYC-based, drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches, from 1972 through to shows in the 1990s. When The Cockettes, a similar drag troupe from San Francisco, formed an East Coast troupe, The Angels of Light, Johnson was also asked to perform with them. In 1973, Johnson performed the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in the Angels’ production, “The Enchanted Miracle”, about the Comet Kohoutek. In 1975, Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of Polaroids. In 1990, Johnson performed with The Hot Peaches in London. Johnson, who was also HIV positive, became an AIDS activist and appeared in The Hot Peaches production The Heat in 1990, singing the song “Love” while wearing an ACT UP, “Silence = Death” button.
While the photos of Johnson in dramatic, femme ensembles are the most well-known, there are also photos and film footage of Johnson dressed down in more daily wear of jeans and a flannel shirt and cap, or in shorts and a tank top, and no wig, such as at the Christopher Street Liberation March in 1979, or singing with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus at an AIDS memorial in the 1980’s, or marching in a protest in Greenwich Village in 1992.
Though generally regarded as “generous and warmhearted” and “saintly” under the Marsha persona, Johnson’s angry, violent side could sometimes emerge when Johnson was depressed or under severe stress. Some felt that it was more common for this to happen under Johnson’s “male persona as Malcolm”. During those moments when Johnson’s violent side emerged, according to an acquaintance Robert Heide, Johnson could be aggressive and short-tempered and speak in a deeper voice and, as Malcolm, would “become a very nasty, vicious man, looking for fights”. This dual personality of Johnson’s has been described as “a schizophrenic personality at work”. When this happened, Johnson would often get in fights and wind up hospitalized and sedated, and friends would have to organize and raise money to bail Johnson out of jail or try to secure release from places like Bellevue. In the 1979 Village Voice article, “The Drag of Politics”, by Steven Watson, and further elaborated upon by Stonewall historian Carter, it had perhaps been for this reason that other activists had been reluctant at first to credit Johnson for helping to spark the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. Watson also reported that Johnson’s saintly personality was “volatile” and listed a roster of gay bars from which Johnson had been banned.
Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn, after they began allowing women and drag queens inside; it was previously a bar for only gay men. On the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred. While the first two nights of rioting were the most intense, the clashes with police would result in a series of spontaneous demonstrations and marches through the gay neighborhoods of Greenwich Village for roughly a week afterwards.
Johnson has been named, along with Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona, by a number of the Stonewall veterans interviewed by David Carter in his book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, as being “three individuals known to have been in the vanguard” of the pushback against the police at the uprising. Johnson denied starting the uprising. In 1987, Johnson recalled arriving at around “2:00 [that morning]”, that “the riots had already started” by that time and that the Stonewall building “was on fire” after police set it on fire. The riots reportedly started at around 1:20 that morning after Stormé DeLarverie fought back against the police officer who attempted to arrest her that night.
Carter writes that Robin Souza had reported that fellow Stonewall veterans and gay activists such as Morty Manford and Marty Robinson had told Souza that on the first night, Johnson “threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, ‘I got my civil rights'”. Souza told the Gay Activists Alliance shortly afterwards that it “was the shot glass that was heard around the world”. Carter, however, concluded that Robinson had given several different accounts of the night and in none of the accounts was Johnson’s name brought up, possibly in fear that if he publicly credited the uprising to Johnson, then Johnson’s well-known mental state and gender nonconforming, “could have been used effectively by the movement’s opponents”. The alleged “shot glass” incident has also been heavily disputed. Prior to Carter’s book, it was claimed Johnson had “thrown a brick” at a police officer, an account that was never verified. Johnson also confirmed not being present at the Stonewall Inn when the rioting broke out, but instead had heard about it and went to get Sylvia Rivera who was at a park uptown sleeping on a bench to tell her about it. However, many have corroborated that on the second night, Johnson climbed up a lamppost and dropped a bag with a brick in it down on a police car, shattering the windshield.
Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and was active in the GLF Drag Queen Caucus. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, on June 28, 1970, Johnson marched in the first Gay Pride rally, then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day. One of Johnson’s most notable direct actions occurred in August 1970, staging a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University alongside fellow GLF members after administrators canceled a dance when they found out was sponsored by gay organizations. Shortly after that, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization (initially titled Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries). The two of them became a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions. In 1973, Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the gay pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee who were administering the event stating they “weren’t gonna allow drag queens” at their marches claiming they were “giving them a bad name”. Their response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade. During a gay rights rally at New York City Hall in the early ’70s, photographed by Diana Davies, a reporter asked Johnson why the group was demonstrating, Johnson shouted into the microphone, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
During another incident around this time Johnson was confronted by police officers for hustling in New York. When the officers attempted to perform an arrest, Johnson hit them with a handbag, which contained two bricks. When asked by the judge for an explanation for hustling, Johnson claimed to be trying to secure enough money for a tombstone for Johnson’s husband. During a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States, the judge asked what “happened to this alleged husband”, Johnson responded, “Pig shot him”. Initially sentenced to 90 days in prison for the assault, Johnson’s lawyer eventually convinced the judge to that Bellevue Hospital would be more suitable.
With Rivera, Johnson established STAR House, a shelter for homeless gay and trans youth in 1970, and paid the rent for it with money they made themselves as sex workers. While the House was not focused on performance, Johnson was a “drag mother” of STAR House, in the longstanding tradition of chosen family in the Black and Latino LGBT community. Johnson worked to provide food, clothing, emotional support and a sense of family for the young drag queens, trans women, gender nonconformists and other gay street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York. While the original location of STAR House was evicted in 1971 and the building was destroyed, the household existed in different configurations and at different locations over the years.
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